Inside Israel

Israel’s small but proud Olympic delegation takes aim at the Beijing Winter Games

When the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics kicks off in Beijing on Friday, just six athletes will march under the Israeli flag, a drop from the 10 that competed in Pyeongchang in 2018.

Israel has never won a medal at the Winter Olympics – in which it has competed every games since 1994 – and that’s not expected to change in 2022. But the six Olympians this year – none of whom were born in the Jewish state – bring with them a range of experiences, stories and a sense of pride to be representing Israel on the international stage, competing in figure skating, speed skating and alpine skiing.

“We have a very high-quality and experienced delegation,” said Yaniv Ashkenazi, the head of Israel’s delegation to the Winter Games and director of the Elite Sport Department at the Israel Olympic Committee, during a December press conference. “We have a lot of hopes and expectations that our athletes will be good, will be healthy, and we’ll hope for the best.”

Yael Arad, the president of the Israel Olympic Committee and an Olympic silver medalist in judo, said Israel’s delegation to Beijing is not large, but it is impressive.

“We’re sending a very small delegation,” said Arad. “We want them to succeed, we believe in our athletes, we have athletes who are strong contenders for finals, in three different disciplines… we’re always striving as high as possible.”

When it comes to Jewish athletes competing in Beijing from around the world – including the US and Canada – a medal finish just might be in the cards.

Barnabas Szollos speeds down the course during a men’s giant slalom, at the alpine ski World Championships, in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, Feb. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Marco Tacca)

Israel has not said that it will join in a diplomatic boycott of the Games, which the US, Canada, the UK and other nations are taking part in to protest China’s brutal policies, in particular the Uyghur genocide. But Culture Minister Chili Tropper will not be attending — though he did attend the Games in Tokyo last year — citing concerns over the Omicron COVID wave.

Racing downhill

Siblings Noa Szollos – who turns 19 a day before the opening ceremony – and Barnabas Szollos, 23, will represent Israel in alpine skiing at the games, each making their Olympic debut.

The siblings were both born in Hungary to Peter Szollos, who became a naturalized Israeli citizen in the 1990s to compete and later coach for Israel’s national team. They will be competing in multiple alpine skiing events at the 2022 Games, and arrive with a lifetime of skiing experience, having taken to the slopes as small children.

At the 2020 Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, Noa took home a silver in the combined event and a bronze in the Super-G. At the 2016 Youth Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, Barnabas – at the time representing Hungary – finished 7th in the slalom. Last year, at the world championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, Barnabas’s best event was a 13th-place finish in the combined, while Noa came 32nd in the giant slalom.

The pair don’t compete directly against each other, but the siblings – whose older brother, Benjamin, also skis competitively – combine familial support with friendly competition.

“We can support each other and we will have the competition between each other,” Barnabas told the Forward last month.

“We’ve been training really hard especially in the [giant slalom]. It’s currently my best discipline, and I’m really hoping to get into the top 30,” said Noa in an interview with i24 from Austria last year. “It would definitely be a huge accomplishment for me.”

Noa and Barnabas Szollos (Amit Shisel/Israel Olympic Committee)

The IOC’s Ashkenazi said Noa is “a young and talented athlete. She’s very young, competing in a field where younger athletes typically have a harder time… but it’ll be an incredible professional experience for her, and we hope she’ll do well.”

Ashkenazi said he hopes to see Barnabas end up in the top half of the Olympic alpine skiers, “which would be a very impressive achievement for skiing for Israel, in a field that is so not Israeli.”

Hitting the ice together

Two-time Olympic pairs figure skater Evgeni Krasnopolski, 33, will be hitting the ice again in Beijing this year, this time paired up with newcomer Hailey Kops, 19. The duo are one of just 19 pairs of figure skaters from around the world competing in Beijing, and are hoping to make it to the final rounds.

“I dreamed of it; I always hoped I would get there,” Kops told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “It’s crazy, it’s an amazing opportunity and I’m thankful to my team for being able to give me the opportunity.”

