By Ben Cooper
Israel has won a total of nine medals in its Olympic history. None of them have come from the Winter Olympics. Entering the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, Israeli figure skater Alexei Bychenko attempted to become the first to medal as he competed in the men’s single skate program.
Bychenko, ranked No. 9 in the world among male figure skaters by the International Skating Union, showed promise in the earlier team event where he finished second in the men’s single skate short program, earning his team nine points. He finished ahead of No. 4 Mikhail Kolyada of Russia and No. 6 Nathan Chen of the U.S.
Despite Bychenko’s performance, Israel ended with just 13 points after the team event, placing them in eighth out of ten teams and out of medal contention.
On Thursday, Bychenko finished in 13th place after his first single skate with one round to go before the medal winners were decided.
While other skaters performed to classical music or the occasional modern song, Bychenko performed his routine to a popular Israeli folk song, “Hava Nagila.” He had audience members clapping along as he scored an 84.13, good enough to qualify for the final round, but placing him far behind the leaders.
In the second and final round of the men’s competition Friday, Bychenko put in a performance that he only could have dreamed. His career-best score in the combined event was 255.52. He scored a 172.88 on Friday, giving him a total of, and a new career-best of, 257.01. He ended the competition in 11th place.
After his performance, Bychenko dropped to his knees and pumped both his fists in the air, knowing that he had just delivered one of the best skates of his career. He exited the ice wiping away tears and waving to fans who cheered him on.
Bychenko is one of the many Israeli athletes competing at the Olympic games but not born in Israel. He grew up in Kiev, Ukraine and now lives in Hackensack, New Jersey, where he and other Israeli figure skaters train. Only two of the 10 Israeli athletes competing at the games were born in Israel and only one currently resides there.
Some may see this as an issue, but it isn’t unique to Israel. American-born figure skater Alexander Gamelin is representing South Korea after being granted citizenship in 2017.
“The Israeli situation seems to point to the silliness of international competition based on national affiliation,” said Eric Zakim, a Jewish Studies professor at this university. “I’d rather watch Barcelona play Manchester United than Spain vs. England.”
Aryeh Roberts, a freshman philosophy major, believes the eligibility system speaks to a core tenet of Judaism.
“Jews are a united people and not simply disjointed members of a religious group,” said Roberts. “It’s a powerful and important statement to make at the Olympics.”
Aside from figure skating, Israel had its first-ever skeleton competitor. American-born Adam Edelman finished 28th of 30 sliders in the men’s event. Israel also increased its number of athletes from five in 2014 to 10 in 2018.
These accomplishments are reason for optimism when looking forward to Israel’s participation in future Olympics, however, they may not be the best reason to be proud of a country,
“I guess I don’t take so much pride in the Olympics in general,” he said. “It’s a somewhat superficial way to be proud of a country.”