Tokyo 2020: Could it be a golden summer for Jewish athletes?

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Tokyo 2020: Could it be a golden summer for Jewish athletes?

With the world's elite sportsmen and women descending on Japan for the Olympics, we look into the Jewish superstars vying for medals

Linoy Ashram, Eli Dershwitz, Or Sasson and Anat Lelior
Linoy Ashram, Eli Dershwitz, Or Sasson and Anat Lelior

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, a full year after they were planned (they’re still being called the 2020 Olympics, even though they’re taking place this summer).

The Jewish athletes competing — and there are many (although none in the Great Britain team) — are products of inspiring journeys and have reached the pinnacle of their sport.

There’s the fencer looking for redemption, Israel’s first Olympic surfer, one of the greatest canoe paddlers of all time, a teen track star para-athlete, and so many more.

Here, Emily Burack profiles some of the impressive Jewish athletes for whom we can root.

Sue Bird

Basketball, USA

Is Sue Bird one of the greatest Jewish athletes of all time? Perhaps. The basketball legend has won gold medals with the US women’s basketball team in the past four – yes, four – Olympics. (The team has not lost at the games since 1992.) Bird, now 40, is back for her fifth, and likely last, Olympics.

Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm (Wikipedia/Author SusanLesch/Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0))

The child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, Bird was born and raised in Syosset, Long Island. She’s been a basketball star since her debut for the University of Connecticut in 1998 and selection as the WNBA’s No. 1 overall draft pick in 2002 by the Seattle Storm. In her nearly 20 years as a pro, Bird has won four WNBA championships (including last year in the Covid-19 bubble) and is a 12-time All-Star. 

Bird also gained Israeli citizenship in 2006 in a basketball-motivated decision, so she could play for European teams. Her citizenship also allowed her to connect to her Jewish identity.

“It was cool because what I found was in this effort to create an opportunity in my basketball career, I was able to learn a lot about a culture that I probably wouldn’t have tapped into otherwise,” Bird told the Washington Jewish Museum.

Linoy Ashram

Rhythmic Gymnastics, Israel

Linoy Ashram (Wikipedia/Author עידן רובינס/Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0))

Israel’s best chance at winning a medal is 22-year-old Linoy Ashram. The Mizrahi and Sephardi gymnast (her father is Yemeni and her mother is Greek) is set to compete in her first Olympics after winning in the individual rhythmic category at the European Championships in 2020 — the first athlete to take the gold medal in decades who was not from a former Soviet country or Bulgaria. 

Ashram has many firsts for her country: She’s the first rhythmic gymnast from Israel to win an individual all-around medal at the World Championships, the first to win gold in the World Cup series and the first to win a European All-Around title. Can she be the first to win gold in gymnastics at the Olympics?

Diego Schwartzman

Tennis, Argentina

Diego Schwartzman (Wikipedia/Source: si.robi/ Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0))

Diego is the highest-ranked Jewish tennis player in the world. Last year, he broke into the top 10 for the first time, becoming the shortest top 8 player since 5ft6 Harold Solomon, also Jewish, in 1981. The Argentine’s listed height of 5ft7 is called “one of the more generous measurements in professional sports” – he likely stands around 5ft4 (the US Open lists him at 5ft5). Watching him go shot to shot with players who are over a foot taller is nothing short of remarkable. 

Nicknamed “El Peque” or “Shorty” the 28-year-old is set to play in his first Olympics. (For tennis, qualifications are based on world rankings, with the top 56 players becoming eligible.) 

Schwartzman is open about and proud of his Jewish identity. Last year, he wrote movingly on his family’s Holocaust history and how his great-grandfather escaped a train car headed for a concentration camp and ended up in Argentina. 

“I am Jewish and in Argentina, we have many Jewish [people] there, and all the people there know me,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2017.

Alix Klineman

Beach volleyball, USA

Alexandra Klineman (Wikipedia/Source: Author cuattovolley/Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

Alix played indoor volleyball for Stanford in college and professionally after graduating in 2011. However, in 2016, she failed to make the US Olympic Volleyball Team and vowed to find another way to compete at the games. So she switched to beach volleyball. Unlike indoor volleyball, which has teams with squads selected by coaches, beach volleyball is a two-person sport dependent on your own results with a partner. 

