The Jewish women lighting the Olympic flame
The Olympics isn’t just the site of the greatest sporting prowess in the world, it’s also a source of national nachas. This Women’s Day, 9 August, we celebrate some of the great Jewish female athletes taking part at the Tokyo Games.
Avishag Semberg –Taekwondo, Israel
Avishag Semberg has proven her mettle in Taekwondo, winning a bronze for the Israeli team at the very first day of this year’s Tokyo Games. Competing in the women’s under-49kg category, she’s the youngest Israeli to get a medal. And, she’s certainly not done yet, recently telling The Times of Israel that her next goal is gold at the Paris 2024 games.
Of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic roots, Semberg grew up Gadera in Israel. According to The Jerusalem Post, she first became interested in Taekwondo in Grade 1. At the martial arts club where she began training, she met fellow Taekwondo talent Nimrod Krivishkiy. Having trained together since childhood, their bond has since turned to love, and she is now in a long-term relationship with the 22-year-old.
Last year, Semberg enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and serves in the home front command. The Friends of the IDF (FIDF) tweeted after her victory, “FIDF is so proud of Avishag Semberg. Athlete, IDF soldier, and now Olympic medallist – is there anything she can’t do?”
Jessica Fox – Canoe Slalom and Kayak Slalom, Australia
The wonderful “water-whizz of Oz”, Jessica Fox is frequently cited as the most successful paddler in history. These games have been no exception, with her having already achieved a gold in women’s canoe slalom and a bronze in kayak slalom.
According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), although Fox was born in France, her family moved to Australia when she was four after her father was appointed as a coach for the country’s Olympic team.
Fox’s story is one of intergenerational talent. Her mother, Myriam Jerusalmi, who is now her coach, was an Olympic champion herself, having won bronze for kayak slalom at the 1996 games. Her father, too, was an Olympic canoeist, and her sister, Noemie, is also part of the canoeing clan, taking part in slalom canoeing.
The 27-year-old has previously spoken about the family pride that motivates her. “Both my parents competing in the Olympic Games is something pretty special. Winning a medal is something that you dream [of], and I’m proud to follow in my mother’s footsteps,” she told JTA.
Lilia Akhaimova – Gold in Team Artistic Gymnastics, Russia
Akhaimova is one of Russia’s golden girls after nabbing top spot as part of the country’s artistic gymnastics team. Competing under the banner of Russian Olympic Committee, Akhaimova attained the top score for vault in the team finals.
The 24-year-old hails from Vladivostok, a city with a rich Jewish history dating back to the 19th century. Akhaimova’s family lived in the area until 2012, when they moved to St Petersburg to give her and her sister, Luba, more sporting opportunities.
When not training, Akhaimova is a big fan of social media, posting extensively on Instagram and TikTok. At university, she studied sport and health. It clearly has been a big year for her as in addition to participating in her first Olympics, she received the title of Honoured Master of Sport in the Russian Federation.
According to a message posted on Facebook by the Russian embassy in the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Akhaimova and her team, saying, “For the first time ever, Russia has won the Olympic gold in the artistic gymnastics team event. This success has become a worthy prize for your talent and perseverance in reaching your goals, for your team spirit, solidarity, and beautiful, graceful performance.”
Linoy Ashram – Rhythmic Gymnastics, Israel
The 22-year-old Adidas-sponsored Ashram is Israel’s darling. Having set a number of records and won the European all-around title ahead of the Olympics, she’s now considered one of Israel’s biggest hopes for glory at these games.
Born in Rishon LeZion, her family is of Yemini and Greek origin. She said that she began gymnastics as a small child because she simply couldn’t keep still.
She’s studying education, and describes herself as a perfectionist. One of her routines is set to Hava Nagila, although she incorporates lots of different musical genres into her routines. According to the Hey Alma website, she even has a back-bend turn named “the Ashram” after her.
The women’s rhythmic individual all-around gymnastics qualifications take place on Friday, 6 August.
Sue Bird – Basketball, United States
An icon of the Olympics, Sue Bird, was one of the United States (US) flagbearers at the opening ceremony this year. The 40-year-old is competing in her fifth Olympic Games, hoping to nap a fifth gold medal for basketball.
Born in New York, according to JTA, Bird was granted Israeli citizenship in 2006. Though she did so in order to be able to play in European teams, she said she learnt a lot about her cultural heritage in doing so.
According to Sports Illustrated, Bird used to keep her gold medals in her sock drawer, although she now puts them in a safety-deposit box. Her fiancé is acclaimed US soccer star Megan Rapinoe.
Bird has been instrumental in the fight for better pay and benefits for the female players in the US’s Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). Former WNBA player Dawn Staley is quoted by Time magazineas saying that Bird “gives a voice to women who are underpaid and underappreciated”.
The women’s basketball finals take place this weekend.
Jemima Montag – Racewalking, Australia
A first timer at the game, Montag’s parents’ “meet-cute” story began at the 1989 Maccabiah Games where her father was playing cricket and her mom competing in heptathlon.
According to the Hey Alma website, though Montag tried a variety of sports and dance, she found her niche in racewalking, saying that her “combination of endurance, hypermobile joints, and fiery competitiveness are a great trio for racewalking”.
Montag sites her Holocaust survivor grandparents as her inspiration, holding close their lessons about resilience.
The women’s race walking final take place on Friday.
Alix Klineman – Beach Volleyball, United States
When Alix Klineman wasn’t selected for the US Olympic team for indoor volleyball for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, the now 31-year-old decided to switch to beach volleyball to continue her Olympic dream. This gamble paid off, and she is now ranked second in the world with her partner in the game, April Ross.
Born in California, Klineman is a graduate of Stanford University, having gained a degree in Art Studio. In 2015, she was inducted into the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
The Women’s Beach Volleyball semi-finals and finals take place this week.
Maor Tiyouri – Marathon, Israel
When the Women’s Marathon event takes place over the weekend, Maor Tiyouri will represent Israel with pride.
The 30-year-old from Kfar Saba comes from an Iraqi and Iranian Jewish background. Though she studied and now trains in the US, her heart is made of pure milk and honey.
She told Hey Alma that being a Jewish athlete and representing Israel, a “small country that has known so many hardships” was an honour and a privilege.