Golden Moments

Strong messages as Israel joins Tunisia in striking gold in Tokyo

By David E. Kaplan

Are you watching?” I read the WhatsApp from my brother, “Israel has taken gold.”


I switch channels from Covid to the coveted gold by Israeli gymnast Artem Dolgopyat, whom I had never heard of but who makes history by being Israel’s second-ever Olympic gold medalist. He beat out the tough Spanish and Chinese competition in the artistic gymnastics floor exercise competition to take the top spot on the Tokyo 2020 podium.

All of Israel erupted in joy and jubilation.

Blue and White Strikes Gold. The jubilant gold winner, Artem Dolgopyat, proudly parades his Israeli flag before the world in Tokyo.

If this was a surprise coming out of the Middle East,  another was the even more surprising gold won by – TUNISIA!

Who was expecting this, after all, these days, Tunisia spells trouble!

The recent news emanating from this north African Mediterranean country is far removed from anything to do with sport. The country’s Prime Minister, Hichem Mechichi, was in mid-July – only days before the start of the Olympics – physically assaulted in the presidential palace before ‘agreeing’ to resign from his post.

Surprise in Lane 8. Tunisian teen Ahmed Hafnaoui jubilant after winning gold in the men’s 400m freestyle at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (Photo credit: Twitter/@fina1908)

“Agreeing” ? What a misnomer. This was power grab – a coup!

Ten years after the Arab Spring – the revolution that began in Tunisia with the overthrow of its long-time dictator Zain Abidin bin Ali – the country has been plagued by large-scale protests against its political class with the people angry about escalating economic difficulties and the nearly collapsed medical system due to the coronavirus pandemic. To this day, the country has still not yet consolidated its new democratic constitution, nor has it established tangible changes for the majority of its citizens.

So, with the news coming out of Tunisia, few would have had their eyes – outside patriotic Tunisians – on lane 8 where a mostly unknown Tunisian teenager was about to dive for the start of the 400 metres freestyle at the Tokyo Games. However, he was about to also dive into history as the eyes of the world were on that Tunisian teenager,  Ahmed Hafnaoui, at the finish!

Hafnaoui was the stunning winner, beating a field of faster and older swimmers.

As Michael Holmes on CNN reported:

 “He surprised his competitors, the sporting world and even himself.”  

Afterall, 18 year-old Ahmed Hafnaoui was the youngest  and slowest qualifier for the men’s 400 metres freestyle. “He was the longest of longshots,” continued Holmes on CNN, “but he held off the favourites to take the gold. Even more stunning, he did it from the outside lane.”

Even the great Michael Phelps called the performance, “an unbelievable swim.”

On his return to Tunisia, neighbours poured out in the street to greet the new “Golden Boy” and as one man said that seeing him touch that wall first, was a win for everyone. “Interviewed in the street, he said, “When I was watching, I cannot tell you how we felt at this final moment; this is the feeling of every Tunisian.”

The gold medalist said he“shivers when I heard the national anthem,” he says. This is understandable. His fellow countrymen too felt shivers.

Tunisia’s new media star, quickly proved a welcome distraction for a country suffering from a struggling economy and an escalating political crisis. Here was the underdog going from lane 8 to the top of the podium.

If the image of Tunisia in 2010 was that of a fruit and vegetable vendor setting himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid and triggering the Arab Spring, the image today for Tunisians is of an 18 year-old Tunisian standing on the podium receiving the 2020 Tokyo Olympics gold.

The country today still remains in “the outside lane”  but as Ahmed Hafnaoui has shown, with will and determination, you can inspire and help change course and plot fresh destinies.

Good as Gold. Israeli gymnast Artem Dolgopyat salutes the crowd after his gold medal performance at the Tokyo Olympics (Photo: AFP)

Israel’s Olympic gold medalist, too returned to a hero’s welcome. With the blast of a shofar (rams horn) and a spray of champagne, Artem Dolgopyat was welcomed at Ben Gurion Airport. Earlier at a press conference in Kokyo, Dolgopyat said he was already thinking about the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Hero’s Welcome. Displaying his gold medal, Artem Dolgopyat, poses for a photo with friends during a welcome ceremony at Ben-Gurion International Airport on August 3, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

We’re not going to stop, we’re going to move forward with our focus on Paris and get ready for that and bring honor to the country,” he said.

It’s a tough road. At an Olympics where we saw such juggernauts such as gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Novak Djokovic experience the mental strain of competing at the highest levels, one look at the Israel’s Artem Dolgopyat’s serene face before beginning his winning routine, “was a masterclass of composure, focus and determination,” observed Ynet journalist Raz Shechni.

Hand in to Them. Team Israel celebrates winning the judo mixed team’s bronze medal B bout against Russia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo, on July 31, 2021. (Franck Fife/AFP)

A Silver Lining

However for Israelis, there was another ‘golden’ moment even if the medal was not won by Israel nor was it even gold. With already two bronze medals under Israel’s belt – for taekwondo martial artist Avishag Semberg in the women’s category; and a mixed team in judo, it was the message conveyed by Saeid Mollaei, the former Iranian judoka now representing Mongolia, who created another “golden Moment”. This he achieved by dedicating his silver medal in the final of the men’s 81-kilogram division to Israel as a message of friendship and camaraderie.

Beauty and the Bronze. Avishag Semberg celebrates the bronze medal in Taekwondo  at the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo: Amit Shissel, courtesy of the Israel Olympic Committee)

This  was Mollaei’s first Olympic medal, two years after he left his native Iran after revealing that his national team coaches had ordered him to lose in the semifinals of the 2019 World Championships in Tokyo to avoid facing Israel’s Sagi Muki in the final. Mollaei subsequently moved to Germany and then acquired Mongolian citizenship. Since then; the former Iranian Mollaei and the Israeli Muki have become the best of friends.

Silver for Saeid. Former Iranian, Saeid Mollaei now of Mongolia, celebrates with his silver medal during the award ceremony for the men -81kg judo match at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

There may be no gold beneath the surface in the Middle East,  however above, we do find it in people like Said Mollaei who cut across boundaries and borders to point the way forward to the politicians.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).