“I looked at the beach as a new opportunity and a chance to chase my dreams without anybody having to give me approval or put me on a roster,” Klineman said in 2019. “The biggest thing was pursuing the Olympics and getting a new shot at that.”

The beach volleyball player teamed with two-time Olympian April Ross and they quickly rose in the rankings. They are entering the Tokyo Games with a world ranking of No. 2, with a more than solid chance of winning gold.

The 31-year-old was raised in Southern California in a Jewish family. In 2015, she was inducted into the SoCal Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

Anat Lelior

Surfing, Israel

Anat Lelior (Wikipedia/Author and source: CanonMaestro/Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0))

Anat is Israel’s first – and only – Olympic surfer. Surfing is new to the Olympics, and only 20 men and 20 women will compete this summer. 

Lelior (pictured left, inset), 21, qualified as the highest-ranked female surfer from Europe (Israel competes in European leagues). Lelior, who hails from Tel Aviv and served in the Israeli military, started surfing at five, and by 12 she had won the Israeli national championships.

“I know people aren’t aware of surfing in Israel, and the fact that I get to be the one to show people we’re capable of more than they think, that’s just amazing,” Lelior told Surfline. “I want to show kids, women, everyone from everywhere that they can do anything they want. There’s no limits. I mean, look at me. I had no idea this would happen, and now I’m going to the freaking Olympics.”

Team Israel

Baseball, Israel

Team Israel singing Hatikvah (Wikipedia/Source Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.
Author Galatz at English Wikipedia/CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication

The Cinderella story continues. In 2017, Israel’s national baseball team – which included several American Jewish players who became Israeli citizens to represent the country — surprised observers by placing sixth at the World Baseball Classic, an international tournament of the world’s best teams, with wins over top squads from South Korea, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands and Cuba. Israel was far from a top 10 powerhouse at the time, not even ranked in the top 10 teams in Europe. That made sense, as few Israelis play the sport.

Along the way, the team ginned up enthusiasm for baseball in Israel and gave some under-the-radar Jewish players, many who had spent several years in the minor leagues, new chances to shine. Oh, and there was that endearing mascot – a life-sized Mensch on a Bench.

In 2019, Team Israel won the European Baseball Championship to qualify for the Olympics. The current squad is anchored by de facto captain Danny Valencia – who has Cuban and Jewish heritage and hit no fewer than 96 home runs over eight Major League Baseball seasons – and Ian Kinsler, a former four-time MLB All-Star who made it to Israel on one of the last flights before Covid-19 shutdowns last year to earn his Israeli citizenship.

Only six teams are in play (the field also includes South Korea, Japan, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and the United States), so Team Israel has a chance of snagging a medal.

Jessica Fox

Canoe slalom, Australia

Jessica Fox (Wikipedia/Author Antoine Lamielle/Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0))

Jessica is known as the greatest paddler of all time: She has 10 World Championship medals, including seven gold medals, and seven overall World Cup titles. Her parents, Richard Fox and Myriam Jerusalmi, also were Olympic canoeists — Myriam, a French-Jewish athlete, won bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Mum is now coaching daughter. 

Born in Marseille, France, Fox moved to Australia aged four, so her dad could take up a coaching position with the Australian Olympic team.

“Both my parents competing in the Olympic Games is something pretty special,” she said. “It definitely inspired me to get to this position. Winning a medal is something you dream [of] and I’m proud to follow in my mother’s footsteps.”

Fox, 27, won silver in the K-1 slalom competition at the 2012 London Olympics and bronze in the 2016 Rio Games. This year, for the first time, women will also be competing in C-1 slalom – so Fox, who is ranked No. 1 in the world, is favoured to win two gold medals.

In 2012, Fox became the the second Australian Jewish athlete to win an Olympic medal.

Eli Dershwitz

Fencing, USA

Eli Dershwitz (Wikipedia/Author Whatsup6624/Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0))

Eli is returning to the Olympic Games in search of redemption.
At the 2016 Rio Games, the Jewish sabre fencer lost in the opening round. In 2021, he’s ranked No. 2 in the world and hoping to medal.

Dershwitz, who started fencing aged nine, would win back-to-back National Collegiate Athletic Association championships for Harvard in 2017 and 2018. In Tokyo, he aims to become the fifth US man to win a medal in sabre fencing. No American man has ever won gold in the category.

