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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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An Olympic afterthought from Israel

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I love the Olympics and always have, and this summer was no exception. Everyone I know knew not to bother me from July 27 to Aug. 12, and during those days I spent many hours bonding, mostly with my new HD TV, but also with my 12-year-old son, Natan, my partner in crime.

Natan and I planned our daily schedules around the events we wanted to see. Like many Israelis, we learned anything we could about all 37 Israeli athletes preparing to compete in the Games, particularly our medal hopefuls in judo, sailing and gymnastics, and sat captivated anytime an Israeli appeared.

We also enjoyed the exhilaration of other competitions and the performance of exceptional competitors. The Michael Phelps and Usain Bolts – to name but the obvious – but also other outstanding athletes in areas of sport we truthfully watch only once every four years.

In total, Israel has won seven medals in all the Olympiads it has participated: one gold, a silver and five bronze. Yael Arad, a judoka, won Israel’s first at the Barcelona Games in 1992, and we have won at least one medal at each successive Olympiad, the pinnacle coming in Athens in 2004 when Gal Fridman took gold in men’s windsurfing.

When that run came to an end this summer in London, the disappointment was genuine, especially as we had several realistic hopefuls who’d recently proven themselves at world or regional championships.

With our best results only two sixth-place finishes – one in men’s gymnastics, the other in women’s windsurfing – the frustration soon turned into finger-pointing over budget mishandling, unqualified apparatchiks running various sports’ local governing bodies, not to mention the Israeli Olympic Committee, lack of discipline and proper training and more.

One of Israel’s biggest disappointments was Arik Ze’evi’s loss in judo. Ze’evi, who won bronze in 2004, was the elder statesman of our entire Olympic team and was confident he’d complete his career with another medal at the London Games, his last. When he lost after 43 seconds in his first preliminary match, the entire country was devastated.      

Our disappointing results brought back memories for me of the summer of 1976. I was a high-school student still living in Toronto, and Montreal was hosting the Olympics. During the spring, I had stood in a never-ending line to buy tickets to several events, and in the run-up to the Games, I purchased a series of commemorative stamps issued by Canada Post in a special booklet, which I recently rediscovered in a box of knick-knacks I brought with me to Israel when I made aliyah.

Three English cousins joined us from London, and my parents took all of us to Montreal for a couple of exciting days at the uncompleted but still remarkable Olympic Stadium. The atmosphere in the big “O” was genuinely electrifying, and just four years after the Munich massacre, I still remember the thrill of watching Esther Roth, a superb hurdler and the first Israeli athlete to ever reach an Olympic final, finishing sixth in the 100-metre hurdles.

On the day before the closing ceremony, the athletics competition included the men’s high jump. Greg Joy, a Canadian high jumper, was in the running for the gold medal, and I recall the tension as all Canadians expectantly awaited their native son to finally deliver gold, only to be terribly disappointed when Joy had to settle for a second-place silver.

 I also recall the competition my cousins and I had to determine which of our countries, Canada or Great Britain, was doing better at the Games. As they progressed, it became clear my cousins would prevail. It also became embarrassingly apparent Canada would be the first Olympic host country not to win a single gold medal.

So what do I take away from all of this? More than anything, that today I have no doubts about where my own patriotism lies – in a small Jewish country whose grandfatherly president, Shimon Peres, called a sobbing Ze’evi, dejectedly sitting in his locker room after his 43-second loss, to tell him how proud he was of his accomplishments and to keep his spirit high.

In a summer when all we heard were reports about if, when, where and how we’ll attack Iran, London was a wonderful respite. I’m already counting down the days till Rio!

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