Home / Health / Teddy Riner wins Rio judo gold – but Israeli judoka all class in wake of Egypt handshake snub

Teddy Riner wins Rio judo gold – but Israeli judoka all class in wake of Egypt handshake snub

For most of this day at the Carioca Arena 2, Teddy Riner went through a very simple routine for the 100-plus-kilogram division in the men’s judo.

He appeared at one end of the arena to the deafening chant of “Ole-ole-ole-ole! Teddy! Teddy!”, took his place at the edge of the mat, respectfully bowed to his opponent, grabbed and twisted and flipped and tripped and won his fight, respectfully bowed to his opponent again before walking out the other end of the arena to the deafening chant of “Ole-ole-ole-ole! Teddy! Teddy!”

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He did this with relative ease, it seemed, to the uninitiated eye as he defended his Olympic title from London, winning gold over Japan’s Hisayoshi Harasawa in the final.

They call him “Teddy Bear”. At 140kgs and 203cm, the 27-year-old Frenchman doesn’t look particularly cuddly. His balance – which is everything – has been compared to that of Ali. A documentary on his build-up to these Olympics was shown at the recent Cannes film festival.

Teddy Riner: kind of a big deal, in more ways than one. He was all class in this absorbing, almost hypnotic sports. Others not so much on the final day of the judo competition.

The respectful bow we speak of is important to note because it explains the underlying grace and honour of Judo.

There was nothing graceful or honourable in what we saw when eventual bronze medallist, Or Sasson from Israel, defeated Egyptian rival Islam El Shahaby in the first round.

The Olympics celebrates humanity. With one brief but significant gesture, El Shahaby ruined the party.

Teddy Bear: Frenchman Teddy Riner defended his 2012 London gold medal in judo.
Teddy Bear: Frenchman Teddy Riner defended his 2012 London gold medal in judo. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain

When Sasson won, he approached his opponent, extending his hand. El Shahaby moved away, shunning the approach. He went to leave but was called back by the referee to at least perform the customary bow.

For weeks, El Shehaby, 32, had been reportedly feeling the heat on social media about not even fighting an Israeli. The Jewish state is deeply unpopular in Egypt, the result of decades of war between the two countries.

As Sasson and El Shehaby walked out of the arena, the near-capacity crowd – a rarity at these Olympics – made their feelings known, booing and heckling the Egyptian. One spectator reached over the railing and shouted at him, giving him the big thumbs down.

Disrespectful: Egypt's Islam el-Shehaby, in blue, declines to shake hands with Israel's Or Sasson after losing during the men's over 100-kg judo competition in Rio on Friday.

Disrespectful: Egypt’s Islam El Shehaby, in blue, declines to shake hands with Israel’s Or Sasson after losing during the men’s over 100-kg judo competition in Rio on Friday. Photo: AP

Afterwards, in the mixed zone, I approached Israel’s press attaché and asked if Sasson would discuss the incident.

“This is sport,” she angrily snapped back. “If he did not want to shake hands that is the Egyptian’s fault, not ours. Why would he want to talk about that?”

After winning the bronze medal, Sasson was asked about the moment which lit up social media.

“I am a professional and when I fight I only think about fighting,” he said. “If there is a chance he did not shake my hand. I grew up, Judo is first of all about deeply respecting your opponent. First of all, it was a bit weird. For me, I know I fight until the end in every fight.”

After he claimed bronze, he hugged his Cuban opponent, Alex Garcia Mendoza. In the meantime, El Shehaby announced he was quitting the sport.

The drama earlier in the day could not dull the love for Teddy Bear after winning gold. The arena was heavy with French supporters, rivalled only by Brazilians cheering on Rafael Silva.

Golden touch: Teddy Riner.

Golden touch: Teddy Riner. Photo: Elsa

Judo is a fascinating sport. This division featured enormous beasts, some with the build of large footballers, others with the build of Tony Soprano, and to the untrained eye – sitting in the last row of the press tribune – it looked like two drunk blokes having a fight but wrestling each other instead of throwing a punch.

Of course, it’s much more than that.

In Japanese, the word judo means “the way of suppleness”. It refers to the story of the tree branch bending under the weight of the snow and not breaking. In these five minute bouts, there is no gentle breaking or bending. It has more to do with balance, grip of your opponent and trying to lever him or her off their axis.

To that end, the Teddy Bear looked superb. It couldn’t have hurt that he appeared to be a far more superior physical specimen than the rest of the competition.

He had to beat Sasson to reach the final, and then accounted for Harasawa with relative ease.

“Today I had good sensation,” Riner said afterwards. “For every competition I feel a little pressure. But the pressure is good for a big day.”

Then he was asked about the incident involving Sasson and El Shahaby. He deflected like he was still on the mat.

“Or Sasson is a very good fighter and the last fight with him was very hard and I knew that,” Riner said. “I have a lot of respect for Or and Rafael Silva. I am not the only champion here, all four of us are champions.”

Ole-ole-ole-ole! Teddy! Teddy!

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