When Did Israelis Become So Good at Judo?
For many years, Israel’s role in international sports was an afterthought. Then, 30 years ago, the country began its unprecedented rise to prominence on the Olympic stage in a variety of unexpected competitions.
Israel’s Olympic journey began in 1952, when the young nation for the first time sent 25 athletes to Helsinki, Finland. However, its early history at the competition was mired in tragedy. At the 1972 games in Munich, 11 Israeli athletes were held hostage and murdered by members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. After the crisis was over, the surviving members of the Israeli Olympic team left, and all remaining Jewish competitors were placed under guard.
Israel ended its first 10 Olympic games without a participant taking home a medal. But at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, everything changed. Yael Arad, currently the president of Israel’s Olympic Committee, became the first Israeli to ever win an Olympic medal when she took silver in the half middleweight judo competition. She dedicated her prize to the 11 Israelis who were murdered two decades earlier in Munich.
Arad’s medal, along with Oren Smadja’s bronze — also in judo — signified a new age and direction for Israel in sport. It also helped spark the rise in popularity of judo in the Jewish state, which has produced six of Israel’s 13 total Olympic medals.
Through the years, the impact of Israel’s Olympic medal breakthrough in 1992 has transformed the nation into a judo powerhouse. The Jewish state’s next Olympic triumph in judo came in 2004 through Ariel Zeevi, and 12 years later in Rio de Janeiro, Yarden Gerbi and Or Sasson both took home bronze.
Since the Barcelona games, Israeli athletes have reached the international pinnacle of several competitions, accumulating nine bronze, one silver, and three gold medals in total. Israel’s first gold medal came at the 2004 summer games in Athens, when Gal Fridman windsurfed into the history books. He also took home bronze in the men’s sailboard event in Atlanta in 1996, and is still the only Israeli to win multiple Olympic medals. Shahar Tzuberi, whose uncle escaped the Munich Massacre in 1972, also medaled as a windsurfer, taking bronze in Beijing in 2008.
Kayaking is another competition where Israelis have risen to the top; In 2000, Michael Kolganov won bronze in the men’s K-1 500 meters kayaking event.
The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo proved to be Israel’s most successful to date, with the nation tallying four medals and multiple gold medals at the same games for the first time in history. Unsurprisingly, Israel’s judo team won bronze at the mixed team event, in which men and women compete together. However, the nation opened many eyes when Artem Dolgopyat and Linoy Ashram won gold in gymnastics, and Avishag Samberg won bronze in taekwondo.
These are competitions in which Israelis had never medaled previously — and suddenly they became avenues for Israel to triple its gold medal count and make history.
The question is, how has such a small nation produced some of the top athletes in these specific competitions?
A combination of factors have accounted for this, and one of them is undoubtedly the large wave of immigration, specifically from the former Soviet Union. Kayaker Kolganov, for example, was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and began his sports career there when he was 14 before moving to Israel at the age of 21.
Dolgopyat — the son of a gymnast — was born in Dnipropetrovsk (now Dnipro), Ukraine. He moved to Israel when he was 12 years old and joined the Maccabi Tel Aviv gymnastics team under the instruction of Russian-Israeli coach Sergey Vaisburg. Peter Paltchik, a member of Israel’s bronze-winning judo team at the 2020 Olympics and the former number-one ranked judoka in the world, was born in Yalta, Crimea (Ukraine).
Another major component of Israel’s growing status on the Olympic stage is its funding strategy and tactful allocation of resources. Compared to many larger nations, Israel does not allocate as much funding towards its Olympians, nor does it have nearly as large of a population pool to produce top athletes. However, Israel’s particular funding strategy, inspired by the strategic success of other nations such as Great Britain, has been paramount to its relative medal output in recent years.
According to Yael Arad, who spoke on the matter at the Jerusalem Post London Conference in March 2022, Israel allocates 80 percent of its Olympic budget to the top 20 percent of its athletes “because we have learned that success comes by giving more support to sports in which we believe we can succeed.”
Israel’s prospective Olympians are divided into four tiers based on ability, and these categories correspond to the amount of funding they receive. The gold tier, an extremely small and selective group, receives the most funding, while the silver, bronze, and senior tiers receive less funding in descending order. For example, the 2016 gold tier consisted of only five athletes. This strategy gives athletes at the top of the pyramid the resources they need to compete with the world’s best.
Finally, Israel’s growing success in sports can partly be attributed to its role as a leader in science and technology. In 2018, a partnership between the Israel Olympic Committee and the Technion University in Haifa led to the creation of the Israeli Olympic Sport Research Center. This scientific approach for Israel’s top athletes can allow them to figure out what exactly leads to the desired result in specific events. Meanwhile, new technology can make the difference in competitions where every second matters.
Overall, several factors have led to Israel’s growth in international sports. The nation will be watching the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris to see if its top athletes can add to this unique and ever-growing legacy.
Originally from Princeton, New Jersey, Aaron Silverstein is an intern at HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.