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Israel to take the biggest team ever to Tokyo Olympics

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With less than nine months to go before the Tokyo Olympics, preparations for the Israeli 2020 team have begun in earnest. Israel will be sending the largest team ever assembled to next year’s Games, scheduled for July and August, with the current complement of 85 athletes beating by some margin the 47 athletes assembled for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
by LUKE ALFRED | Nov 14, 2019

The Israeli delegation to the Games may yet be even bigger. Some athletes haven’t qualified, and disciplines like judo and windsurfing could swell numbers further. By the time all the qualifying events are over, Israel’s team may have closer to 90 members, which would mean it is roughly the same size as the expected South African Olympic squad.

Despite high hopes in 2016, Israel finished 77th on the Rio medal table, immediately behind Norway, Egypt and Tunisia. Her two bronze medals meant that she finished just above Austria, the Dominican Republic, Estonia and Finland.

The Israeli team have only ever won nine medals since their debut Games appearance in 1952, but according to Israeli Olympic officials, it’s going to be very different in Japan. In Brazil, Israeli athletes were in five finals, while this time round they’re hoping to appear in 10, doubling their chances of medal success.

The squad for next year’s Games rose considerably with the qualification of Israel’s baseballers, who won a pre-Olympic qualifying tournament co-hosted by the Italian cities of Parma and Bologna two months ago. With a number of high-profile United States-based professionals like Danny Valencia and Joey Wagman in their midst, the Israeli team started well in Italy with wins against the hosts, the Netherlands and Spain. In their fourth match they suffered a hiccup against the Czech Republic, and there were fears that their chances of Olympic qualification might be compromised.

They needn’t have worried. In their final match they hammered South Africa 11-1, ensuring qualification for Tokyo. After the event in Italy, Peter Kurz, the president of the Israeli Baseball Federation, was so choked up that he said he had “no words”.

Along with players, officials and coaches, the baseball delegation has 24 members. Prior to baseball’s qualification, only three other teams in Israeli Olympic history had qualified for a Games, the basketballers qualifying in 1952 and the footballers qualifying in 1968 and 1976.

Along with a healthy contingent of baseballers, the Israeli team will also be competing in show-jumping, rhythmic gymnastics and shooting. The baseballers, many of whom have big-time professional experience, may stand an outside chance of a medal, but a better bet could come from the rhythmic gymnast Linoy Ashram, the current darling of the Israeli gymnastics scene.

Not to be confused with work on apparatus like the vaulting horse and the bars, rhythmic gymnastics consists of a gymnast doing a routine on the mat with props like ribbons and batons to a musical accompaniment. A secretary in the Israeli Defence Forces, Ashram has been competing in gymnastic competitions since she was 12, and many believe that at 20 she is now hitting her peak.

The daughter of parents who are of Moroccan-Jewish and Yemeni descent, Ashram has had a good year, which reinforces the idea that she has the ability to win a medal in Tokyo. During the European Championships in Minsk, Belarus, she won gold with her work with the clubs and ball, but only silver overall. She also won all-round bronze this year at the World Championships in Baku.

Although hopes are high that Ashram has the international experience and temperament to gain a medal in Tokyo, her chosen disciplines are extremely competitive. The Russian rhythmic gymnasts Aleksandra Soldatova and Arina Averina have been pushing hard over the past few years and are likely to do so in the Olympics. Whichever way the medals fall, hopes are high that Ashram can bring back a rare Israeli medal, possibly even with a routine that features her signature move, the “Ashram”, which consists of a back bend turn – with assistance – on the mat itself.

There are also high hopes for Team Israel’s equestrian contingent. Earlier this year, the Israeli Equestrian Federation (IEF) secured the services of two of the sport’s top professionals in Jeroen Dubbeldam and Hans Horn. It was hoped that they would lend the Olympic team’s riders their international expertise.

The two, who are both from the Netherlands, bring with them vast knowledge. Dubbeldam, who will be acting as team manager, is a former Olympic and world champion, while Horn is set to fulfil the chef d’equipe (team leader) role. “I am happy Hans and Jeroen, two world-renowned equestrian figures, share our vision and have agreed to join Israel’s Olympic effort,” IEF chairman Ken Lalo told Horse and Hound at the time.

Although hopes are high for Israel’s best-ever showing in Tokyo, her Olympic ambitions haven’t been greeted with universal acclaim. Critics point out that baseball is a relatively minor sport in Israel, and that the Olympic team comprise largely imported Jewish Americans who have conveniently discovered their Israeli roots only recently. They cite Valencia as one such example. He only became an Israeli citizen earlier this year, just in time for him to participate in the Olympic qualifiers.

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