What makes an Olympic games a success for any country? It seems simple: the more medals earned, the more successful the nation. By that measure, the Tokyo Olympics were the greatest Olympic performance in Israeli history. At an international event with a global platform, however, spreading important messages of recognition can be even more valuable than gold.
Israel’s path to the podium was a long one; their first Olympic appearance was in Helsinki, Finland in 1952, where they would go without a medal. The country didn’t earn its first medals until 40 years later in Barcelona, netting a bronze and silver medal in men’s and women’s judo, respectively. In 2004, windsurfer Gal Fridman finally won Israel its first gold medal, and the only gold going into the Tokyo Olympics. Despite Gal’s great achievement, this was not the most memorable Olympic games for Israelis, and for all the wrong reasons.
In 1972, the Olympics returned to Germany for the first time since 1936, when they were held in the Nazi state as a weapon of propaganda. German officials named these games Die Heiteren Spiele, or “The Happy Games” to try to right the wrongs of their past rulers. The games began on August 26th and went without a problem for the first week. On September 5th, though, disaster struck.
At 4:30 a.m., eight militants of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September infiltrated the Olympic Village in Munich. They had the keys to the Israeli housing complex and entered armed with multiple firearms. Wrestling coach Moishe Weinberg bravely confronted the attackers upon their entrance, but he was shot and unable to deter them. The terrorists took athletes from various areas of the complex and held them hostage in one of the apartments when one wrestler escaped. Two of the 11 hostages, including Weinberg, attempted to disarm the Black September terrorists, but both would fail and be fatally shot. Terms would be agreed on to free the remaining nine hostages, and they boarded a helicopter to be released. When they arrived at the Fürstenfeldbruck airbase to be released, though, the terms would fall through, and a grenade would be thrown into the helicopter, killing the remaining nine Olympians.
The following day, after a 24-hour suspension of the games, IOC chair Avery Brundage held a memorial service for the fallen Olympians. He clearly did not grasp the weight of the situation, though, as he vowed to continue the games. This memorial service was only a slight recognition of the horrific events that occurred in Munich, and for the last 49 years, Israel had been pushing for a moment of silence to remember those that died. In 2021, that moment finally arrived. During the opening ceremonies in Tokyo, a minute of silence was held to remember all 11 athletes that were killed 49 years ago, a moment that was deeply felt by the Israeli athletes in attendance, and Jews across the globe.
While such a moment alone would have made the Tokyo Olympic a success, the Israeli performance cemented it as the best in the country’s history. They would finish with two gold and two bronze medals, more than they had ever earned in a single Olympics.
Both gold medals came in gymnastics; one in the men’s floor exercise and the other in women’s individual all-around for rhythmic gymnastics. Linoy Ashram, an Israeli native, would dominate the rhythmic gymnastics floor, coasting to her first-ever gold medal. Artem Dolgopyat, born in Ukraine but a current Israeli citizen, would not medal in the Pommel Horse but took the gold in the artistic gymnastics floor exercise.
One bronze was earned in the mixed team judo event, where 11 Israeli athletes defeated the Russian Olympic Committee to earn the bronze medal.
The other bronze was won by 19-year-old Tae Kwon Do featherweight Abishag Semberg, who would take 3rd place in the women’s division. These athletes brought home more medals than ever for Israel.
With the success inside and out of competition, Tokyo 2021 has been without a doubt the most successful Olympics for Israel. Additionally, these games were the greatest for Jews all over the world. The recognition and remembrance of the Munich Massacre in 1972 was a great moment of progress against anti-semitism, and the winning representation in various competitions is an inspiration to the global Jewish community.