History-making Israeli baseball team qualifies for 2020 Olympics
National squad wins tournament to become one of only six countries that will play for gold in Tokyo.
With a decisive 11-1 win over South Africa at an international tournament in Italy on Sunday, the Israeli baseball team entered the history books, as they have successfully scored a spot to compete at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. This will mark the first time that Israel has ever had a baseball team at the Olympic Games.
There will only be six baseball teams competing at next year's Summer Games, giving Israel a 50% chance of medaling at the event.
After a successful outing last week at a tournament in Germany, the Israeli baseball team traveled to Italy this weekend for a round-robin event with high hopes and a decent ranking, but nobody expected them to beat almost every team they played – Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and South Africa.
The upstart team now has less than a year to prepare for the Olympics, which open on July 24, 2020. Peter Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball and general manager of Team Israel, told us the roster for the Olympic squad is not yet locked in. Kurz is hopeful that he can get Dean Kremer – the first Israeli to be drafted by Major League Baseball – to re-join the team next year. "We're still trying to get him," Kurz said. "He would be a huge addition for us."
Before this month's tournaments, Israel was ranked No. 19 in the world, but that statistic will certainly now rise. The 2020 Olympics will mark a return for baseball, which was absent from the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Cuba has won the most gold medals – three – since the sport was introduced at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. The last time baseball was played at the Olympics, in 2008, South Korea took home the gold medal. "Let's put it this way," Kurz told us. "When baseball was last in the Olympics, I'm not sure if baseball was even in Israel then."
The team has started to make waves in recent years. At the 2017 World Baseball Classic, the Israeli team stunned the international baseball community with four straight wins, bringing a sense of history to the tournament. The Israeli team beat Korea in extra innings, shocked Chinese Taipei, defeated Cuba and played the Netherlands (twice!) before falling to Japan in their final game. ESPN dubbed the underdog Israeli team as "essentially the Mighty Ducks, Hickory High and the Jamaican bobsled team all rolled into one.” That winning season is now the subject of a new documentary called "Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel."
With less than a year to go until Tokyo, Israel has been building up its bona fides for its Olympic squad – in sports as diverse as equestrian to sailing. Track and Field athlete Lonah Chemtai Salpeter broke a European record for the women’s 10K this summer and plans to compete next year. Earlier this month, Sagi Muki won the gold medal at the International Judo Federation's World Championships. Just this past week, rhythmic gymnast Linoy Ashram won six medals at the 2019 World Championships in Baku.
David Wiseman is the co-founder of Follow Team Israel, a popular Facebook group that shares the stories of Israeli athletes. "When Israel's baseball team keeps winning, people may get the wrong impression and think their accomplishments are easy. But this couldn't be further from the truth," Wiseman told From The Grapevine after Sunday's win. "What they did was impossible until it wasn't. What they did at the World Baseball Classic was unbelievable and they've just followed that with quite the encore!"
He added: "Besides being great baseball players, they're also great guys. They should be an example to each other athlete of what is impossible."
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