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Tokyo Olympics entertains and stirs debate

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The modern Olympic Games have been cancelled only three times since their introduction in 1896. The Games of Berlin in 1916, 1940 in Helsinki (originally awarded to Tokyo), and 1944 in London were scrapped due to world wars. Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented one-year postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, to 2021.

Many thought the Games couldn’t happen under coronavirus conditions. Nevertheless, they went ahead, without spectators other than delegations and officials. Offering a welcome escape from the monotonous days induced by the 18-month coronavirus lockdown, the Games also provoked some critical debate off the field.

South Africa’s performance was dismal. The Rainbow Nation bagged two silvers – from surfer Bianca Buitendag and breaststroker Tatjana Schoenmaker in the 100m. Schoenmaker also won South Africa’s only gold medal in a world record in the 200m breaststroke. This placed South Africa a lowly 52nd on the medals table. Last time around, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, South Africa won 10 medals. Tokyo was the third worst showing for South Africa since readmission to the Olympic Games in 1992 in Barcelona. This was in spite of 179 athletes competing in 19 different sports. They were totally outclassed in team sports like hockey, soccer, and water polo.

By contrast, Israel, with four medals, had its best Olympics ever, finishing in 39th position. It sent 90 athletes to the Games – more than double the number competing in Rio. Israel picked up two bronzes – in the mixed Judo team event, and for Avishag Semberg in Taekwondo. Artem Dolgopyat won gold in the men’s floor for artistic gymnastics. The mainstream media chose to focus on the fact that Dolgopyat – whose father is Jewish but whose mother isn’t – wouldn’t be allowed to marry in Israel under current legislation.

There was high drama around Israel’s second gold. Rhythmic gymnast Linoy Ashram had built up a small lead in the all-around competition going in the last round with the ribbon. Clad in blue and white and sporting a large Magen David on her leotard, she performed her routine to a jazzed-up version of Hava Nagila. Halfway through, though, she lost control of the ribbon and it fell to the floor. She managed to keep her lead, however, at 107.800 points. Her biggest rival, Russian world champion Dina Averina, needed to score 24.150 points on the ribbon to win. She fell agonisingly short with a 24, handing Israel its first gold in this sport. The Russians have since cried foul and demanded an investigation.

Politics is never far from sport. Earlier in the Games, there was controversy about Israeli participation. Algerian Fethi Nourine withdrew from the Judo competition because he might have had to face Israeli judoka Tohar Butbul, citing political support for the Palestinians as his reason. Nourine and his coach were suspended. A second judoka, Mohamed Abdalrasool from Sudan, similarly dropped out later, without an explanation.

The Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman summed it up well. “The treatment of Israeli athletes is unique. No other country in the world has athletes who are so often treated like this due to political or diplomatic disputes between countries. The treatment of Israel is entirely about hatred of Jews and nothing else in the Middle East. This is clear from the fact that no matter how awful other conflicts are all over the world, these same athletes don’t refuse to compete with one another.”

But things can go in the other direction too. Tahani al-Qahtani from Saudi Arabia did face Israel’s Raz Hershko in Judo, and was lauded in Israel for doing so. She also received support at home in spite of her loss to the Israeli. And Saeid Mollaei, a former Iranian judoka now representing Mongolia, won a silver medal, and he thanked Israel for its support of him over many years. “Thank you to Israel for the good energy. This medal is dedicated also to Israel,” he said on television. Mollaei has a close friendship with Israel’s Sagi Muki, with their story being filmed for an Israeli television series.

Israel was also grateful at the opening ceremony that for the first time since the massacre of Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Munich Olympics, an official minute’s silence was held.

Tokyo 2020 will be remembered for heated conversations about gender. Before the Games, Norway’s women’s beach handball team was fined €1 500 (R26 016) for “improper clothing” after players chose to wear shorts instead of bikini bottoms in a European tournament. Singer Pink offered to pay the fine. The German women’s gymnastics team chose full-body leotards instead of bikini-cut versions at Tokyo, saying it was a statement “against sexualisation”.

