With a pared-down audience and a lengthy list of safety protocols, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are set to begin later this month, more than a year after they were postponed due to what was then called a “developing global situation.” The COVID-19 pandemic has meant a difficult time for athletes across the world. For many, it involved isolating with family and loved ones, reduced training opportunities, and lots of unknowns.
But now one of the biggest summer sporting events is on track and will run from July 23 to August 8. And the excitement is palpable.
Israel plans to send 89 athletes in 15 sports to compete in the games this month, including 54 men and 35 women. This is the country’s largest delegation to date and almost double the number of athletes it sent to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“Israel is probably now in the top 30 this time of biggest teams. Sending a team of almost 100? That’s actually really big,” especially for a small country, says David Wiseman, co-founder of Follow Team Israel, the only organization devoted entirely to providing information on Israeli athletes in English.
Due to qualifying standards, athletes from small countries generally receive invitations to qualify in certain events. In Israel, 24 out of the 89 athletes will compete as a baseball team. “That leaves 65. It shows you that we’re really improving. That we’ve got athletes that are even able to qualify, which is just amazing. And that means all the athletes are improving to get there,” Wiseman tells NoCamels.
Israel’s biggest delegation also includes some of the top judo athletes in the world and at least 10 gymnasts: Alex Shatilov, the male artistic gymnast competing in his third Olympic Games, Linoy Ashram, the rhythmic gymnast that may very well be Israel’s best chance for a medal in Tokyo, and a women’s rhythmic gymnastics group, which took the gold medal at the European Championships in November 2020.
While Israel has won a total of nine Olympic medals since its debut in 1952 as a country officially recognized by the International Olympic Committee, this year is its best chance to grab first, second, and third-place finishes.
As the Olympics approach, we’re featuring some of the top Israeli athletes competing in Tokyo in just a few weeks.
Olympic firsts for Israel
The Olympics will see Israel’s first-ever equestrian team, made up of four show jumpers, the first Israeli archer, and the first Israeli surfer to compete in the games.
There are also Olympic events in which Israeli athletes have never competed or medaled.
Linoy Ashram – Rhythmic Gymnastics
Twenty-two-year-old Linoy Ashram first made history in September 2017 by becoming the first Israeli rhythmic gymnast to get a medal in the all-around competition at a World Championships. She won the bronze medal in the competition. Previously, Neta Rivkin was the only Israeli to win a medal, but it was in an apparatus final.
The twenty-two-year-old powerhouse has since become Israel’s most successful rhythmic gymnast to date and has repeatedly placed in the top three in rhythmic gymnastics competitions for a number of years. While Neta Rivkin earned a chance to head to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, she was not able to move past the qualifying rounds in the individual all-around when her final score was not enough to earn her place in the top 10.
Everybody has expectations for Linoy, says Follow Team Israel’s other co-founder Shari Wright Pilo. “Is Linoy going to get a medal? What happens if she doesn’t? Is she a loser? No, she’s a total winner. She got them. She’s in the top 20 of the world to be there.”
But Ashram already has the world championship medals to back her up, so an Olympic medal is a very real possibility. She is the 2018 World All-Around silver medalist, two-time (2017, 2019) World All-around bronze medalist, and the 2019 European Games All-around silver medalist. In November 2020, she won a gold medal in the individual rhythmic category at the European Championships in 2020. She was the first athlete in decades to win the top spot, which has been dominated by athletes from a former Soviet Union country or Bulgaria.
“I am very happy,” Ashram told Israel’s Kan public broadcaster after her win, according to The Times of Israel, but “The focus is on the Olympics,” she said.
Over the past 15 years, she has won 47 medals, including 11 at the World Championships. She hopes to add at least one Olympic medal to the collection in just a few weeks.
Itay Shanny – Archery
Bullseye! Twenty-two-year-old Itay Shanny has made history by becoming the first-ever archer to compete in the Olympic Games for Israel.
With his outstanding performance in the final Olympic qualifying tournament in Paris, Shanny secured himself a spot for Tokyo 2020 by finishing 23rd out of 94 contenders.
