RIO DE JANEIRO (JTA) – When the 2016 Olympic Games open here on Friday evening, Israel will proudly show off its largest delegation ever, with 47 athletes competing in 17 sports.
Among them are golfer Laetitia Beck, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor; Lonah Chemtai, a Kenyan-born marathoner, and Ron Darmon, the first triathlete to represent Israel at the Olympic Games.
Israelis and Jews around the world are expected to show their support for the team, which failed to medal in 2012 when the Israeli delegation numbered 37. Some 10,000 Israeli tourists are expected to attend the Games — they will join Rio’s nearly 40,000-strong Jewish community, along with other Jewish supporters from across Brazil and around the world.
“We are a small team compared to other countries, but we have quality and are determined,” Israeli Olympic Committee President Igal Carmi told the delegation during a meeting in Jerusalem at Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s residence on July 13 before departing to Brazil. “I am very proud of the Israeli team. We are ready to compete at the highest levels.”
One of Israel’s top Olympic hopes, rhythmic gymnast Neta Rivkin, will hold the Israeli flag at the opening ceremony.
“When I was told, I felt I was fulfilling another personal dream,” she said at the meeting. “On behalf of all the athletes, I can promise that we will all do our very best. We all want to bring moments of joy to the Israeli people.”
Some of Israel’s competitors arrived in Brazil early to acclimatize to the Brazilian climate and setting. Preferring to avoid the Rio fuss, many made their temporary homes in Sao Paulo, the country’s largest city and its financial capital — not to be confused with its actual capital city, Brasilia — and home to its largest Jewish population.
Although 250 miles away from the Olympic Village in Rio, Sao Paulo’s Hebraica — a massive complex that’s somewhat akin to a Jewish community center — was chosen as a pre-games training camp for the Israeli and Japanese swimming, water polo, basketball, gymnastics, handball, judo, shooting, tennis and volleyball teams.
“Half of the Israeli delegation will train at Hebraica,” said Avi Gelberg, the sports club’s president. “We are very proud as Jews to be able to be close to the Israeli athletes, help their preparation and – why not? – contribute to their achievements.”
Aside from leading the world’s largest Jewish sports club, Gelberg, who was born in Haifa, also presides over the Maccabi organization in Brazil.
“Welcoming the Olympic Games is a big pride,” he said. “Despite political issues, corruption, Zika, pollution and so on, I am sure Brazil will make excellent Games the same way we did with the World Soccer Cup here in 2014.
“Israel will be able to present itself in a positive way much beyond the conflicts,” added Gelberg, who will also serve as the Israeli delegation’s attaché.
Israel’s delegation also includes 34 coaches and about 25 support staff.
In 16 Olympic Games, Israel has won seven medals — in judo, sailing and canoeing. The only gold medalist was windsurfer Gal Fridman (Athens, 2004), who also won a bronze medal in Atlanta in 1996.
Not even the recent news about Islamist terrorists — who have issued directives to “lone wolves” to carry out attacks against the Israeli delegation — nor the imprisonment of 12 people in Brazil who allegedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group via social media seem to be a concern for some Israeli delegation members.
“We have no issues about security or whatsoever. Not at all. We feel very safe. But we obviously cannot speak too much about it,” Danny Oren, sport director of the Israeli delegation, told JTA.
Oren and the entire delegation — and, well, pretty much everyone — are looking forward to the opening ceremony on Friday night. However, they won’t be joined by Israel’s most senior official expected to attend the Games. Miri Regev, Israel’s minister of culture and sport, who is not observant, caught everyone by surprise when she announced on July 24 she won’t violate Shabbat.
“Shabbat, our national day of rest, is one of the most important gifts that Jewish people have given to the culture of humanity,” she said in a statement. “As the representative of the State of Israel, the sole Jewish state on the planet, I unfortunately cannot take part in the opening ceremony of the Olympics because it would require me to break the holy Sabbath.”
It’s not clear if she will be the only one to miss the event — but Oren insists that, if it happens, it’s purely out of a competitive, not religious, spirit. “If this or that athlete decides not to attend, it will be for the fact it finishes very late and they will have a competition early in the morning on Saturday,” Oren said.
Regev’s presence is confirmed, however, for one of the most highly anticipated moments for Israelis in Rio: A ceremony to honor the 11 Israelis killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics will be held at Rio’s City Hall on Aug. 14. It will be co-led by the International Olympic Committee along with the Olympic committees of Israel and Brazil.
“The mayor will open the doors of his house in a gesture of great friendship with the Brazilian Jewish community and the whole people of Israel,” Israel’s honorary consul in Rio, Osias Wurman, told JTA.
At the team’s sendoff at the president’s house in Jerusalem, Regev spoke about countries, which she chose not to name, that do not recognize Israel and do not permit their athletes to compete against Israelis,
“Unfortunately, there are countries, even today, that exploit the Olympic Games for political gain and discriminate against Israeli athletes,” Regev lamented. “This represents the new anti-Semitism and we need to fight it. When you are at the fields and halls of the [Olympic] events, remember that an entire country back at home is praying for your success.”
Added Rivlin: “Your preparation has been superb, and now is the time to reap the fruit of your efforts. We believe in you and know that you can and will return home with Olympic medals.”