Next up in our 2021 Olympians series is Artem Dolgopyat, the 23-year-old who is following in the footsteps of fellow Tokyo-bound Israeli gymnast Alexander Shatilov thanks to his powerful, difficult tumbling work on floor, where he has become an international standout at a young age.
Artem was born in Ukraine, in the city of Dnipro. His father was a gymnast, so he signed his son up for classes when he was young. He quickly rose through the ranks, with his coaches bribing him first with candy if he did the elements correctly, and then later with juice. His father also helped him set goals, and by the time he was 12, Artem was a two-time national champion.
His coach told him the Ukrainian national team wanted him to move to Kiev and live in a boarding school, but Artem’s parents were struggling to support the family, and decided to move to Israel. His coach in Ukraine put him in contact with Sergei Vaisburg, a man known for doing big things with another talented transplant, Alexander Shatilov. At the time, Shatilov had just competed at the 2008 Olympics and won his first major international medals on floor at both the 2009 European and World Championships, so it was clear Artem would be in good hands.
The move was difficult for Artem, though. He didn’t speak the language and found it difficult to make friends. He started his studies at a half-Russian school in Tel Aviv, but when he moved to a high school outside of the city in Rishon LeZion, everything was in Hebrew, and he ended up dropping out due to frustration, focusing instead on training.
Artem learned Hebrew in the gym, but more importantly, he also learned how to be a killer floor worker. When he was 16, he made his first large-scale international appearance at European Championships, and though he didn’t make any finals there, he led the junior team to fifth place and earned one of 19 berths for that summer’s Youth Olympic Games. In Nanjing, he left an even greater impression, finishing 10th all-around and qualifying into both the floor and vault finals. Though he wasn’t at a hundred percent in either, it was clear he possessed a ton of talent just like Alexander, and the Israeli federation couldn’t wait to get him onto the senior team.
At 17, Artem kicked off his senior career at pair of challenge cups, first in Cottbus and then in Ljubljana, and he hit his pet events at both but missed out on the finals. His difficulty on floor was right up there with most of the top guys at the time, but he had some clean-up work to do, while on floor, he was clean yet lacked difficulty. Still, he looked great going into Euros, and though he missed the apparatus finals again there in a stacked field, he made the all-around final, finishing 22nd.
His preparation for his first world championships continued with a few more challenge cup appearances, and he just kept getting better. In Varna, Artem qualified third into the floor final, ultimately finishing fifth, and then in Osijek, just a month before worlds, he shocked to win the gold on floor, defeating his own teammate and idol by just over a tenth.
With world championships serving as the qualifier for the Olympic Games, it meant both Artem and Alexander would likely be going head to head for the spot, but ultimately, experience won out, and Alexander, who placed 77th in qualifications with an 81.864, would get to go to Rio over Artem, who placed 103rd with an 80.197. It was obviously not ideal, but at 18, Artem still had time.
Artem was already dealing with a lot of back pain, though, and had been since 2014. He made the floor finals at both the Baku and Varna challenge cups, but struggled at Euros, and then he took time off to heal. During his break, he conditioned and went to physical therapy, but he didn’t train at all for three months, and thought he might not ever be able to return to competitions. “If the pain is going to worsen, I won’t be able to train,” he said. “There’s no point in overcoming it and doing more damage to my body.”
He did return, though, coming back to training in January of 2017 and then to competition two months later, at the Baku World Cup. The lights in the arena were set up like a stage show, with a single spotlight on the floor instead of the usual overhead lighting, and when Artem went for his opening triple back – his first time attempting this incredibly difficult skill at a competition of this level – he was momentarily blinded by the light and miscalculated the skill, landing horribly on his neck.
As terrifying as it was in that moment, Artem walked away with only a big scare and a broken finger, and he was back in the swing of things a month later at Euros, minus the triple back, but he competed on floor, made the final, and finished fourth. It was a huge triumph considering all he’d been through over the past six months, though fourth place always comes with a bit of a sting, especially when your score is less than a tenth away from a medal…a medal his teammate, Alexander, won.
