Israel's pursuit for Olympic judo gold

Israeli judoka Timna Nelson-Levy celebrating
Israeli judoka Timna Nelson-Levy celebrating

With the Kazan Grand Slam set to begin tomorrow (5 May),  judokas Timna Nelson-Levy - who will be competing in Kazan - and Gili Cohen shared why Israel has seen most of its Olympic success in judo, as the pair prepare for Tokyo 2020.

“It’s hard to describe how much your forearms burn after a tough fight - sometimes you’re so out of breath that your throat hurts from breathing... A big aspect of a judo fight is the mental aspect. You go out to the mat, you bow to your opponent, and then it’s all out - you against her.”

Gili Cohen

Judo will return to its ancestral home of Japan when the Tokyo Summer Olympics officially open on 23 July - with the judo competition itself running from 24 July to 31 July.

Judo made its first Olympic appearance at the Tokyo 1964 Games, which, incidentally, was the last time the Summer Olympics were held in Japan prior to the Games this summer. In that time, Japan has thoroughly dominated the competition at the Games, winning 84 medals (France is second in the medal rankings with 49).

Israel Judo Medalists - Shay Oren Smadja
11:03

One day after Yael Arad's first medal in history of Israel Shay Oren Smadja won the second bronze at Barcelona Olympic Games.

Five Olympic medals in judo

Japan’s success in judo at the Olympics is understandable, given that the nation created the sport and it’s hugely popular there - but there’s another, more surprising country whose Olympic success in judo has helped increase its popularity and participation numbers: Israel.

It would be unfair (and inaccurate) to claim that Israel expects their Olympic judokas to reach the podium at every edition of the Summer Olympics - after all, Israel (with a population of just nine million) has only won nine total medals at the Games, having first competed at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.

But of those nine medals, five (one silver and four bronze) have come in judo, and since 2009, Israeli athletes have won nine medals at the Judo World Championships and 12 medals at Continental Championships.

Connection with judo

For a country where football and basketball are the most popular sports, it may seem odd that judo is Israel's most successful Olympic sport. But the reality now is most people in the country have some connection with the sport at some point in their lives. Indeed, ask any sport fan in Israel who the country’s first Olympic medallists were, and they will tell you without skipping a beat: Yael Arad and Oren Smadja (the pair won silver and bronze in the women’s -61kg and men’s -71kg judo competitions respectively at the 1992 Barcelona Summer Games).

Gili Cohen, a European bronze medallist (2014) who competed at Rio 2016 in the women's -52kg category, has a good explanation for Israel’s achievements in the sport.

“I think it’s a mixture of things. Our first Olympic medals came in judo which gave a boost to the sport [in Israel] and once the base was wider and more kids were doing the sport, it was easier to produce higher-level athletes. And our coaching staff and the Israeli Judo Federation do their absolute best to give us the facilities and conditions for us to succeed,” Cohen said.

Israel Judo Medalists - Yael Arad
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Yael Arad is the first Israeli to win an Olympic medal in history at Barcelona Olympic Games.

Timna Nelson-Levy, who also won bronze at the European Championships in 2016, credits the Israeli ‘fighting spirit’ for their success in international competition.

“We have something in our spirit, we have this Israeli...attitude - this fighting spirit. We love representing Israel, we have pride in representing the flag - for me, it’s special, I'm not only fighting for myself. I’m fighting for my family, I’m fighting for my country.”

Adjusting to the circumstances

Cohen and Nelson-Levy - like so many other athletes around the world - have had to adjust their training regimen in the past year in response to lockdowns enforced by the global coronavirus pandemic, with both women sharing accommodation with a teammate and setting up home gyms to stay in shape before they were able to return to the training facility.

“Shani Hershko (head coach of the Israeli women’s team), split us into pairs, gave us tatami (judo mats), weights - everything was in my apartment, it looked like a gym!” said Nelson-Levy.

That strategy paid off this past March as Cohen and Nelson-Levy won medals at the International Judo Federation (IJF) Grand Slam in Tel Aviv. Nelson-Levy won gold in the women’s -57kg (defeating France’s Sarah Leonie Cysique with a beautifully worked ippon in just 18 seconds), boosting her world ranking after previously securing Olympic qualification 2020.

Another chance for Cohen

Cohen, who had initially missed out on making the Israeli Olympic team after finishing fifth in 2020 at the Dusseldorf Grand Slam, won silver in the women’s -52kg, securing her second Olympic berth after she competed at the Rio Games in 2016.

“When they announced the delay [to the Tokyo Games], for my teammates who had already qualified it was kind of a blow as they had been waiting for it, and the announcement came about four months before the Games were due to start. I’m sure it was hard for them, but I realised that I had another chance - so it served as another push and drive to take that chance and be ready when it came."

Goosebumps for a Gold medal

Now both athletes have the opportunity to continue the success of Israeli judokas at the Games, after Yarden Gerbi and Or Sasson earned Israel's eighth and ninth Olympic medals in judo at Rio 2016. And the significance of what it would mean to win Israel’s first judo gold - and first gold medal in any discipline since 2004 (when Gal Fridman won the men's Mistral One Design in Athens) - is not lost on them.

“Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps. It’s my goal, and I’ve been working all my life to achieve it. It would be a dream come true to win gold,” said Nelson-Levy.

“Israel is a small country and we haven’t been blessed with that many Olympic medals, so winning any medal would be amazing - but winning a gold...I don’t even have the words to express what it would mean to me, to my family and friends, to judo in Israel, to Israel as a country," said Cohen. "If I’m lucky enough and it’s my day, I’d probably be as speechless as I am now - if not more!”

Or Sasson of Israel celebrates after defeating Alex Garcia Mendoza of Cuba during the Men's +100kg Judo contest on Day 7 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 2 on August 12, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Or Sasson of Israel celebrates after defeating Alex Garcia Mendoza of Cuba during the Men's +100kg Judo contest on Day 7 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 2 on August 12, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

World Championships and Kazan Grand Slam

But before Nelson-Levy and Cohen can divert all their attention to competing at the Olympics, they must first prepare for the not-insignificant matter of the World Championships in Budapest in June! Nelson-Levy will also compete at the Grand Slam in Kazan, Russia from 5-7 May.

Regardless of how Nelson-Levy and Cohen perform at these competitions (not to mention their teammates, which includes Sasson, 2019 World Champion Sagi Muki and 2020 European Champion Peter Paltchik) their success to date - and the pride and passion they will surely display in Tokyo later this year - will inspire a generation of Israeli judokas to come.