Opinion: Despite pressure piling on gymnast’s sturdy shoulders following some of his compatriots’ lackluster performances in Tokyo, one look at the gold medalist’s serene face before beginning his winning routine was a masterclass of composure, focus and determination
Artem Dolgopyat salutes the crowd after his gold medal performance at the Tokyo Olympics(Photo: AFP)
Up until recently, online haters would poke fun at Artem Dolgopyat, likening his name to an alphabet soup. But as the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah, rang through Tokyo and Dolgopyat stood proud on the podium with a gold medal gracing his neck, nobody was laughing at him anymore.
Dolgopyat had a lot to lose in this Olympics. Alongside fellow gymnast Linoy Ashram, he was one of the Israeli delegation’s most promising medal prospects.
As the days went by and Israel’s medal haul remained relatively slim, the pressure kept piling on the gymnast’s sturdy shoulders and he could have easily collapsed under it.
We have seen juggernauts such as gymnast Simone Biles and and tennis player Novak Djokovic experience the mental strain of competing at the highest levels.
Dolgopyat was well aware of everybody’s expectations of him and that even the slightest slip could, Sisyphean-style, flush years of training down the drain. With all that on his mind, he approached the final, taking the nerve-racking moments and distilling them into explosive power.
You don’t have to know very much about gymnastics to understand how demanding, hard and cruel of a sport it is. A gymnast must beat himself, his body and some of the finest competitors in the world – and Dolgopyat managed to score a home run on all fronts.
Not taking away from achievements in other sports, gymnastics is regarded as one of the most important, fascinating and prestigious competitions in the history of the Olympic Games.
Try to name any Olympic champions in sailing or archery. You’ll have quite a hard time doing so without using Google.
Now try to do the same with gymnastics: Nadia Comaneci, Olga Korbut, Mary Lou Retton, Nellie Kim, Aly Raisman, the aforementioned Biles, Mitsuo Tsukahara, Takashi Ono, Vitaly Scherbo, Kohei Uchimura.
I am not saying that Dolgopyat is in the same league as these titans, but they are certainly all playing in the same ballpark.
This is also a virtual medal of honor for all immigrants from former Soviet Union countries, a group that has been so heavily stereotyped, forced to make massive concessions and more than once start anew from the bottom.
Artem Dolgopyat immigrated to Israel from Ukraine at 12 years of age. On Sunday, he stopped a Cabinet meeting and received calls from the prime minister and the president.
His achievement serves as another reminder of this group’s great importance to Israeli society.
And we cannot go about without mentioning the godfather of Israeli gymnastics Alex Shatilov, who kicked open the floodgates and showed everyone that you can conquer unimaginable heights even in sports that aren’t very popular back home.
Alongside Shatilov, we must also give a shout out to Olympic surfer Gal Friedman, who broke Israel’s duck and won the country’s first gold medal in Athens in 2004.
Our athletes and Olympic committee have taken a lot of heat for some lackluster performances, but Dolgopyat’s medal and Taekwondo fighter Avishag Semberg and the judo team’s bronze medals have officially crowned the Tokyo 2020 delegation as the most successful one in Israeli history, and all that even before the exquisite Linoy Ashram takes to the mat.
All the detractors should show some Dolgopyatian modesty and Sembergesque perseverance. For they have a lot to teach us – and not just about gymnastics.