28 Oct, 2020

On Friday, just an hour after enduring a snubbing from Egyptian judo opponent Islam El-Shahaby, Israeli judoka Ori Sasson scored Israel’s second bronze medal of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, earning high praise from the prime minister and sparking an outpouring of national pride.

Sasson won his medal in the men’s judo 100+ kilogram weight class after defeating Cuban opponent Alex Maxell Garcia Mendoza on Friday night. He is the second Israeli to win a bronze during this year’s games, following his fellow judo champion Yarden Gerbi, who earned the bronze in a Tuesday match.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin called Sasson on Saturday night after the Sabbath ended in Israel to congratulate him personally on his win.

“Every boy and girl [in Israel] saw not only a great athlete but a man with values,” said Netanyahu during the call, referring to Sasson’s sportsmanlike conduct after the earlier incident on Friday, in which El Shahaby refused to shake Sasson’s hand after losing to him in a match.

Sasson had approached El Shahaby with his hand extended after beating him, but the Egyptian judoka backed away before leaving the floor without bowing to Sasson, a violation of the sport’s rules which earned him loud booing from the crowd. For his part, Sasson good-naturedly bowed and walked off. A referee called El Shahaby back and forced him to bow, but at that point Sasson had already left.

Netanyahu congratulated Sasson on his calm reaction, indicating that his friendly and peaceful intentions were representative of Israel.

“You showed the true face of Israel, its beautiful face,” he said, telling Sasson that he had made “an entire nation happy.”

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Rivlin echoed the sentiment, calling Sasson “Ori the Jerusalemite, my champion.”

“We are all so proud of you,” Rivlin told the 25-year-old Jerusalem native, the first from the holy city to win an Olympic medal. “You’ve brought honor to the country in such a clear and gentlemanly way. To go and shake the hand of your Egyptian opponent is something all of Israel and all of Egypt is talking about, and here too you’ve won.”

Sasson’s own pride shone through. “My dream came true in front of my eyes,” said the judoka. “I have worked so hard for this. I’ve had so many wins and so many losses and today was my day. I defeated all my fears.”

Sasson’s victory is a proud rebuttal of the discriminatory and insulting behavior that the Israeli delegation has faced from Arab states at this year’s Olympic Games.

On the night of the Opening Ceremonies, the Lebanese delegation refused to allow the Israeli athletes to board their shared bus, physically blocking the door to stop them from entering.

Two days later, a Saudi Arabian judoka forfeited a match in order to avoid fighting an Israeli opponent.

Despite these incidents, however, the Israeli Olympians have triumphed, winning Israel’s first medals since the 2008 games.