With the belated Tokyo Olympics officially opening on July 23, 2021, here are some Jewish (and Jewish Canadian!) athletes to keep an eye on.
Sharon Fichman (tennis)
Inactive from May 2016 to April 2018, Fichman has returned with a bang from a semi-retirement caused by multiple injuries to her ankle and knee. While her career as a singles player topped out at a ranking of 77, she had some significant success as a doubles player, winning the Auckland Open in 2014 along with partner Maria Sanchez. Since her return and her focus on doubles competition in what she has called “Part 2” of her tennis career, she has gone on to win three more WTA doubles titles, including the Italian Open in May 2021. She will now represent Canada at the Olympic Games in a comeback story for the ages.
Sharon will be playing alongside Gabriela Dabrowski (we checked—she’s Polish, not Jewish) in the womens doubles competition as the #7 seeded pair.
And here’s a fun fact: Fichman’s fiancé is Dylan Moscovitch, silver medalist pairs figure skater at the 2014 Sochi Games. Win or lose at these Olympics, they will remain Canada’s greatest (only?) Jewish sports power couple.
Eli Schenkel and Shaul Gordon (fencing)
Schenkel will be participating on Canada’s foil team, while Gordon will compete in the individual sabre event.
Schenkel runs S-Class Fencing, a fencing school in Richmond, B.C., along with his brother Joseph. As he recounted on a recent episode of Menschwarmers, our Jewish sports podcast, he and his brother signed up for fencing as children after their mom grew concerned her boys were growing fat from lack of physical activity. He figured fencing was the closest thing he could find to duelling with a lightsaber.
Gordon is a recent law school graduate and won two medals at the 2019 Pan American games.
Fencing, perhaps the most COVID-friendly sport (masks, distance), has a significant Jewish history, as well. Multiple Hungarian fencing champions who dominated the sport at early Olympic Games were Jews, and much of the current proliferation of the sport in North America is due to Soviet Jews who have started fencing schools after immigrating.
Samantha Smith (trampoline)
Smith will be heading to Tokyo as the reigning Pan American Games champion. She previously attended the 2012 London Games as an alternate and is poised to compete in this tournament’s trampoline competition alongside Rosie MacLennan, Canada’s two-time reigning gold-medalist in the discipline. This could be the year that Canada places two on the trampoline podium as Smith has continually pushed the envelope in terms of the difficulty of her routine.
Sue Bird (basketball)
She is, as we like like to say on our podcast, the GOAT worth much more than two zuzim.
Bird, a 12-time WNBA all-star, will be seeking her fifth gold medal in what will likely be her last Olympics. She has been chosen as the female flag-bearer for the U.S. Olympic team and will be the first Jewish athlete to carry the American flag at the opening ceremonies. She will also be cheering on her fiancée, USWNT star Megan Rapinoe.
Artem Dolgopyat (gymnastics)
Dolgopyat, who was born in Ukraine and moved to Israel at age 12, represents one of Israel’s best opportunities for a medal at the Tokyo Games. He won the 2020 European Championship in the floor exercise and has two silvers at the 2017 and 2019 World Championships. Dolgopyat will be making his Olympic debut at Tokyo.
Matthew Levy (paralympic swimming)
Levy will be competing in his fifth Paralympic Games in Tokyo in the S7 classification. Levy has cerebral palsy and a vision impairment caused due to premature birth. He was born in Sydney and has been awarded the Order of Australia. Levy will be looking to add to the seven Paralympic medals already sitting in his trophy case.
Team Israel Baseball
In Philip Roth’s seminal work, Portnoy’s Complaint, the narrator embarks on a dreamlike trip to Israel, marvelling that “all the people I see—passengers, stewardesses, ticket sellers, porters, pilots, taxi drivers—are Jews.” Many a Jewish sports fan has named with pride the Jewish sports heroes who have occasionally graced their favourite teams. But here, all the players—the first baseman, the shortstop, the catcher, the closer—are Jews.
After a whirlwind World Baseball Classic in 2017 in which the Israeli team finished sixth, the squad managed to win a 2019 qualifying event to become one of the six teams competing in the Olympics. Largely made up of American players who obtained Israeli citizenship by way of the Law of Return, the Israeli baseball team has been barnstorming through the Northeastern U.S. to prepare for Tokyo. Since it is a small tournament of only six teams, there is a strong chance for Israel to medal.
Menschwarmers podcast episodes: