Israeli leaders on Sunday phoned gymnast Artem Dolgopyat to congratulate him on winning the country’s second-ever Olympic gold medal, as the stunned athlete said he had been convinced the top prize slipped out of his grasp during what he described as an imperfect routine.
Speaking to reporters after the medal ceremony, Dolgopyat said he was “speechless.”
“I’m still in the sky and it’s hard to come down,” he said, thanking supporters in Israel and saying, “I love you all.”
“I didn’t do my best routine… and I was worried it wouldn’t be enough for a medal… but everyone else was nervous and made mistakes and it was enough,” he said.
Watch the winning routine here.
“The truth is that I didn’t do the exercise very clean or very good and I was really stressed,” he added in an interview with the Haaretz daily. “I thought it wasn’t enough. In the middle of the third stretch, I thought, ‘That’s it, I lost it all,’ but I got a grip and told myself, ‘You’re finishing this and doing it well and you’ll be in the top three.’”
The government paused its weekly cabinet meeting after Dolgopyat beat out tough Spanish and Chinese competition in the artistic gymnastics floor exercise competition to take the top spot on the Tokyo 2020 podium. Ministers spontaneously burst into applause upon hearing the news.
“You made history. We stopped the cabinet meeting in the middle because you made this wonderful news. In the name of the government and people of Israel, we’re all proud of you. We’re waiting to welcome you home and to celebrate,” Bennett told him by phone.
“I’m really pleased that I made my dream come true and represented Israel with honor,” the Olympics star replied.
Dolgopyat President Isaac Herzog also rushed to congratulate, telling him by phone: “Artem, you made history. Do you realize you’re the number 1 in the world? We’re very emotional. I congratulate you from the bottom of my heart on behalf of all Israelis.”
Dolgopyat replied: “Thank you. I’m very happy that all of Israel saw it, and I did it for all of Israel, and I’m proud to represent Israel.”
Dolgopyat, a 24-year-old two-time world championship silver medalist who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine at the age of 12, was considered Israel’s best hope for a gold medal at this year’s Games.
His final round routine Sunday impressed judges, scoring 14.933, a total that was ahead of Spain’s Rayderley Miguel Zapata, who took silver, and China’s Xiao Ruoteng, who won bronze.
After Russian team gold winner Nikita Nagornyy was marked down after over-rotating and stumbling on his trademark triple pike tumble, Zapata looked destined for the title.
But Dolgopyat turned the Spaniard’s gold into silver when his routine matched Zapata’s score of 14.933, and with their execution mark also the same, it went down to the difficulty level, with Dolgopyat taking the title by just 0.100.
Dolgopyat had ranked first in the qualifying event after scoring 15.2.
The gold medal is only the second in Israeli history, following windsurfer Gal Friedman’s 2004 win in Athens.
Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva, rang out as the Israeli gymnast accepted his medal to huge applause.
Asked how an athlete celebrates winning a gold medal, he said, “It’s my first so I don’t know yet.”
Also taking part in a final Sunday will be Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko, who will compete in the women’s triple jump medal fight at 2:15 p.m. Israel time.
Earlier Sunday, Noya Bar Am and Shahar Tibi competed in windsurfing in the women’s 470 races 7 and 8, finishing in eighth place.
Israel’s Yoav Cohen finished in first place in the Men’s RS:X Windsurfing final race on Saturday, but it was not enough to put him on the podium, as he came in fourth overall.
Early Sunday, at around 4 a.m. in Israel, Adva Cohen took part in the women’s 3,000m steeplechase qualification race, but finished last.
Saturday saw Israel clinch its second medal of the games, winning the judo mixed team bronze. The team scored a victory over their Russian opponents in the consolation round of an event being held for the first time this year.
Also Saturday, Israeli archer Itay Shanny’s surprise Olympic run ended when he lost in the last eight in the men’s individual competition after a dramatic shoot-off was needed to separate him from eventual victor Tang Chih-chun. He had placed 60th out of 64 competitors in the initial ranking round.
Israel’s swimmers also finished 8th in the Olympic debut of the 4×100-meter mixed medley relay after a strong display to make the final.
Avishag Semberg’s taekwondo bronze in the women’s -49kg category last week was Israel’s first medal at the games until the mixed team’s win.
See the full Olympics schedule for Israel’s athletes here.
AP contributed to this report.