Evgeni Krasnopolski and Hailey Kops at Israel’s national championships, December 1, 2021. (Amit Shisel/Israel Olympic Committee)

Krasnopolski said he is “very proud to represent Israel for the third time [at the Olympics]. Any time the Israeli flag is waving is a huge sense of pride for me.”

Krasnopolski, a native of Ukraine who moved to Israel as a toddler, and Kops, who grew up in the US and became an Israeli citizen in order to compete for the Jewish state, both train in New Jersey.

Kops, who grew up in a religious home and does not train or drive on Shabbat, only teamed up with Krasnopolski last summer, and the pair qualified for a spot at the Olympics by finishing fifth overall at the 2021 CS Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany in September after just three months of training together.

Third time lucky

Rounding out Israel’s Olympic delegation to Beijing are two athletes both returning for their third games: figure skater Alexei Bychenko and speed skater Vladislav Bykanov.

Israel’s Alexei Bychenko competes in the figure skating team event men’s single skating short program during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Gangneung Ice Arena in Gangneung on February 9, 2018. (AFP /Mladen ANTONOV)

Bychenko, 33, a native of Ukraine, became an Israeli citizen in 2010, while Bykanov, 32, moved to Israel as a child from the former Soviet Union.

Bykanov will compete in the 500m, 1000m and 1500m races in the short track speed skating in Beijing. His best finish at the 2014 Olympics was 19th in the 500m, and at the 2018 Games he finished 26th in the 500m. At the 2020 European Short Track Speed Skating Championships, he took home a bronze medal in the 1500m race.

At a press conference in December at the ice rink in Holon, Bykanov said it was “a great honor to represent the State of Israel. We’ll perform to the best of our abilities at the Olympics in Beijing, and we’ll hope only for the best.”

Ashkenazi said the IOC “definitely expects [Bykanov] to get to the finals, especially in the longer distances, where he dominates.”

Vladislav Bykanov races for Israel during the men’s 1,500 meters at a World Cup short track speedskating event Nov. 11, 2016, at the Utah Olympic Oval, in Kearns, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

This is also the third Olympics for Bychenko, who trains in New Jersey. He finished 21st overall at the 2014 Games in Sochi, and 11th at the 2018 Olympics.

“I’m really happy and excited to represent myself and Israel at my third Olympic Games,” Bychenko said.

“We expect him to be in the top 24. We’re excited to watch and see what he’ll do,” said Ashkenazi.

Around the world

One of the most prominent Jewish athletes set to compete in Beijing is Jason Brown, 27, an American figure skater who won a bronze in the team event at the 2014 Olympics when he was just 19.

Jason Brown competes in the men’s free skate program during the US Figure Skating Championships Jan. 9, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Brown failed to qualify for the 2018 Games, but over the past few years has cemented his place as one of the best US male figure skaters, winning silver at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in 2020 and a team silver in the ISU World Team Trophy last year.

In Beijing, Brown will free skate to “Schindler’s List,” performed by Itzhak Perlman. “The music is so powerful, so moving, and so important,” Brown told a figure skating news site in November. “I want to do it justice and perform it very respectfully.”

Further north, the Canadian men’s hockey team at this year’s Olympics features three Jewish athletes: Jason Demers, 33, Devon Levi, 20, and Josh Ho-Sang, 26.

Active players in the NHL are not allowed to participate in the 2022 Games, paving the way for a roster of other lesser-known athletes to compete.

New York Islanders center Josh Ho-Sang (66) controls the puck against Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim (57) in the second period of a preseason NHL hockey game in New York., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Ho-Sang, who previously played for the New York Islanders, currently plays for the Toronto Marlies, while Demers plays for a team based in Kazan, Russia. Levi, who attended Jewish school as a child, is currently studying at Northeastern University and playing for the Northeastern Huskies.

Canada, which is sending 215 athletes to the 2022 Games, second only to the US, is considered a strong medal contender in men’s hockey.

Rounding out the Jewish athletes competing in Beijing are American snowboarder Taylor Gold, US speedskater Emery Lehman, and David Warsofsky, competing on the US hockey team.

JTA contributed to this report.

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