The Column: Golden or not, all Olympians deserve a big mazel tov

The headline said it all: “Disappointing finish.” That’s how Ynetnews described Israeli gymnast Alex Shatilov’s sixth place in the men’s individual floor exercises last week in London.

“One of Israel’s finest gymnasts,” mourned the commentator. And yet so … disappointing.

Let’s take a look at Shatilov’s performance. His 15.333 final score trailed the gold-medal winner by 0.6 of a point. The guy was sixth best in the world, for heaven’s sake. And for that he’s slapped down as “disappointing?”

Welcome to the world of competitive sports. As American football coach Vince Lombardi once pointed out,  “If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?”

The brutal reality is, most Olympic competitors don’t finish first. Of the 10,500 athletes at this year’s London Olympics, fewer than 300 took home medals. The others had, it must be presumed, “disappointing” finishes.

And that can lead to shame, anger and emotional scars.

“Winning is celebrated but the pain of loss is very significant,” a noted sports physician told the BBC last week. “The shame and pressure of losing is a very strong emotion that athletes deal with for their entire careers.”

For most of our history, Jews have had a fraught relationship with sports. Chalk it up to genetics, oppression, a cultural preference for studying, whatever — the fact is, noted Jewish athletes were the exception, and they weren’t always admired.

There was just one real athlete in the Bible — Samson — and look what happened to him.

It was only with the mass Jewish immigration to America a century ago that Jews made their first serious mark in athletics. And even then, it was often a youthful distraction. Witness Phil King, considered by many (Jews, probably) one of the finest U.S. athletes of the 19th century. Captain of Princeton’s football and baseball teams from 1890 to 1893, he graduated as the class salutatorian and became what? A lawyer.

The first half of the 20th century saw a groundswell of Jewish American athletes, with boxers, baseball stars and basketball players leading the way. It was no coincidence that these were urban sports, popular on the streets of Brooklyn, Chicago, Detroit and other major cities where most Jews lived.

Hebrew boxers in the 1930s, such as world champions Max Baer and “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom, sent a generation of Jewish boys into the ring. Hank Green-berg four times slugged 40 or more home runs in a season, and pitcher Sandy Koufax cemented the American Jewish love affair with baseball. Eighty and 90 years ago, basketball was the game of choice among Jewish immigrant kids, some of whom grew up to become the sport’s earliest stars.

Even at the Olympics, Jews have been scoring victories since 1896, when six Jewish athletes took home 13 medals, nine of them gold. But few attained star status. U.S. swimmer Dara Torres, whose 12 medals in five Olympic games make her the most decorated Jewish Olympian ever, is not as well known as American swimmer Mark Spitz, whose seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games shone less brightly in the wake of the horrific massacre of 11 Israeli athletes.

Israeli Olympic medals are even more rare. When windsurfer Gal Fridman won Israel’s first Olympic gold medal ever at the 2004 Athens Games, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called to congratulate him — it was that big a deal. And a few days earlier, when judoko Arik Ze’evi took home the bronze, “cries of joy could be heard from salons and cafés across the country,” according to JTA.

Were there any cries of joy for Alex Shatilov? There should have been.

Last week, a British swimmer, berated for winning only a bronze, told reporters, “This isn’t losing, this is winning.” She’s absolutely right.

Israeli Yakov Toumarkin? Seventh in the men’s 200-meter backstroke, the best finish ever for an Israeli Olympic swimmer. He’s a winner.

Israeli women’s windsurfer Lee Korzits? Ninth in the medal race and sixth in the overall standings. Also a winner.

Cal’s own Anthony Ervin? Fifth in the 50-meter men’s freestyle, plus he coaches Oakland kids at a community pool. Definitely a winner.

So with all due respect to gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman and silver medal swimmer Jason Lezak, every one of these Jewish Olympians deserves a big mazel tov.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at