“It’s surreal. I’m going to be the first archer from Israel to be at the Olympics,” he said at the tournament, according to World Archery, the official website of the international federation of the sport of archery.
“I need to see on paper my name and ‘Tokyo qualification,’” he added.
Shanny scored 656 points in the initial qualification round. He later beat 90th seed Oliver Ormar Ingvarsson (Iceland) Latvia’s 42nd seed Janis Brunis, and gained a victory over 10th seed Senna Roos of Belgium to reach the round of 16, meeting the Olympic quota.
“I’ve thought about that moment for a long time in my head,” said Shanny. “I’m still in sort of shock. I’m not celebrating as maybe I should. It’s amazing, I feel great.”
Anat Lelior – Surfing
Anat Lelior is Israel’s first (and currently only) Olympic surfer among the 20 men and 20 women who will be competing this summer.
Lelior qualified for the 2020 Olympics in 2019 after finishing as the highest-ranked female surfer from Europe at the International Surfing Association (ISA) World Surfing Games in Miyazaki, Japan. That same year, she also had her best season on the World Surf League (WSL) World Qualifying series, culminating in a first-place finish at the Deeply Pro Anglet in France.
The 21-year-old Tel Aviv native started surfing at five with her sister Noa, and by 12 she had claimed the Israeli national championships.
Growing up surfing the Meditteranean waves in Tel Aviv has also given Lelior a unique mentality and approach, she tells Olympics.com
“I live in a sea compared to an ocean, and a sea is almost like a puddle next to a pool,” said Lelior. “The waves are not really consistent and it’s really hard to be an excellent surfer next to all the world champions and all the other contestants. So, I just try to keep pushing harder and harder even though I don’t have the conditions that they have.”
Lelior sheltered in place with her family in Tel Aviv during the pandemic, and she looks back at the experience positively as it offered her an opportunity to focus and plan out her goals.
“I’m even grateful for the Olympics being postponed. I think it gave us all time to see what’s the most important in our lives,” she adds. “I know what I want to do with my life now and I’m ready to start it.”
Ashlee Bond – Equestrian
Israel’s equestrian team at the Olympics will certainly be a first. The team is made up of Alberto Michan, a Mexico-born horse rider in his third Olympics but representing Israel for the first time, Teddy Vlock, a 23-year old jumper juggling training with Yale University in the US, Danielle Goldstein Waldman, a 36-year-old, American-born rider known for her trademark hair styled with colorful feathers, and Ashlee Bond, the daughter of Israeli-American actor and model Steve Bond.
Bond began competing in equestrian competitions when she was six. After her first grand prix competition in 2001, when she was 16, she was named Grand Prix Rookie of the Year by the US Equestrian Federation and Pacific Coast Horse Shows Association.
Bond’s passion for the sport wavered at times. At 19, she quit and explored other career possibilities. Soon after, when she was 21 traveling to New Zealand with her mom, Bond rediscovered her passion. Over the next 15 years, Bond’s passion led to numerous victories and accolades, including “Chronicle of the Horse” Show Jumping Horseman of the Year for 2009.
She became a citizen of Israel in 2018 and qualified to participate in the Olympics in the summer of 2019. Bond will ride the horse Donatello 141 at the Games.
It’s #TeamIsrael all the way! You can’t pick just one member of this superstar team. Baseball in Israel does not enjoy the same popularity as in the US, Japan, or the Dominican Republic, but the country is still celebrating its first baseball team to ever qualify for the Olympic Games.
Made up of 12 pitchers, three catchers, six infielders, and three outfielders, the 24-person team is also the first Israeli sports team to have qualified for the Olympics since the national soccer team in 1976.
Much of the Israeli team is made up of Jewish Americans who became Israeli citizens as a requirement for the Olympics.
