(JTA) — In a first, Israel’s national baseball team has qualified for a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The squad of mostly Jewish-American college players and some pros team defeated South Africa on Sunday in the Europe/Africa Qualifier tournament in Italy and finished the tournament with a record of 5-1.
Israel is the first team to qualify for the games. It had advanced to the qualifier a week ago after finishing fourth in the European Championships.
The host Japan gets an automatic bid to its Olympics, where baseball will be a featured for the first time since 2008. There is no guarantee it will return in 2024.
Six national teams will compete at the games. Three more qualifying events are scheduled before the opening ceremony.
The Israeli team had the country’s best showing in the last World Baseball Classic in 2017, surprising many by making the main tournament, where it finished sixth.
While the World Baseball Classic only requires that players be eligible for citizenship of the country they represent, for Olympic qualifying tournaments and for the actual Olympics players must be citizens of the country they represent. The majority of the national team players are Jewish Americans who received citizenship in order to play or Israelis who live in the United States.
The Israel Association of Baseball runs five leagues throughout the country for players aged 6 to adult. Its Israel Baseball Academy is recognized by Major League Baseball as the elite program for 14- to 21-year-old players in Israel, and its Baseball Le’Kulam (For Everyone) program brings together Jewish- and Arab-Israeli sixth-graders three times a year to learn the game and get acquainted.