Ori Sasson’s bronze medal win in the 2016 Olympics, Linoy Ashram’s medals at the World Championships in 2019, and Artem Dolgopyat’s gold medal in floor gymnastics at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics are some of Israel’s recent iconic sporting successes.
Many of the beautiful and impactful pictures of those events, the ones which are embedded in our minds, were taken by Oren Aharoni, a photographer and writer for Ynet.
Aharoni’s passion for photography began while he was serving in the Israeli army. He stumbled into sports photography and journalism when he went as a photographer with a reporter friend to a 2006 tennis competition in Paris. Although he never studied journalism or photography, he began writing for Ynet, and after a month they were so impressed that they offered him a full-time position.
Aharoni is well aware of the importance of “taking pictures of Israel’s history.” He knows he is one of the few who have the opportunity to capture the unique feelings and experiences of Israeli athletes and their fans. At the 2015 European Judo Championships, he had the honor of photographing Sagi Muki as he won a gold medal. “To be there hearing 30 or 40 Israelis singing Hatikvah, there was no way to prevent the tears, even when taking pictures,” he said.
Aharoni covers many local Israeli sporting events and before corona, he would travel several times a year to cover Israeli athletes competing around the world. But for Aharoni, the Olympics are the most exciting event to attend. “It is fun to be there and photograph history, being close to the athletes and seeing their reactions to every victory. There is nothing like it.”
Aharoni was the only Ynet journalist and photographer at this summer’s Olympic games. Despite constantly running from event to event he was able to take 8,000 pictures and write 124 online articles and 47 printed articles. And although he didn’t sleep for two weeks, Aharoni said, “this was an experience I will remember my entire life. I was able to photograph and write about the best Olympics in Israel’s history with four medals. I had tears in my eyes while I heard Hatikvah played at two gold medal ceremonies.”
In addition to his ability to take beautiful pictures, Aharoni has an encyclopedic knowledge of Israeli sports. He knows the ins and outs of each sport, its rules, as well as the stories of each athlete.
During my lunch with Aharoni we watched the 12 Israeli athletes competing at the Judo Grand Slam in Antalya, Turkey. Aharoni explained the rules of the competition and shared the story of each Israeli competitor. He was filled with pride and had a huge big-brother-like smile across his face as Gili Cohen, Li Kochman and Shira Rishoni won bronze medals. We both might have shed a tear hearing the Hatikvah play after Roz Hershkow’s gold medal win.
Aharoni believes that there is immense room for growth and improvement within Israeli sports. The Israeli government allocates money for each sport based on its popularity. Unfortunately, the funding provided for most sports is not sufficient to sustain athlete participation and training that enables athletes to reach the necessary skill level for international competition. This causes Israel to miss out on having athletes represent her in many sports.
Aharoni feels, instead of only focusing on the most popular sports in Israel—judo, gymnastics, basketball and soccer—“if community centers introduce all Olympic sports to children from a young age and school gym classes teach students how to play all Olympic sports, it will increase overall interest in sports and cause the government realize the need to invest more money into sports.”
The army’s Sportai program, where one fulfills his or her army service through improving the sport of choice in Israel and representing Israel in international competitions, is also ready for a face lift. Currently the sportaim are dispersed throughout a variety of units in the army with no singular officer from whom they can request permission to compete internationally. This limits their ability to perform their duty of representing Israel in international sport competitions. Aharoni feels that “there has to be one unit for all sportaim, with a commander who understands their specific needs and will provide them with time to properly train for and compete in international competitions.”
If forced to choose a favorite sport, Aharoni would choose judo because he has been able to spend the most time covering and traveling with those athletes and coaches. However, gymnastics and swimming come in as a close second.
Aharoni grew up and lives in Petach Tikva. He takes pride in knowing that his fellow Israelis see the impact they have in Israel. “Israeli athletes are still humble after they win because they know where they came from and who they are representing,” he said. “That is what makes them different from the rest of the world.”
To keep up with everything happening in Israeli sports, within Israel and abroad, search Oren Aharoni-olympic sports & photographer on Facebook, @Oren_Aharoni on Twitter, and “@Oren_Aharoni_Photagrapher” on Instagram.
Danielle Barta grew up in Teaneck, and made aliyah to Jerusalem following her graduation from Rutgers University. She teaches English at colleges in Jerusalem and has been involved in both formal and informal education for a variety of organizations. Barta believes that important life skills and lessons are often not ones learned in the classroom, but can be learned from team sports.