Born and raised in Sherborn, Massachusetts, into a Jewish family, Dershwitz’s maternal grandparents are Holocaust survivors. He has a twin sister, Sally, who worked on the front lines caring for patients during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dershwitz grew up attending a Conservative synagogue in Natick, Massachusetts, and told Hillel International before the Rio Games that he considers himself a “proud member of the Jewish community”.

“The Jewish community has been very supportive throughout my journey to the Olympics, and I look forward to representing them on the world stage,” he said in 2016.

Most successful Jewish gold medal winners in Olympic sports

Jemima Montag

Racewalking, Australia

Jemima was perhaps destined for Jewish athletic greatness. Her parents, Ray and Amanda, met at the 1989 Maccabiah Games – the Olympics for Jewish athletes held in Israel – where Amanda was competing in the heptathlon and Ray was a cricketer. They hit it off on the flight home to Australia.

Growing up, the Montags encouraged their daughters (Jemima is one of three) to try everything, from long jump to shot put to ballet. But for Montag, race walking just clicked. 

“I found my combination of endurance, hypermobile joints and fiery competitiveness were a great trio for racewalking,” she said.

Montag soon became one of the best racewalkers in Australia, but after the World Youth Championships in 2015, she decided to step away from the sport. 

A family ski trip to Japan in 2017 reignited her competitive spirit. Her sister joked she’d love to return to the country for the Olympics, and her mother encouraged her to go for it. A year later, at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Montag won gold in the 20km event.

Montag credits her Holocaust survivor grandparents for her work ethic and resilience. When a training session or race feels tough, she thinks about them and reminds herself that “grit and perseverance are in my DNA”.

Ori Sasson

Judo, Israel

Ori Sasson

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Or “Ori” Sasson won bronze in the men’s heavyweight judo competition and became a national hero overnight – not just for his skill but also for his sportsmanship after one of his opponents, from Egypt, refused to shake his hand following a match. 

“Every boy and girl saw not only a great athlete but a man with values,” then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Sasson in a phone call that was broadcast live on Israeli TV. “You showed the true face of Israel, its beautiful face.”

Sasson, who is a Kurdish Jew, spent the pandemic year delay competing on Israel’s version of The Masked Singer – his costume was a falafel sandwich – and finished third. 

This year, Sasson – now aged 30 and likely in his last Olympics – is set to compete in the heavyweight competition and in the team competition, an addition to the Olympics judo line-up. Judo has been the pride of Israel’s Olympic fortunes, winning five of the nation’s nine overall medals.
(See more on one of Sasson’s teammates below.)

Sagi Muki

Judo, Israel

Israeli world champion judoka Sagi Muki, right, and Iranian champion Saeid Mollaei embrace at the Paris Grand Slam, February 10, 2020, in an Instagram photo posted online by Muki. (Instagram screen capture via Times of Israel)

Sagi made headlines when he befriended an Iranian judoka, Saeid Mollaei, who was forced to throw a match to avoid competing against an Israeli athlete. Mollaei fled Iran as a dissident and received refugee status in Germany. The story of their friendship is now being made into a TV show.

Born in Netanya to a Yemeni Jewish family, Muki, 29, focused on judo aged of eight. He is an Olympic medal contender in his own right: The half-middleweight judoka is a two-time Israeli national champion, a 2019 world champion, and the 2017 and 2018 European champion. He was expected to win a medal at the 2016 Games but
was hampered by an injury.

Maru Teferi

Marathon, Israel

Marhu Teferi (Wikipedia/Author Denis Barthel/Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0))

Born in north-western Ethiopia and immigrated to Israel with his Jewish family when he was 14. He the Israeli record holder in six distances, including the half marathon and the marathon. His fastest marathon time of 2:07:20, run right before the pandemic in February 2020 – is just six minutes off the world record. 

Now he’s set to compete in his second Olympics. This time he’ll be joined by his wife, Selamawit “Selam” Dagnachew Teferi. They’ll be the first married couple to represent Israel at the Olympics. Teferi, 28, met now-wife Selam while training in Ethiopia in 2012. Selam, 27, is not Jewish, but moved to Israel in 2017 after they married and became an Israeli citizen. 

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