What will Israel’s Olympic team face in Paris?

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What will Israel’s Olympic team face in Paris?

The 2024 Olympic Games start on July 26, but will it be a repeat of Eurovision for Israel's athletes?

Clockwise from top left: Maor Tiyouri; Anat Lelior; Gashau Ayale; Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, Sharon Kantor; Girmaw Amare and Avishag Semberg are all competing in the Olympic Games in Paris. They feel strongly that Israel should be allowed to compete and many of them are dedicating their efforts to the victims of the October 7 attacks
Clockwise from top left: Maor Tiyouri; Anat Lelior; Gashau Ayale; Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, Sharon Kantor; Girmaw Amare and Avishag Semberg are all competing in the Olympic Games in Paris. They feel strongly that Israel should be allowed to compete and many of them are dedicating their efforts to the victims of the October 7 attacks

Israel is sending 78 athletes to the Paris Olympics. Only the 2020 Tokyo Olympics had a larger team. The athletes arrive in the city after President Macron’s sudden summer election and the vitriolic riots that followed. With the country now in coalition confusion, split between the left, the centre and the far right, the tense atmosphere is making the challenge of hosting such a huge sporting event even more challenging.

The French authorities had already implemented a comprehensive security plan involving additional police, military personnel, and civilian security staff across the Olympic venues, athletes’ villages, media hubs, and other key locations.  Flagging the key security threats as terrorism, cyber threats, health risks and drone activity – the far-right rallies have now been added to a list of concerns which includes the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza as well as accusations of Russian-backed cyber attacks against French interests.

Heightened security at Paris Olympics

In a security update the threat of lone-wolf terrorist attacks is also mentioned, so there is a focus  on counterterrorism measures, with Operation Sentinelle deploying nearly 20,000 troops. Flying out of their troubled homeland and into this mire come the Israeli medal hopefuls who excel in gymnastics, sailing, judo, Taekwondo, the marathon and fencing.

The challenge for these gifted sportsmen and women is performing at the top of their game at Games fraught with difficulty. Obviously there is a concern that the Eurovision Song Contest hate-fest will be repeated. Unlike Stockholm, where Eden Golan was confined to her hotel except when singing, the athletes will be based in the Olympic Village – housing 14,250. With 15 million visitors expected, things won’t be easy – especially as France has experienced terror attacks with Jews a primary target.

The opening ceremony, near the Eiffel Tower, is a key challenge – the first time this will be held outside a stadium. The Israeli Olympic football team’s safety is another worry. Games will take place across France – and so outside the Olympic Village security cordons – with little to prevent spectator heckling during matches, and risks involved in reaching them.

Israel’s national football team.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach has noted Israel’s safety needs: “Since the heinous attack on the Israeli team [during the 1972 Munich Olympics], there were always special measures being taken with Israeli athletes.”

Yael Arad

Yael Arad, who won Israel’s first Olympic Medal, for Judo, in 1992, is now OCI president. She drew a parallel to Hamas’ 7 October attack, pointing out that the 1972 athletes were “dragged out of bed, unawares, at the biggest sporting event of brotherhood and friendship, and murdered in cold blood… It seems nothing has changed in 52 years, considering what happened to us in the south. We are carrying this torch from generation to generation.”

The bloody history of Israel’s Olympic past was already a subliminal burden for the young athletes. Now, haunted by the horror of October 7, they have a bigger weight to carry when they compete.

Maor Tiyouri ready to compete

Paris 2024 will be the third Olympics for long distance runner Maor Tiyouri, who is from Kfar Saba. She ran the 10K Berlin race a week after October 7, commenting: “The whole last week since the terrible Saturday has been really difficult emotionally, mentally and physically in light of the horrors we experienced. It directly puts sports in perspective… after several conversations, I decided that I should compete because this is my way to represent the Israeli people, to be an ambassador and to contribute to the overall effort. To show everyone that we are strong and not going anywhere.”

Lonah Chemtai Salpeter in Berlin 2018

Tiyouri’s coach, Dan Salpeter, is married to another runner, Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, who was born in Kenya. She came to Israel in 2008, having never left her village, to work as a nanny for Kenya’s ambassador, who helped her gain Israeli citizenship saying Kenya had plenty of runners. “Kenya and Israel are good friends. We cannot hand you the medal, but we can give you somebody who can bring the medal.”