And so it was back to the drawing board. Artem made the floor final at the Koper Challenge Cup shortly after Euros, though missed out on a medal, and then a week later he improved his score by a point in Osijek, where he won the silver medal with a 14.7. At Israel’s Maccabiah Games that summer, he won the gold medals on floor and on pommel horse in addition to a bronze on vault, he missed all three finals he attempted at the Szombathely Cup in September, and then he qualified second into the floor final at the Paris Challenge Cup, ultimately finishing sixth.
Artem was hit-or-miss going into worlds championships due to his lingering back pain and a brand-new foot injury, but when he got to Montreal, he was pure focus. He hit a solid routine in qualifications to place fourth, and an equally excellent routine in the final led to the silver medal with a 14.533, making him the second Israeli gymnast to earn a world medal after his teammate got the bronze in 2009 and 2011. This was a life-changing event for Artem, who was just 20 at the time. The Israeli government gave him a $24,000 prize for this result, and he got a raise, going from roughly $1750 a month to around $2500. He also went from being relatively unknown in the sport and in his country to being an overnight sensation.
“When I got home, I received many calls from the media, and suddenly a guy called me and congratulated me in Russian on my achievement. Before he hung up, I asked him which media agency he was from and he told me he was not a journalist, but a person who loved sports,” Artem shared. “It made me feel great.”
In 2018, Artem kicked off the challenge cup season with silver medals on floor in Osijek and then in Koper. He then got another silver on the event at European Championships in Glasgow (his first Euros medal), followed by a pair of golds at the challenge cups in Szombathely and Paris. Unlike 2017, where he was hit-or-miss, he was now all-hit, and he seemed like a lock for another medal. He was even feeling healthy enough to return to the all-around, where he finished an impressive 47th, and he qualified seventh into the floor final, with lots of room to improve. He was strong in the final, just coming up a little short on his 1½ to Rudi and triple full at the end, and his score of 14.566 showed a slight improvement compared to the previous year, but in a super stacked final, he ended up missing the podium by less than half a tenth, placing fifth.
The next year was all about Tokyo. A month after worlds, Artem won the gold on floor at the Cottbus World Cup, and then at the Baku World Cup in 2019 a few months later, he got yet another gold with the best score of his career and his first to break a 15. Next up was the silver medal at Euros, followed by missing the final with a downgraded routine at the European Games, where he competed with an injured foot after hitting his heel on a trampoline support two weeks before the competition started. But he came back golds at Osijek (where he posted a massive 15.3) and Szombathely, and the silver at the Paris Challenge Cup. Once again, he had gone nearly the entire year without missing a single opportunity to medal, and he wasn’t going to let another worlds medal – or another Olympics berth – slip through his fingers.
Artem would have two chances to qualify to the Olympics in Stuttgart. If he missed out on earning an all-around spot in qualifications, all he had to do was make the floor final and finish in the top three among those who hadn’t qualified individually or as part of a team. In qualifications, his older teammate Alexander would yet again best him in the all-around, finishing 30th with an 81.507 while Artem was 36th with an 81.031, but after the two days of qualifications were complete, Artem would learn that not only did he qualify first into the floor final with a 15.033, but that he was the only apparatus finals qualifier who hadn’t yet qualified to the Games, meaning a spot in Tokyo would be his.
His performance in the Stuttgart final was one of his best ever, with brilliant tumbling and mostly stuck landings, aside from a little hop on his double double. He ended up with a 15.2 total, and as the first one up, this score would hold steady as the top score until almost the very end, when Carlos Yulo matched his execution score with an 8.8, but bested him by a tenth in difficulty to get a 15.3 for gold while Artem would earn his second silver medal.
COVID-19 derailed Artem’s plans like it did for every gymnast hoping to travel to Tokyo last summer, but it also gave him time to focus on other events, and he looked just as good as ever at European Championships at the end of 2020, where he not only won the floor title with a 15.0, but he also got a huge upset on vault, where he won the bronze two tenths ahead of Romania’s Marian Dragulescu, and he led his team to a fourth place finish with strong performances on four events, showing his usual great work on floor and vault, but also putting up a clutch routine on pommels for a 13.866.
Going into Tokyo this year, Artem has one goal – winning a medal. Consistently proving himself as one of the top and most consistent floor workers in the world over and over again throughout this entire quad despite setbacks and pain, I have no doubt he’ll be able to make it happen.
Article by Lauren Hopkins