The language used for male and female sportspeople is overwhelmingly more positive in tone when describing men’s sports. Commentators were criticised for not learning female athletes’ names properly and for referring to women condescendingly as “girls”. Journalists were taken to task for comments about the physical appearance of female athletes. This, in spite of the International Olympic Committee’s new media guidelines to avoid sexualising women and not focus “unnecessarily on looks, clothing, or intimate body parts”.

There is also more discussion now about how transgender athletes should be accommodated in the modern Games. This was spurred by the participation of New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, the first out transgender woman to ever compete at the Olympics.

Sport will continue to be effected by political and social issues. We wait to see how they will play out at the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022, and the next Summer Olympics in Paris in 2024.

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“The Cheetah” sets the pace in ju-jitsu and judo

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Mila Ben David, known as “The Cheetah”, became the youngest ever person to be crowned Woman Achiever of the Year at the Johannesburg Women in Sports Awards held on 8 October.

A Grade 4 student at King David Linksfield, the feisty 10-year-old martial artist won the accolade based on her achievements in ju-jitsu and judo.

“Thank you so much for inviting me and for this beautiful award,” Ben David told all the attendees, including Banyana Banyana forward Rhoda Mulaudzi. “I’m so glad to be recognised for my hard work and dedication.”

Ben David went on to thank her family, coaches, and Moonira Ramathula, who founded the Awards in 2018.

Ben David’s Israeli-born father, Amir, told the SA Jewish Report, “The nominees were all women, adults, and then a young girl actually wins. Normally these awards go to sports like rugby and the more popular sports. So, this is a big thing for ju-jitsu and judo. But the unique thing about Mila is that, in South Africa, she’s always fighting in the boy’s division and keeps winning.”

She has 24 gold medals for ju-jitsu and four gold medals for judo. She won the 2018 World Jiu-Jitsu Championship in Los Angeles, the African Continental Jiu-Jitsu Championship (boy’s division) three times in a row, and the Israeli Championship. In addition, she came second in the European Championship.

In South Africa, she has been dominating competitions against boys for the past three years.

In a recent interview screened on Disney Junior (DStv channel 309), Ben David explained why she no longer competes against girls. “After my first fight, the first competition, the girls decided that they didn’t want to fight with me,” she said. “So, I moved to the boy’s division, and my coaches said that it was a good challenge.”

Born in Madrid, Spain, Ben David emigrated with her family to South Africa when she was five.

“She speaks Spanish, her first language, and Hebrew,” says her father. “When we came to South Africa, she couldn’t speak a word of English. Now she speaks a very good English.”

Ben David was motivated to get involved in judo when she watched the sport during the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. “My dad asked me if I wanted to try that kind of sport,” she recalled. “The next day, we went to the gym and I met my coaches. Since then, I haven’t missed one training.”

Her dad encouraged her to take up martial arts that have a grappling instead of striking style. “I think it’s a better style for a girl. She does box and does kickboxing, but she’s not competing in that.”

Judo and ju-jitsu are grappling arts that trace their roots back to feudal Japan. Whereas judo focuses on standing and throwing techniques, ju-jitsu concentrates its efforts on controlling and submitting opponents on the ground. In short, judo is 90% standing and 10% on the ground; ju-jitsu is the opposite.

Ben David practices judo and ju-jitsu every day of the week, and trains at Gracie Barra, a martial arts school in Illovo, Johannesburg. In addition to the “The Cheetah”, they also call her “Mila the Killa”.

Storm Conrad, Ben David’s coach since she started martial arts, said, “She’s not the type of student that comes every day. She wants to fight the bigger, stronger kids. She’s always up for a challenge. She’s the most diligent, hardworking individual I’ve ever come across.”

Said her father, “She’s extremely dedicated. In King David, she brought the medal from the awards to the school and her interview on DStv was played in assembly on Friday. In a recent competition, once again, she was the only girl in the boy’s division and won all the fights by submission, not even by points. It’s quite extraordinary when a girl does that.”

