LONDON (Reuters) - Despite bowing out at what he described as a nadir of his career at the London Olympics on Thursday, Israeli judoka Ariel Zeevi has been feted at home as a hero who will inspire others to follow in his footsteps.
The European men’s under-100kg men’s judo champion had hoped to retire on a high but the Israeli was crushed by German Dimitri Peters, who pinned him down within seconds of the start of the last-32 bout and ended it by ippon after 43 seconds.
The German went on to win a bronze medal, leaving the Israeli stunned after what he described as a complete failure.
“I still don’t know what happened ... It’s a huge disappointment,” a tearful Zeevi told reporters.
Yael Arad, a former judoka and Israel’s first Olympic medalist, wrote on Friday that Zeevi - nicknamed Arik - is the Israeli that “we all love to love”.
“Through his endearing modesty ... he has captivated the heart of the nation ... he cannot be judged by his current performances but thanks to his personality and the successes he has had throughout his career,” Arad wrote on the Ynet Hebrew web site www.ynet.co.il
Israeli President Shimon Peres, who often calls athletes to congratulate them on their successes, was this time on the phone consoling Zeevi and telling him that from his own experience in politics, disappointment was not the end.
“Arik, you have had many victories and brought much honor but sometimes we are struck by defeat. The true measure is not to be downhearted, I know this from my own life. Be proud of your achievements and now go on and inspire others to follow you,” Israel’s 89-year-old elder statesman told Zeevi.
Zeevi’s defeat effectively spelled the end of an illustrious career which has seen the 35-year-old win Olympic bronze in Athens, nine European championship medals including four golds, and a world championship silver in the open category.
“I have reenacted many scenarios throughout my career in my head, many happy, some sad.” he said. “I could never have imagined the Olympic chapter in my career would be ended in under a minute. I made a mistake and I paid the price, but my opponent took advantage and made the most of it.”
Zeevi has been dubbed as Israel’s best Olympic sportsman on land despite his modest Games achievements - he also failed in Beijing and did not win a medal in Sydney - but he has been seen as a great role model for his successors.
Scores of Israeli fans had timed their visit to London to watch Zeevi but his early exit extinguished their plans to celebrate with their favorite Olympic son and they barely had a chance to muster a cheer.
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