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On guts, glory and Olympic medals

Yael Arad won Israel’s first Olympic medal, a silver, competing in the half-middleweight (-61-kilogram) judo category.

The bout took place on July 30, 1992, 40 years after Israel first participated in the Olympic Games.

The following day, judoka Oren Smadja took Israel’s second medal, a bronze in the lightweight (-71 kg) category.

After decades of minimal investment and low achievements, in the past four Olympics, Israel’s athletes have received professional backing in all fields, enabling them to reach the Games in optimal condition. Israel has invested an estimated NIS 200 million in preparing for Tokyo. The Israeli delegation of 90 athletes is huge in local terms and Israel’s largest ever, mostly due to the 25-member baseball team. It is the first time Israel has had a team in any ballgame since the 1976 Montreal Olympics, when Israel’s soccer team participated.

Israel’s athletes will also enjoy generous grants if they come back with medals.

Gold medal winners will receive 500,000 shekels ($153,000), while their professional team will receive NIS 350,000 ($107,000). Silver medalists will get NIS 400,000 ($123,000), and their teams will share another NIS 280,000 ($86,000); while bronze medalists will receive NIS 250,000 ($76,000) and their professional team another NIS 175,000 $53,000).

The Olympic Committee of Israel takes pride in the fact that Israel is one of the world’s leading countries in terms of bonuses for its medal-winning men and women, and it’s right. The average gold medal bonus in Western countries is around NIS 200,000. Singapore tops the charts with a bonus of $740,000, and Taiwan follows with $640,000. But the generous bonuses haven’t turned Israel into an Olympic superpower. Western countries prefer to invest greater sums in sporting infrastructure, thus increasing the overall pool of medals.

Arad, 54, says that as a young judoka, she was taught to lose with honor.

“No one really spoke about winning. Whatever we achieved was okay, but there was no target on the wall.”

Arad trained with Maccabi Tel Aviv, and in 1977, when she was 10 years old, Maccabi’s basketball team won the European championship for the first time. That was her inspiration.

When she was 16, Arad decided she wanted to be the best in the world.

“I was at a big training camp in Europe where I saw ‘old ladies’ of 25 who were world and European champions. That was my first encounter with the world’s best. I looked at them and saw that they were flesh and blood just like me. But I understood that I needed to switch from a regime of one-and-a-half hours training a day to three hours a day just like them.”

Q: Did you come to Barcelona expecting to win a medal?

“Yes. I was the world number three. In February 1992, six months before the Olympics, I was crowned champion at the Paris tournament. In the Olympic semi-final I beat Frauke Eickhoff of Germany, and then it was clear that I would win a medal.”

Arad’s disappointment after losing the final on points showed clearly on her face when she went up on the podium to claim her silver medal in Barcelona. She had hoped to see the Israeli flag hoisted and to hear the national anthem, Hatikvah, and she came so close. But Israel celebrated its first Zionist medal, achieved 40 years after its first Olympics. It took Arad a few days to understand just what a big occasion it was.

She was swamped by the Israeli media who waited on her every word. The heads of the Israeli delegation were in ecstasy. “I wasn’t given much time to be disappointed, because everyone had plans for me. I received calls to come back to Israel immediately because the papers wanted to do a celebratory interview with me, but I wanted to stay and carry the Israeli flag at the closing ceremony.”

Arad, the daughter of two journalists, was already a young woman with a strong awareness of the world.

Before the games, she met with the widows of the Israeli athletes murdered in Munich and promised them that if she won a medal, she would dedicate it to their memory.

When the International Olympic Committee held a big press conference, Arad arrived prepared with a speech she had written in honor of the 11 Israeli victims of the Munich massacre.

When she returned home, Arad was received like a Hollywood movie star. “When I was still in Barcelona, my parents told me how ecstatic everyone was in Israel. When we landed, the plane taxied right past the VIP hall, and I could see all the people who had accompanied me from childhood waiting for me there. A few days later, I met the Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at his bureau.” They spoke about the competition and Rabin told Arad he had watched the final from his bureau.

Q: What did the medal do for you?

“The main thing was a sense of self-fulfillment. When you achieve a major goal, the significance isn’t necessarily financial. Ask the people at Mobileye how they feel. As soon as I touched the big dream, I felt whole. It enables you to live life well on the emotional level, with enormous confidence.”

Arad retired from the sport in 1994 in order to be close to her ailing father after winning the European Championships and coming in second at the World Champions in the year after the Games. She returned to compete in Atlanta in 1996, but lost in the bronze medal fight and finished fifth.

Q: You ended your career with very strong public recognition

“But not like a reality TV star,” she jokes. “There was strong recognition from the public and from decision makers who were full of appreciation.”

Arad put the world of judo behind her and switched to the business world. “Opening doors wasn’t a problem, but I had to transition to a new world and think about what I will be, and not what I had been.”

Today, Arad is an entrepreneur and a consultant to companies in the fields of gaming and children’s TV series. For the past nine years, she has been part of the elite sports unit at the Wingate Institute and says that since she won her medal Israel has taken an enormous leap forward in developing its Olympic athletes.

Before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, then-Deputy Sports Minister Pinchas Goldstein established a fund for Israeli medal winners. Goldstein recruited the diamond trader Simcha Holtzman, and half a million shekels were allocated for each winner.

When Arad and Smadja won their medals, the Olympic Committee of Israeli doubled the amount to NIS 1 million ($307,000).

Source: Aviad Pohorils – Israel Hayom