Said a male opponent, “Mila is one of the hardest opponents for me to face – I think I can speak for a lot of the children at [Gracie Barra]. Mila is very focused when she starts ju-jitsu and I don’t think anything can get her unfocused.”

During the COVID-19 lockdown, Ben David took part in Zoom martial arts classes. “But it wasn’t like the real combat sport. I was happy to move back to gym,” she said.

Ben David also trains in rock-climbing and Muay Thai, a combat sport characterised by its use of stand-up, kicking strike actions. Although she enjoys dancing and cooking, she wants to succeed in martial arts.

“My dream is to be a world champion and a black belt,” she said. “I was also thinking of being an astronaut because I love space, or a palaeontologist because I like dinosaurs, so I’m not really sure about it yet.”

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Sixteen-year-old Club Champ cuts swathe on the green

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Sixteen-year-old Jessica Bennett started playing golf regularly only in 2021. So she was overwhelmed when she won the ladies division of the 18-hole Gauteng Provincial Club Champs on 26 September.

A member of the Killarney Country Club, Bennett beat Club Champs from other Gauteng clubs by carding 38 points, two more points than had she achieved her handicap, according to the Stableford scoring system.

“I really didn’t expect to win, so I’m surprised, but I have to say I was very proud of myself for the way I played and also for the fact that I haven’t played golf for that long,” says Bennett.

The Grade 11 student at Kingsmead College in Rosebank, Johannesburg, qualified for this tournament courtesy of her victory in the 36-hole women’s B division at Killarney Country Club’s Club Champs in May this year.

“When I played that tournament in May, I really wasn’t expecting to win at all – I just played it for the fun of it,” says Bennett. “Winning it was something that made me believe I could really get good at the game. It was a two-day tournament, and after the first day, I was at the top of the leader board. I actually shot a lot better on the second day than I did on the first because I had learned from mistakes I made on certain holes. In golf, you have to believe in yourself. It’s a very difficult game to play if you don’t believe you can play it.”

Bennett now has the chance to be crowned the ultimate Club Champ in South Africa when she competes in the national tournament against Club Champs from nine provinces.

Her enthusiasm for the sport stems from her dad, who has been a member at Killarney for more than 20 years. “As my grandpa was also a member there, my dad has wanted me to play golf for so long. He bought me my clubs at the beginning of 2018, and I played two or three times a year during that year and in 2019.

“I was pretty good, and had a lot of potential. I believed that because I played a lot of ball sports – not to sound arrogant, but I’m quite a sporty person in general – if it was something I could practice, I could get quite good at it.”

She started swinging her clubs a bit more after the COVID-19 lockdown resulted in her school sports – tennis, water polo, swimming, and netball – being cancelled. “Golf was just something I could do during COVID-19 and something I could do to spend time with my dad, which was also really nice.”

Over the past few months, Bennett has been going for lessons every week and playing two games on the weekends to improve.

“It’s more like a fun thing for me, and I really enjoy it because I’m quite good at it. It’s also something that I feel I can keep improving on.”

If she does keep improving her game and succeeds in bringing her handicap down, she would ultimately like to get a scholarship to study overseas after school.

“I know there’s a lot of scholarships for women golfers in America, and they want to recruit women golfers from overseas. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go pro, but that’s what I would like to do – just to get to the point where I would be eligible for a scholarship.”

The golfer she looks up to is her dad. “He is a good golfer so if I did make it on to the PGA tour, he’s someone who I would love to be my caddie. He’s very supportive of me, he really inspires me, he also motivates me to keep getting better, and he helps me. He got me the clubs, takes me to my lessons, and is a very important figure for me to get better at golf. I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without him.”

Golf aside, Bennett used to play the drums. “When I started high school, I didn’t have the time for that. I try to prioritise academics. It’s quite important for me if I want to get a scholarship overseas because golf isn’t necessarily going to be the only thing that’s going to take me there. Golf is like my primary hobby at this point, but otherwise I focus on school and trying to get good marks at the end of Grade 11.”

