The Saudi football league has made headlines in the past year with astronomical budgets and flashy signings such as Ronaldo. The history recorded there in the past week, however, was far from the media's eye. And maybe on purpose, from both sides. This is what happened when, for the first time, an Israeli weightlifting team took part in an official competition on Saudi Arabian soil, in the world championship held in the capital, Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, and the entry of an official sports team wearing blue and white into the country is a very rare event, which has taken place only a few times in the past. The Israeli weightlifters also kept the matter on the down low.
"We didn't want any 'hostile' figure to sabotage our visit," says David Litvinov, Israel's top weightlifter, in an exclusive interview with Ynet. "We didn't post anything on social media, the Shin Bet asked us not to create any kind of buzz. It was beautiful and fun, but the situation was still sensitive and tense. Happily, everything went smoothly."
Did you have many worries before the trip? "We knew about the location of the competition a few months in advance, but there is no doubt that there was a lot of concern on the part of our families. We athletes had less fear because we knew that we were going with a security delegation from the country. It was in the interest of both parties that everything would go as smoothly as possible and that is the basis of everything."
Did you make a Google search before your arrival? "Yes, we wanted to see what was going on there. We didn't know if we could leave the hotel or not. We were told that we would only find out when we got there. As soon as we arrived, we saw that everything was quiet and that it was possible to leave the hotel, that we were safe overall. The Saudis also wanted us to see the country , the city, what Riyadh has to offer."
In the competition did you get 'hostile' looks from other competitors? "There were looks from the Iraqi delegation, which usually doesn't happen. But we did shake hands and laugh with each other. Even with the Iranians, there are greetings of peace. It's very superficial, not warm relations on the level of 'let's have coffee,' but there is a handshake, greetings of 'bon appetit' in the dining room. When I was sitting in the audience at the competition of Arthur Mugurdomov (one of the Israeli weightlifters) - it was next to the Iraqi delegation. Our security personnel and theirs caught the looks and we were asked to change places so as not to ignite some potential incident."
Were you isolated in the hotel? "We weren't isolated, but we didn't have many delegations with us at the hotel. Security usually reserves us an entire floor. In some ways you feel like a VIP because they drive you everywhere in armored vehicles. In terms of mobility, it's convenient, and that's the positive side. There are some pluses to this arrangement. We weren't depending on the transportation of the organizers. That doesn't mean we didn't talk to other national teams, we met our friends."
Rosh Hashanah in Riyadh The competition took place on Rosh Hashanah, and while most of Israel sat down to celebrate with family and relatives, Litvinov and his friends received an extraordinary experience of a special meal in a country that has no diplomatic ties with Israel. "We celebrated in a hotel dining room. It was very exciting to celebrate Rosh Hashanah on Saudi soil without hiding it. Crazy for me," Litvinov says, and you can hear the excitement in his voice.
Were there no comments about you being Jewish or Israeli? "We didn't attract too much attention. When we had to show our Israeliness during the competition, we did it with pride. We didn't have to hide the flag, it was there with the digital flags on the screens like everyone else."
You still aim to reach Paris 2024. Was there a fear that the location would hurt your goal because you would have to deal with things other than the competition? "Yes, in the end the mental preparation is a significant part. But the actual situation was the opposite. We received a warm welcome from the Saudis, we were really open with each other. We started with a certain disadvantage and at the end of the experience exceeded expectations. Everything was positive. In the end as an athlete you have to complete your task despite all the difficulties. You have to deliver your best performance at a given moment that is known in advance."
You were at the Olympic Games in Tokyo during COVID, maybe that's why it was easier for you "Exactly. This is the best example. That's where I learned that no matter what the conditions are, you have to keep preparing. Here was a situation where we knew there could be problematic conditions during the competition. It's an interesting matchup, which, as I said, turned out positive in the end. We had good results."
You mentioned the warmth you felt from the Saudis. Do you think they will come here? "We had a chance to talk about it. I don't think it will happen soon, because at the moment we are not hosting any competition, not even on the near future. We hope it will happen, of course they are invited. The Saudi guys who accompanied us want to continue following us. They asked about our social networks."
Half a life as a weightlifter Litvinov, 29, has been lifting weights since he was 15. "Half a life," he laughs. "I have been competing for 13 years in a row in international competitions. My personal trainer, Yuri Ozlianov, saw me when I was in military school. I was a problematic student, they wanted to kick me out. He saw me outside and called me to come train. Somehow I committed to the process and within two years, after I won the Israeli championship for the first time, I started competing abroad. The European Championship held in Israel in 2014 was my first in the adult category."
"There were looks from the Iraqi delegation, which usually doesn't happen. But we did shake hands and laugh with each other. Even with the Iranians, there are greetings of peace like this and others.
Litvinov admits that he came from a difficult environment. "At a very young age I had experiences that marginalized other boys' experiences," he recalls. "All my friends were involved in drugs and things you don't want to be involved in. My turning right came at a time when everyone was turning left - that's what probably saved me from the pit I could have gotten into. Today I represent things completely different from what I was meant to be, and now I help children in Ashdod get out of these situations. With us, every child trains for free until the age of 18, so that there is a framework. It works."
He has not yet secured his place at the Paris 2024 Olympics, but of course is aiming for that. "I'm still before my peak, and I have no doubt that it will happen and I'll be there," he concludes with a smile.