With only seven Olympic medals to its credit since 1952, Israel is not on anyone’s top 10 list of countries likely to have its national anthem played on the winners’ podium at Rio this August.
After all, the 68-year-old Jewish state has a population of just 8.5 million and doesn’t have a huge budget for athletics. The strength of the delegation lies more in its ability to generate excitement and pride about master athletes competing for the blue-and-white in 17 sport categories.
Yet the number of qualifiers to represent Israel in the 2016 Rio Games is a record 47, and among them are a few whose names are often mentioned as having real medalist potential.
Israelis are especially pumped about the prospects for the rhythmic gymnastics team of Alona Koshevatskiy, Ekaterina Levina, Karina Lykhvar, Ida Mayrin and Yuval Filo.
The five talented teens won the gold medal in the ribbons event at the International Federation of Gymnastics (FIG) World Cup Final in Baku, Azerbaijan on July 24, and earned a silver medal in the all-around category of the competition.
And a month previously, the Israeli team won a gold, two silvers and a bronze in its first appearance ever in the European Championships in Rhythmic Gymnastics, which Israel hosted in Holon on June 22.
Israeli judokas Sagi Muki, Yarden Gerbi, Gili Cohen and Ori Sasson also are considered to have good chances of winning a medal in Rio. Judo has traditionally been Israel’s strongest Olympic sport.
Muki is the reigning European champion in his weight class (under 73 kg), having won a gold medal at the 2015 European Judo Championship. He’s ranked third in the world.
Gerbi became Israel’s first judoka to earn first place in a world judo championship, in 2013. She is rated in the world’s top five, having won silver in the 2014 world championships and bronze in the 2015 European Judo Championship.
Cohen took first place in the women’s 52 kg category at the 2016 Judo Grand Slam in Baku, while Sasson won the silver medal in the 2015 European Judo Championship.
Freestyle wrestler Ilana Kratysh, winner of the World Qualification Tournament in Mongolia last April, is not only Israel’s first female Olympic wrestler but is also considered to have a reasonable shot at the podium. She earned a silver medal in the 2015 European Games in the women’s 69 kg division.
Track-and-field hopeful Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko, who will compete in the triple jump, is ranked fourth worldwide and won a gold medal in the 2015 European Games.
In swimming, Israel’s best chance may be riding on the back of Ziv Kalontarov, a gold medalist in men’s 50-meter freestyle swimming at the 2015 European Games in Baku.
In 16 Olympic Games, Israel has won seven medals — in judo, sailing and canoeing. The only gold medal so far was won by windsurfer Gal Fridman at the Athens Games in 2004.
Of course, the sports pundits can do no more than guess who will come out on top at Rio de Janeiro from August 5 to 21. There could be a surprise in store among Israel’s biggest-ever delegation.