Ariel (Arik) Ze’evi is an Israeli judo athlete, a 2004 Olympic bronze medallist in Athens and the winner of three European championships. He is now a motivational speaker and runs the non-profit Israeli Foundation for Olympic Excellence. On Sept. 13, he spoke at a VIP reception for Maccabi Canada volunteers in Vaughan, Ont. The CJN interviewed him before his talk.
How did you first get into judo?
Like any sport in Israel, it was a coincidence. It was the only sport that I had near my house in the community centre. The coach was my neighbour. He taught my older brother first and I followed him, like any younger brother. In time, I saw that I’m very good at judo and I became better and better. It grew on me, but it was originally a coincidence.
What’s a story you plan on sharing tonight?
I will talk about the world championship that I participated in in Munich, in the same Olympic Park where 11 (Israeli) athletes and coaches were murdered. I came as a favourite for a medal. I trained really hard for this competition and I lost after two minutes to Nicolas Gill from Canada. Then I decided to fight in the open category with all the heavy guys: 120, 140, 160 kilo. I decided to do it because I felt very angry at myself. And I’m talking about how you take difficulty and you use it. I went to the open category and I won a silver medal, the first (in my weight class) to have done it for the last 20 years, so it became like a sensation. The thing I want people to learn from it is that when we fall, there is that burn that we feel right after, and I think it is important to use it. Sometimes we focus on our sorrow and how poor we are, and we start to blame someone, and I think in this moment, if you start to use this burn, this hunger, you can do amazing achievements.
You were being filmed for a movie at that time. Do you think you would have competed in the open category if the cameras hadn’t been there?
I’m always asking myself this question, and maybe not. It helped me to gain motivation. You usually hope that when you’re asking someone ‘Why did you do it?’ you’re waiting for a very unique answer. You know, ‘I saw the flag of Israel.’ ‘God spoke to me.’ But sometimes you do things because somebody came to make a movie about you, or you want to prove something to this lady. And I don’t care. If it helped me to do something, I’m using it.
What are some other lessons you like to share?
One of my first competitions in the world of judo, I finished seventh in the world. That was my goal, since seventh made me a member of the Olympic committee. Later on, I realized I could have done much better. The guy who beat me, afterwards I beat him easily. I could have won the medal. When I aimed for seventh place, I felt I was doing something incredible. But I have a friend from Russia – he wasn’t as good as me, but he won a bronze medal, because, you know, in Russia, what is seventh place? Nobody looks at you. So I’m helping people to also look at their surroundings, because sometimes people tell you not to do it because they want to make you stay with them in the same area and they’re not letting you explode, to achieve amazing achievements.
Do you think you didn’t fight as well because you weren’t aiming as high?
It’s not that I wanted to lose that fight, but I think that in a competitive world – it doesn’t have to be sports – you don’t have to be bad in order to lose. You don’t have to make huge mistakes. Sometimes it’s enough that you are not at your best. And I wasn’t at my best because I was pleased with seventh place, and something inside of me shut down because I achieved my goal. It’s very difficult to gain the motivation when you are happy and you are satisfied – the story of Israel in sport. I’m showing a quote by Michelangelo. He said the problem of most people is not that they are aiming too high and not achieving their goals. It’s that they are aiming too low and achieving their goals.
Tell me about your non-profit.
I’m trying to change Israeli sport. I’m doing projects in different areas in Israel where we are scouting the right kids and we are trying to train them and let them experience different sports, and then to navigate them to the right sport. It’s like a project of my life. I established this non-profit, raise money for it and I hope a few years from now our situation will be better than nine Olympic gold medals.
Have any Olympians gone through the program yet?
No, we start it when they are kids. My first project started three and a half years ago, so the biggest kids there are only 12 years old. It will take time, but I’m trying to change the system. Now the board of education saw I am doing it through schools, so they want to be a partner of it. I hope it will change the way people in Israel see sport. Right now, it’s pretty amateur. It’s all coincidence. There’s no system in Israeli sport.
Why do you think that is?
In the beginning of Israel, we were busy with security, with wars. And the sports in Israel are not run through schools – it’s private clubs. When it’s private, the coach needs as many kids as he can because he’s getting paid. So he’s not looking for excellence, he’s looking for quantity. And also, when it’s private, it’s not open for everyone, only those who have money. You are missing many talented athletes.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
It’s a very unique situation to be an Israeli athlete because you feel that you represent Israel and the Jews all over the world, so it’s very powerful. Now I’m involved with Maccabi. That’s what Maccabi is all about, to make the connection between Israel and the rest of the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.