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Israel’s Biggest Olympic Team Ever Has High Hopes for Tokyo: This Is Who and What Are New to the Games

Some 90 Israeli athletes will participate in the Tokyo Olympics, competing in 15 sports across 66 events. This is almost double the number of Israelis that attended the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where Israel won two bronze medals, both in judo.

This year, Israel is sending 12 judokas to compete in what appears to have become the country’s Olympic forte. After first competing in the sport at the games in 1952, it took 40 years for the young nation to win its first medal, at Barcelona ’92, when Yael Arad secured the silver medal in women’s middle-weight judo. Arad described the experience as “a fateful day, a watershed day, a day of fame, a day of self-fulfillment.”

Since Barcelona, Israel has gone on to win nine Olympic medals, five of which have been in judo. Now, the 12 Israeli judokas hope to have their “day of fame” in Tokyo. Baruch Shmailov, a competitor in the under-66kg class, told The Media Line that, despite the pressure, “I am very excited and looking forward to start, we have finished a great preparation and I feel at a peak.”

Israeli judoka Baruch Shmailov is ready to compete in the Tokyo Olympics. (Wikimedia Commons)

Judo is one of the more unpredictable Olympic sports due to its knockout structure, and short bouts, sometimes lasting only a few seconds. David Wiseman, co-founder of the Follow Team Israel Facebook page, explained that with judo it “all happens on one day, and it’s knockout right from the beginning.” Wiseman suggested that, to some extent, it comes down to the luck of the draw, since: “If the clear front-runner in that weight class is on the other side of the draw it sort of limits potentially how far you can go, whereas if they’re way on the other side you can make it all the way through to the final without having to face them.”

Despite the uncertain nature of the sport, Shmailov remains unperturbed, telling The Media Line that: “Now the only thing left is to stay calm and come strong and focused [on] my fighting day.”

Other Israeli judokas to watch are Ori Sasson and Sagi Muki. Sasson represented Israel at Rio in 2016, winning bronze in the over-100kg heavyweight division. Muki missed out on a win in Rio, finishing fifth after a defeat in the semi-finals. Yet, as the 2019 world champion in the under-81kg division, and the two-time European champion, Muki is ranked number two in the world, making him an excellent podium prospect for Israel.

The Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, July 23 and run through August 8. After first deciding not to allow visitors from overseas to attend the games due to the spread of the coronavirus, the Japanese Olympic organizers, the International Olympic Committee, the International Paralympic Committee, and the metropolitan government of Tokyo decided earlier this month to ban domestic fans from attending the games, leaving the venues devoid of most spectators.

The Tokyo Olympics will see Israel represented for the first time in a number of events, some of which are to be featured in the games for the first time ever.

Ksenia Polikarpova is a Jewish Russian-born badminton player who immigrated to Israel in 2017. When asked how she felt about representing Israel at the Olympics, Polikarpova told The Media Line that “I am very excited to be here and to be in the Olympic Games. For me it is the first time and for Israel it is [the] first woman in badminton.”

Like many athletes, Polikarpova’s training was interrupted by coronavirus restrictions and lockdowns. She said that “preparation for [the] Olympics was tough, because my pre-Olympic camp in Russia was canceled.”

Wiseman from Follow Team Israel, which has over 21,800 followers, suggests that, for Israeli athletes, “If anything they could be in a better position, because Israel was so much more advanced in terms of vaccination.”

Israel also will be represented for the first time in the inaugural Olympic sport of surfing. Anat Lelior will surf for Israel as one of only 40 surfers – 20 men and 20 women – competing in Tokyo. Lelior not only qualified for the Tokyo Olympics as the sole Israeli contender, but qualified as the overall highest-ranked European surfer (Israel competes as part of Europe).

In an interview with the International Surfing Association, Lelior described the moment when she found out she had made it into the Olympics: “I didn’t expect a girl from Israel to be representing Europe in the Olympics. I’m kind of proud of myself for proving people differently.”

Another first for Israel is that the country will be putting forward a baseball team for the first time since 1974. The 24-man team includes several minor league American-born players who attained Israeli citizenship to represent the nation. Israel will compete in Group B against the United States and South Korea, while Group A consists of teams from Japan, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

Wiseman told The Media Line that Team Israel is bigger and better than ever, clarifying that one big difference is that it is bringing an entire baseball squad. “But even without that, the team is over 60. It’s a clear increase,” he said. “We’re in sports that we’ve never been in before: equestrian; archery; and then surfing, which is now going to be in the Olympics for the first time.”

Aron Rosenthal is a student at the University of Edinburgh and an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.