The athletics team also includes marathon runners Gashau Ayale, Maru Teferi and Girmaw Amare, who were all born in Ethiopia. Their intention is to win in their categories but, like so many others on the team, they show the diversity of Israel’s population and refute the accusations of apartheid.

Anastasia Gorbenko

Born in Haifa, Anastasia Gorbenko is considered Israel’s all-time greatest swimmer. She competed in the 2020 Olympics and has won world and European championships. At February’s world aquatics championships, she won silver and dedicated the medal to school friend Matan Angrest, who remains a Gaza hostage. Booed on the winner’s podium, she remarked: “I’m here to represent my country… And I’m doing this with the Israeli flag and I’m proud of that. And whoever doesn’t like it, it’s just not my problem. There was no way I was going to miss the podium, just because some little kids are going to do whatever they want to… But it does affect me emotionally.”

Avishag Semberg

Avishag Semberg won Taekwondo bronze at the 2020 Olympics and gold at February’s Austrian Open Competition and dedicated her medal to Irish-Israeli Kim Damti, hostage Omer Wenkert and to all the Israel Defence Forces soldiers.

“My friend Kim was murdered at the Nova party. Omer, who for years sat next to me in class, was kidnapped in Gaza. It’s hard for me to think about it. For weeks I sat at home and asked myself, ‘What’s relevant now?’ I was afraid. I stayed home and didn’t go out, not even for training.

“On October 7, we were at a competition in China, sitting in the dining room in shock, and saw the Jordanian team walking past and laughing. This is inhumane behaviour. The world does not understand what is happening in Israel.”

Artem Dolgopyat

Artem Dolgopyat won Israel’s second ever gold medal at the 2020 Olympics and gold in the 2023 Artistic Gymnastics World Championship. On October 7 he woke to the news but, despite worries, decided to continue. “It was very difficult for me to disconnect. When I got to the arena, I told myself that I have to be in the competition and that’s it.” He put black ribbons on the Israeli flag to mourn the victims, saying: “I finished the day as the world champion but my mind and my heart are at home.” Dolgopyat is auctioning his prize to raise funds for the impacted communities. “What is the status of a world champion worth if my country hurts? The state of Israel comes first for me.”

Surfer Anat Lelior honoured as a Global Barbie

Others in Israel’s Olympic team have all qualified as potential world-beaters and include Inbar Lanir, Judo world champion in the 78kg category; Sharon Kantor, the 2024 IQFOiL Windsurfing Champion; fencer Yuval Freilich, who won gold at the 2024 Epée Grand Prix and surfer Anat Lelior, who competed in the 2020 Olympics and won gold at the 2022 Maccabiah Games. Anat was also honoured as a “Global Barbie role model”, resulting in a Barbie doll in her image.

A poster recalls Israel’s victims of the 172 Olympics.

The Olympics are supposed to be non-political but, as the 1936 Berlin Games demonstrated, this is a falsehood. The details of Hitler’s Games are told in the recently-published book Played: The Games of the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Glenn Allen and Richard Kaufman, who vividly describe how Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, convinced his leader of their propaganda value. The non-German Jewish athletes who competed won 14 medals, among them Austrian Robert Fein, who won gold for weightlifting. Although there was a ban on Jews, Roma and Sinti, who had been successful in German sports before 1933, those considered ‘half-Jewish’ according to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 were allowed to take part to temper international opinion. One such ‘half-Jew’ was fencer Helene Mayer, who had a Lutheran mother and Jewish father. At the medal ceremony she gave the Nazi salute – to protect her Jewish family.

Helene Mayer makes the Nazi salute in Berlin

Ignoring the demands that Israel should be banned from Paris 2024 has led to accusations of double standards as following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the IOC banned Russian and Belarusian sports federations. Their athletes can only compete as neutrals.

Anti-Jewish boycotts have tainted Olympic history for 88 years. Now, post-October 7, calling for the victim – Israel – to be barred merely echoes that bloody past. The IOC should be commended for withstanding anti-Israel pressure.

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