“Everyone is a passport holder or citizen of Israel. Most of the players are from the minor leagues, but a few have played in the major leagues and a few are native Israelis, including the pitcher Shlomo Lipetz, who was born in Tel Aviv,” Eric Holtz, a US-born baseball coach who had played for the Israel Baseball League in 2007, told NoCamels in 2019. Holtz was asked to head coach the Israel Senior National Team in 2017 and, in 2019, the team made history by defeating South Africa 11-1 during a six-team Europe/Africa Olympic qualifying tournament in Italy, and securing a spot in Tokyo
The team’s first game at the Tokyo Olympics will be against the American team. They will also face teams from Japan, Mexico, South Korea, and the Dominican Republic.
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“Baseball can be sudden death,” says Wiseman, “But they have a good chance.”
Athletes To Watch
Some of these competitors are not household names just yet, but they are definitely ones to watch for their hard work, tenacity, and dedication.
Lonah Chemtai Salpeter
Israeli runner Lonah Chemtai Salpeter will compete in the Women’s 5,000 meter, Women’s 10,000 meter, and the Women’s marathon event at the Tokyo Olympics this month. She previously competed in the Women’s marathon during the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro but left the event at the 33rd kilometer due to a shoulder problem, which she said had to do with continuing to breastfeed her 20-month old son.
Since then, the Kenya-born runner has won the 10,000m race at the 2018 European Athletics Championship. She also completed the Tokyo Marathon in 2020 with her personal best time of 2:17:45. It set a new Israeli national record, the second-fastest European of all time, and the 6th fastest woman in the marathon in history.
“It made her the 6th-fastest woman in the marathon in history (now 7th), the second-fastest European of all time, and it gave her a new Israeli national record,” Wiseman tells NoCamels.
Chemtai Salpeter first came to Israel in 2008 while working as a caretaker for the children of Kenya’s ambassador to Israel. In 2011, she met Dan Salpeter, an Israeli running coach whom she later married.
Wright Pilo has interviewed Chemtai Salpeter for Follow Team Israel in the past. “She’s got a great story,” she tells NoCamels.
Chemtai Salpeter had been running shorter distances for much of her life, but she only started running marathons in 2014. By 2016, she came in first among women in the Tel Aviv marathon and qualified for the Olympics with a time of 2:40:16.
She received Israeli citizenship in March 2016, just in time to be able to participate in the Olympics.
Most people know Israeli judoka Ori Sasson for winning a bronze medal in the +100 kg category at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and Israeli judoka Sagi Muki for being the 2019 world judo champion and for his unlikely friendship with Saeid Mollaei, the Iranian judoka who left Iran after revealing that Iranian authorities allegedly told him to intentionally lose a match to avoid a potential face-off against Muki in the finals.
Then there’s Peter Paltchik, the Israeli judoka who is making a name for himself as the current number one ranked judoka in the world in the under 100kg weight category.
Paltchik is considered one of Israel’s top athletes and a potential Tokyo Olympic medalist. He previously took gold at the 2020 European Championships’ under-100kg category in Prague, and bronze at the International Judo Federation’s (IJF) 2021 World Judo Masters in Doha, Qatar in January.
“Peter is such an awesome guy and his matches are always so exciting,” says Wright Pilo, who tells NoCamels the judoka was one of several athletes who did a workout video for Follow Team Israel at the very beginning of lockdown last year. “I asked him at the very first lockdown when nobody was doing workouts online. He was like, ‘Sure, Shari, I’m on it.’ Paltchik did an exercise that he said “gets him moving” during training called the lizard walk.
Hard work and dedication to the sport is what brought this judoka to the forefront of his sport. In 2016, he didn’t even qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“Missing out on qualifying for the Rio Games was one of the lowest points in my life,” he told Olympics.com in February.
It’s the same hard work and dedication that has been part of his life since he was young and already facing tough challenges and severe obstacles. Paltchik was born with multiple fractures and health complications.
“The doctor said to his grandfather, ‘Take him to sports, that will help him,” Wright Pilo says. He began judo at age four and has since indicated that it helped foster his resilience both physically and mentally to overcome challenges.
