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Jews at the Rio Olympics: 10 Fascinating Facts

August 7, 2016 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Israel sent its largest ever delegation of athletes: 47 athletes, competing in 17 events.

The 2016 Olympics are underway. Here are ten fascinating facts about Jews and Israelis at the Rio Olympics.

Biggest Israeli Delegation Ever

Israel sent its largest ever delegation of athletes to the 2016 Olympics: 47 athletes, competing in 17 events.

In addition to the athletes and their coaches, an estimated 10,000 Israeli tourists are cheering their compatriots on in Rio.

Gal Fridman

Gal Fridman

Israel has competed in 16 Olympics and won seven medals. The country’s sole gold so far was won by windsurfer Gal Fridman in Athens in 2004.

Missing the Opening Ceremony

Miri Regev, Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport, will be cheering on Israel’s athletes in Rio - but announced she would miss the opening ceremony because it conflicted with Shabbat.

Although she is not religiously observant, Ms. Regev explained, “Shabbat, our national day of rest, is one of the most important gifts that Jewish people have given to the culture of humanity…. 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.”

Welcoming Jewish Visitors

Rio’s synagogues and Jewish organizations are stepping up, offering Jewish visitors to the Olympics and athletes kosher food, Shabbat services, and more.

Last year, the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue and community center opened with 20,000 square feet of space in Ipanema, a neighborhood of Rio. Catering to Jewish visitors during the Olympics was one consideration when planning its opening.

Chabad has opened three reception centers, even flying in staff from New York to help out with kosher meals and events during the games, and the Paralympics following the Olympic events.

Jewish Organizers

Three of the organizers of the 2016 Olympics are drawn from Rio’s 25,000-strong Jewish community.

Carlos Arthur Nuzman

Carlos Arthur Nuzman

Carlos Arthur Nuzman, a Brazilian sports star who started playing volleyball in the Brazilian Israelite Club as a child, is president of the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee. He’s assisted by Sidney Levy, a Brazilian businessman, who serves as the Rio 2016 committee’s CEO, and by Leonardo Gryner, a local communications and marketing director, as deputy CEO.

Omitting Israel’s Flag

Israel’s Olympic Committee complained after Israel’s flag was omitted from an online list of 206 countries and organizations that are competing in the Rio games.

Israeli Olympic Flag

Computer users trying to upload a picture of Israel’s flag with the Rio 2016 logo were unable to do so after Israel’s flag was unaccountably omitted from a list of national flags. Hundreds of nations and groups, including refugees, who are taking part in the Rio games saw their flags represented; only Israel’s was omitted.

The incident echoed the 2012 Olympic games in London, when the BBC listed Israel as having no capital. (Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, was listed by the BBC as capital of Palestine instead.) The BBC later changed their listing, recognizing Jerusalem as capital of Israel.

Marking the 1972 Massacre of Israeli Athletes in Munich for the First Time

After 44 years, the 2016 Olympics finally marked the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, with a ceremony days before the opening, on August 3, 2016.

1972 Olympic Massacre Victims

On September 5, 1972 eight Palestinian terrorists scaled the fence of the Olympic Village. They killed two Israeli athletes and took nine Israeli athletes hostage. When a rescue attempt the following day failed, all nine Israeli athletes were murdered.

At the time, the Olympics continued almost as if nothing had happened. Games continued; nations’ flags were lowered to half-mast, though when ten Arab countries objected to even that gesture, their flags were restored to full height.

Ankie Spitzer

For years, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) refused to memorialize the Israeli victims. Ankie Spitzer, the widow of murdered Israeli fencer Andre Spitzer, organized calls to honor the victims, but for decades her pleas fell on deaf ears; the IOC refused even to hold a moment of silence at the 2012 London Olympics, held on the 40th anniversary of the attack.

Finally, under leadership of new IOC director Dr. Thomas Bach, the IOC held a memorial and pledged to establish a permanent memorial in Munich.

“We waited for this for 44 years, to have this remembrance and recognition of our loves ones who were killed so brutally in Munich,” Ankie Spitzer said after the ceremony. “We wanted them to be really accepted as members of the Olympic family. Now that President Bach had a minute of silence in the Olympic village, calling out the names of our loves ones, this is closure for us.”

Granddaughter of Holocaust Survivors Representing Israel

One Israeli athlete competing in Rio is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors - and wants the world to know. Golfer Laetitia Beck, 24, was born in Belgium to a traditional Jewish family, who moved to Israel when Laetitia was six.

Golfer Laetitia Beck

“For me, it’s very important for people to know first that I am Jewish and that I come from Israel, and then next that I am a golfer” she has said. “Everywhere I go, I want people to know where I’m from, my background and where my family came from because of the struggle they had to go through…. Every week when I play and I see the Israeli flag, it brings me a lot of pride and I think it’s because of what my grandparents had to go through. Not just them but everybody during World War II and the Holocaust. That brings me anger but what I’m trying to do is bring the anger and do something meaningful.”

New Israeli Citizen

One of Israel’s most promising Rio Olympics athletes is also one of its newest citizens, 27 year old long-distance runner Lonah Chemtai.

Runner Lonah Chemtai

Chemtai first came to Israel as a teenager when she worked as a nanny for a diplomat from her native Kenya. A serious runner, she was introduced to Israeli running coach Dan Salpeter whom she eventually married. She became an Israeli citizen in March 2016, in time to represent her adopted country in Rio.

Kenya’s ambasssador to Israel, Augostino Njoroge, said, as Chemtai became an Israeli: “Kenya and Israel are so good friends. We cannot hand you a metal, but we can give you somebody who can bring the medal…. That is what good friends are for.” Chemtai herself was more succinct: “Today I feel so happy” the new Israeli told her fans.

Israeli Company is Overseeing Security at the Rio Olympics

International Security & Defense Systems (ISDS), an Israeli company founded by a former Israeli colonel, is responsible for security at the Rio games.

Threats from the anti-Israel “BDS” (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) movement nearly scuttled the deal. After intense pressure from global anti-Israel activists, Brazil’s Justice Ministry claimed the Israeli company would not work at the Olympic games.

ISDS’s expertise overcame objections, however. The task is massive. ISDS is overseeing 85,000 security personnel at the games (double the number in London four years ago), coordinating intelligence from 100 different countries, and providing imagine from an Israeli high-resolution imaging satellite.

One Additional Point: Anti-Semitism at the Olympics

Even before the Olympics started on Friday, some participants made their disdain for Israeli athletes known. Lebanon's Olympic team refused to travel on a bus to the opening ceremony along with Israeli athletes, even barring the door and pushing the Israeli athletes off the bus.

The standoff was resolved only when the Olympic Committee sent a separate bus to ferry the Lebanese athletes. "It was anti-Semitism pure and simple," Udi Gal, a member of Israel's Olympic sailing team, noted.

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