(JR) — Israeli fencer Yuval Freilich won a gold medal at the 2024 Qatar Grand Prix on Wednesday, becoming a champion in a country that is home to the leadership of Hamas.
Freilich, 29, won the epee title in Doha while wearing a uniform with an Israeli flag and the message “Am Israel Chai,” Hebrew for “the people of Israel lives,” written on his shoulder. As in previous times of crisis, the phrase has become a rallying cry for Israel in its war with Hamas.
After Freilich’s victory, the Israeli national anthem was played in the arena during the podium ceremony — a rarity in a country with no official diplomatic ties to Israel.
The win moves Freilich closer to qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“The win in Qatar and waving the Israeli flag in times like these on this unique stage is Israeli pride at its peak,” said Gili Lustig, the CEO of Israel’s Olympic Committee, according to the Times of Israel.
Despite its lack of formal relations with Israel, Qatar has become a central interlocutor in ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Hamas owing to its unique position: In addition to hosting Hamas’ political leadership, and funding the group, Qatar is also home to a U.S. military base.
And at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which Qatar hosted, Israeli fans were allowed to attend — though Israeli officials warned them to “downplay” their “Israeli identity.”
Freilich, who began fencing at five years old, is currently ranked No. 8 in the world in senior men’s individual epee. He won Israel’s first European fencing title in the men’s individual epee tournament at the 2019 European Fencing Championships in Germany.
Born to Australian immigrant parents, Freilich is an observant Jew who in 2008 sued the Israel Fencing Association to prevent it from holding competitions on Shabbat. Freilich lost the lawsuit and began competing on Saturdays.
In 2011, Freilich won the European Cadet Championship, and the following year, he won the men’s epee World Cadet and Junior Fencing Championship, becoming the top-ranked epee cadet in the world. He also won the European Men’s Epee Junior Championships in both 2014 and 2015.
Freilich’s gold medal in Qatar is a rare bright spot for Israeli athletes following the outbreak of the war after Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion. Israeli athletes and teams in other international sports competitions have faced consequences on and off the field due to anti-Israel protests or their own public support of their country.
An Israeli national hockey team was recently temporarily banned from a youth world championship, before being re-invited to the tournament and ultimately winning a gold medal. Last month in Turkey, an Israeli soccer player was briefly detained for writing a message on his wrist marking 100 days since Oct. 7. And in South Africa, a Jewish cricket star was stripped of his captaincy of a national team due to fears of anti-Israel demonstrations.