OFAKIM, Israel (Aug. 12)
When Oren Smodga, one of Israel’s Olympic judo champions, returned home from Barcelona late Monday night, this town went wild.
Never had Smodga, 22, dreamed of such a homecoming.
With his brothers in the first car, and he, his parents and his girlfriend in the next, the group moved like a royal motorcade through the narrow streets of this town, which were already jammed with dozens of cheering youth.
When he got out of the car, showing a shy but extremely happy smile, he seemed like a rock star surrounded by fans.
Parents escorted their children on an after-midnight stroll to see the boy next door come home with the unbelievable prize, the bronze medal for his performance at the Olympic games.
Ofakim, a town of 17,000 about 12 miles northwest of Beersheba, plagued with unemployment and deep social problem, needed Smodga badly.
The town, which had frequently been cited as an example of a development town that just could not overcome its childhood ailments, had suddenly produced an Olympic champion, second only to Yael Arad, who brought Israel the silver medal for her judo performance.
“So far, people heard of Ofakim usually in a negative connotation,” said Yair Hazan, the town’s young mayor.
“But Oren has put us on the global map, not just the national one,” he said.
“I fought also for the pride of Ofakim,” said Smodga. “I wish to dedicate the medal to all the residents of Ofakim.”
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The crowd would not let him inside the house. They wanted to touch him, and even more, to touch the medal.
He took the medal off his chest and tried to place it on the chest of his father, Maurice, himself a judo expert who had trained his four sons and two daughters from early age to be top judo champions.
Ofakim has a spacious and modern sports center, a donation from South African Jewry made through the United Israel Appeal. But the local municipality did not have the means to provide the Smodga family with the necessary equipment, mainly mattresses, to grow Olympic champions.
So the family commuted to Beersheba to train.
The festivities continued until late Tuesday morning, with one champagne bottle following another in the Smodgas’ garden.
A young leadership mission of Keren Hayesod, including its South African leaders, was scheduled to visit Ofakim on Thursday. The town was fostered by South African Jewry through Project Renewal.
Smodga was unlikely to be there, because he was scheduled to meet at the same hour with Education Minister Shulamit Aloni in a general welcoming ceremony for the Israeli Olympic mission.
But the South Africans have already announced that they will invite Oren to visit the South African Jewish community to demonstrate their appreciation for Oren’s Olympic achievement.