Arik Ze’evi after defending his European title in Bucharest.Judo holds a special place in Israel’s sports pantheon.
The country’s first Olympic medal was won by a judoka, Yael Arad, at the Olympic games in Barcelona in 1992. Narrowly missing the gold, based on a judge’s decision in the half middleweight competition, she returned home with the silver medal and became a national hero.
As the 2004 Athens Games approach, Israel will have another shot at Olympic glory, as the country has increasingly developed into a European power in judo. The Israeli delegation to the Olympics will consist of five judokas, the most in Israel’s history.
The group is led by judoka Arik Ze’evi, who last month successfully defended his European title in Bucharest.
Ze’evi, 27, who took the crown in the under-100 kilo class, raising expectations that in Athens, he will improve on his fifth-place showing at the 2000 Sydney games, and hopefully bring home a medal.
The Israeli defended his European Judo Championship and took home the title for the third time in four years with a win over former Olympic gold medalist Antal Kovacs of Hungary in the final on Sunday in Bucharest, Romania.
Zeevi led throughout the fight and won in less than two minutes. The Israeli celebrated with a ‘V’ victory sign marking his third championship win.
An earlier opponent put up a tougher fight. Reigning world runner-up Ghislain Lemaire proved to be Ze’evi’s most challenging opponent. The bout went the full five minutes, during which the Israeli suffered a cut above his right eye, which required treatment. Afterwards, competing with a bandage around his head, Ze’evi managed to earn the deciding point.
Ze’evi is now the 2001,2003 and 2004 European Champion in his weight class. Considered one of the top judoists in the world, Ze’evi was ranked No. 1 on the European Circuit following his win in May.
Following the victory, Ze?evi told reporters that “The third European title is the sweetest because I know that no other Israeli athlete, in any sport, has accomplished such a feat and also because it was accompanied by several difficulties.
“I barely reached the final… and I wasn’t mentally prepared to go all the way. My mind was already on Olympic preparations,” he said. “Only in the past day was I able to make the switch. Now there are three months until Athens and I hope to repeat the achievement.”
After returning to Israel, he was congratulated personally by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Ze’evi, who was born in Bnei Brak, took up judo because his two older brothers competed in the sport, has become Israel’s top performer in the sport over the past few years.
His earliest success came at the 1995 European Junior Championships, when he won in the 86-kg class; he then finished seventh in the 95-kg class at the 1997 World Championships. In 1999, Ze’evi placed fifth in the 100-kg class at the World Championships; he reached the final five, but withdrew due to an injury. He subsequently won the bronze medal at the European Championship.
At the 2000 European Championships, Ze’evi lost in the first round to Igor Makarov of Bulgaria.
At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Ze’evi was a member of the Israeli judo team and competed in the half-heavyweight (100-kg) class. He reached the semifinals, but did not medal after losing to France’s Stephane Traineau in the bronze medal match.
Controversy surrounded the decision as Ze’evi controlled most of the match, but was pinned long enough by Traineau to score an ippon, the equivalent of a knockout. The ippon may have occured out of bounds, however, and after Traineau was awarded the point, the judges reconsidered their decision and ruled it no good. Finally, the judges reverted to their original call and Ze’evi was ruled out, which resulted in his fifth place finish.
In May 2001, Ze’evi had his greatest success to date, winning the European Championship in the heavyweight division and becoming the first-ever Israeli to win a gold medal at the Championships. At the World Championships in late July, 2001, Ze’evi lost in the second round of the heavyweight class to 2000 Olympic silver medalist Nicolas Gill of Canada. Despite this disappointment, he managed to reach the final of the open competition, and finished in second place to capture the silver medal.
Though he is focused on the upcoming Athens competition, Ze’evi has tried to tone down the media’s euphoria, warning that the gold medal in Bucharest did not guarantee him a medal at this summer’s Olympic Games.
“I want to stress that by winning the European Championship for a third time I have not taken a step toward an Olympic medal. A medal is a possibility, but it won’t be easy,” Ze’evi said at a press conference at the Israel Olympic Committee offices in Hadar Yosef.
“All the opponents I beat at the European Championship are capable of beating me,” he said. “Nobody should say I’m guaranteed a medal in Athens, because it isn’t true.”
Ze’evi is not the only Israeli judoka with a shot at an Olympic medal. Yoel Razvozov, who took a silver in the under-73 kilo class, said that he had jumped up a level in Bucharest and now hoped to repeat his success in Athens.
Ze’evi and Razvozov will be joined in Athens by fellow judokas Gal Yekutiel, Udi Wax and Michal Feinblatt.
Sports editor of The Jerusalem Post Frankie Sachs theorizes that Yael Arad’s Olympic medal, along with the success of her contemporary, Oren Smadja, who won a bronze medal the next day, served as inspiration for a new generation of Israelis to focus on the sport, and offer them real hope of realizing an Olympic dream.
“Their success gave the sport a big push in Israel,” he said.
In addition to judo, Sachs said, Israelis have realistic chances for Olympic medals in Athens in Greco-Roman wrestling, sailing, windsurfing and shooting events.