The Israeli judoka is ready to show what he can do in Tokyo and says Israel’s strong system for serious judo athletes, which has produced medal-winning competitors like Arik Zeevi, Ori Sassoon, and Yarden Gerbi, is what’s going to help get him there.
“We have a system that works very, very good. Everyone is very focused on what needs to be done. And it’s a big system that is motivating everyone,” he told Olympics.com, “As for Tokyo, I think in my case, it’s an advantage because I’m coming very, very ready. My physical and my mental game is ready. Everything is on the right path.”
At just 17 years old, Lihi Raz is the only female artistic gymnast that will represent Israel in the women’s artistic gymnastics competition in Tokyo. Raz was the Israeli national champion for her age group in 2019. She qualified by winning the bronze medal in the European Championship in Women’s Artistic Gymnastics this past December.
She was the first Israeli to win a medal in the competition’s history, according to The Jerusalem Post.
But she almost didn’t make it. Israel did not send a female artistic gymnast in 2016 and when it was time to decide if there would be one in 2020, the Israeli Olympic Committee had additional internal qualification rules for athletes. Raz, due to her age and lack of experience, was not designated as an Olympic hopeful. She had to fulfill additional criteria including placing no lower than 12th on bars, beam, or floor, or in the first two halves of competitors on vault at the European Championships In this case, the pandemic worked to her favor.
Raz not only placed in the to 8 on the floor exercise in the qualifying round, but she also ended up winning bronze in the final and is the first-ever senior World Artistic Gymnastics medal for Israel at the European Championships.
“Of course it was the goal but it was a bit of a surprise because I didn’t yet know that I was capable of it. It made me believe in myself more and see what I’m capable of achieving,” she later told Haaretz, according to gymnastics news website Gymnovosti.
Raz was born in the US and moved to Israel with her family when she was three months old. Her gymnastics career started when she was just six.
Avishag Semberg is the 19-year old Israeli taekwondo athlete that has qualified for the 2020 Olympics by winning first place in the 2021 European Taekwondo Olympic Qualification Tournament in Bulgaria in May. She will be one of just 16 competitors in her weight category.
competing for Israel, Semberg has said: “When I enter the arena with the Israeli flag on hand and the ISR on the suit I feel it is my commitment to represent Israel with dignity and I am excited about this opportunity.”
Semberg was born in 2001 and started practicing taekwondo in the first grade.
“My expectations of myself ahead of the Olympics is to do my maximum during the preparation and especially in the competition. Resist the pressure and give everything I have until the last second!” she has shared on the official Israel Olympics Committee website.
Ran and Shachar Sagiv
Brothers Ran and Shachar Sagiv will compete in the triathlon event at the Tokyo Olympics. The sons of Israeli Olympic marathon runner Shemi Sagiv, the brothers will look to advance the family legacy while competing together in Japan.
Based in Zichron Ya’akov, a town just south of Haifa, the Sagiv brothers have trained since they were young, including during high school and military service.
Shachar is currently ranked 39 in the world, and Ran is ranked 52, according to World Triathlon, the international governing body for the Olympic and Paralympic sport of triathlon. Each brother has won Israeli triathlon national championships. In 2017, Shachar finished fourth in the U23 World Championship, and in 2019, Ran won the bronze medal in the same event.
This will be the second consecutive Olympics that includes Israeli triathletes. Ron Darmon finished in 26th place in 2016.
In 2004, Israel’s first and only Olympic gold medal so far went to Gal Fridman in men’s windsurfing at the Games in Athens.
This year, Yoav Cohen is looking to repeat the win as a competitor in Men’s RS:X windsurfing class. Or at least showcase his talents. The 21-year-old finished in fifth place at the 2021 RS:X World Championships in April and reached a tie with Shahar Tzuberi in the ranking of the country’s selection. Although Tzuberi competed in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics for Israel and was chosen to compete in the Games before the postponement last year, the team’s coach, Gur Steinberg, decided to make Cohen the representative instead.
The world will see how Cohen fares in the men’s RS:X windsurfing heats later this month.