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Bacher hit for six by Boucher outrage

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Former South African cricket captain and veteran administrator Ali Bacher has been criticised for defending Proteas coach Mark Boucher, who has been accused of racial discrimination during his years playing for South Africa.

Bacher has been steadfast in his support for Boucher, telling the SA Jewish Report this week that he’s not surprised by the flak he has taken as we live in a democratic country where everyone has the right to freedom of expression.

The accusations were made in Cricket South Africa’s (CSA’s) social justice and nation building hearings into racial discrimination. Boucher has since apologised “unreservedly for any offensive conduct, real or perceived, that has been attributed to me”.

Boucher went on to say, “We, the team, coaching staff, selectors and CSA, during the period in question, should have been more sensitive and created an environment where all members of the team could raise and talk about these issues without allowing them to fester, as they clearly have.”

In an article in the Sunday Times on 29 August 2021, Bacher said, “Let me simply put it like this: Mark Boucher is one of the best cricketers this country has ever produced. He has apologised for what he has said previously. We all make mistakes.”

In the “letters to the editor” section of the following week’s Sunday Times, Bacher was criticised. “Neither Bacher nor some of his teammates who have suddenly found their voices spoke out against apartheid sport or racism in society at that time,” wrote one reader.

However, Bacher did make a stand in the apartheid era through his actions. In 1976, Bacher and the South African Cricket Union introduced “normal cricket” to playing fields across the country. With the cricket community split over the politics of race, “normal cricket” was an attempt to integrate the sport in South Africa, allowing black teams to play white teams on formerly whites-only playing grounds.

He soon realised that cricket had no long-term future in the country unless cricketers in formerly disadvantaged communities were encouraged to reach their full potential. As a result, he organised mass coaching clinics and development programmes in townships in the 1980s.

In 2009, Bacher told The Sunday Independent, “I never voted for the National Party, never supported apartheid. Many times I was castigated by state media for that.”

Bacher had the foresight to form a single, colour-independent body to oversee all cricket in South Africa. Asking Steve Tshwete to help get the parties to agree on such a unified entity, he became friends with the head of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) sports desk. This was followed by a London visit, in which South Africa was admitted to the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 1991.

Another letter writer wrote, “As far as Bacher and his ilk are concerned, they need to be reminded of the role they played in trying to prop up apartheid sport with those rebel tours in the 1980s.”

With apartheid South Africa excluded from the ICC and test match cricket, Bacher believed that “rebel” tours were essential to maintain playing levels in South Africa.

Although six previous rebel tours had passed smoothly, the 1989-1990 one against England coincided with the unbanning of the ANC and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Bacher was hit for six by angry demonstrators who simply hadn’t been allowed to show their frustration and resentment on previous occasions.

“That tour nearly finished me off emotionally,” Bacher told The Guardian in 2010. “When we had the previous rebel tours, there were packed crowds, mainly white people, no demonstrations. I thought that the country, the people, had no problem [with it]. I must confess that if I had known the anger and the hurt that those tours would cause, I would have thought twice about them. It was very hurtful for me. I had been a liberal all my life.”

Realising he had made a major political error, he negotiated to halt the tour, bringing an end to the “rebel” era.

Another letter writer claimed, “White people like Ali Bacher are still very arrogant. You don’t know the pain, Mr Bacher. You have never experienced that kind of pain and humiliation.”

A general practitioner by profession, Bacher’s work as a doctor at the teeming Baragwanath Hospital on the outskirts of Soweto made him painfully aware that the South Africa in which most of his countrymen lived and died was a vastly different place to that inhabited by suburban, privileged whites, who had access to superb sporting facilities at institutions like King Edward VII School, where he had been a prodigy.

Said Bacher this week, “Amongst the black community, in the 1970s and 1980s, I have no doubt that there were many fine, aspiring young cricketers who, if given the opportunities, encouragement, facilities, and coaching that our white cricketers experienced, would have come through too and reached international stardom.”

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