How to turn Israel’s London drought into a Rio medal deluge

For Israel to get its athletes up on the podium in 2016, it must invest in young talent, encourage all sports, cancel the national criteria, and learn some of the lessons that ended Team GB’s Olympic famine

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

Israel's under 18 weight lifting championship (photo credit: screen capture yairehr/Youtube)
Israel's under 18 weight lifting championship (photo credit: screen capture yairehr/Youtube)

The ceremonies are over. The participants have returned home. The post-mortems are in full swing.

In London, Israel’s athletes demonstrated that the potential is there. But it’s the thinnest of lines that separates victory from oh-so-close, and Israel, this time, couldn’t cross it.

Nobody will be waiting for the stragglers to catch up, either. So unless Israel funds its talented youngsters and encourages teenagers to excel, it will most likely remain a country with dreams of victory but few or no medals. For the 2016 Olympics to be any better than the London Games, things have to change. Drastically.

There have been glimmers of hope and world-class athleticism from Israeli delegations over the years, and even the occasional podium finish. But at the end of the 2012 Olympics, when 109 countries returned home without winning a single medal, Israel, for the first time since the 1988 Games, was among them.

While the athletes gave their best — and being ranked in the top 10 and breaking national records are worthy sporting achievements — the failure to medal at London’s games could be a wake-up call for officials who hold the key to Israel’s future Olympic success.

Sports Minister Limor Livnat was wrong to say the delegation had failed, but was right to call for a shake-up of the system. There is a need to inject new life and enthusiasm into the country’s athletics… and its overall attitude to sports.

The lack of funding is apparent everywhere, from children’s competitions on up

The British were shaken after Atlanta ’96, where they won only one gold medal. At home, 16 years later, they won a total of 64 medals, third only to the US and China. Twenty-nine of those medals were gold. The world saw that changing a country’s attitude toward sports was possible.

While Israel’s prospects of turning into an Olympic empire are virtually nonexistent, the Jewish state could win more medals if it adjusted its mindset and fixed some of the problems in its sporting system.

Here are some key ideas for Israel’s decision-makers to consider as they look in the mirror and ask what can be changed.

1. Pyramids are built from the bottom up

The sports ministry and Israeli Olympic Committee promised athletes monetary awards in exchange for medals. Had one of the blue-and-white won gold, an award of NIS 1 million would have been granted. Every athlete who made the top eight was given prize money.

That money, or part of it, should be invested to guarantee victory, rather than be given to those who have already succeeded.

Imagine if the NIS 50,000 given to Yakov Toumarkin for his seventh-place finish in the 200-meter backstroke (including the 10,000 given to him for breaking the national record) was half that amount. That’s right — half. Give the successful athlete less money after he or she wins, and, instead, invest more in the country’s sportsmen during their training.

Israel's under 18 badminton championship (photo credit: screen capture 2468246800/Youtube)
Israel’s under 18 badminton championship (photo credit: screen capture 2468246800/Youtube)

How would judokas and swimmers feel if they had a decent monthly salary, and didn’t need to coach part-time in order to live an average lifestyle? Not a glamorous over-the-top salary, just an average income that would allow them to dedicate themselves full-time to their training routines.

The lack of funding is apparent everywhere, from children’s competitions on up. If the Olympic committee, the ministry, and those in charge of the national teams want others to invest more in the development of training facilities and youth programs, they must first set an example and be willing to allocate more funds themselves.

That includes the Ministry of Education, which currently puts less than 5% of its budget into sports education and facilities.

The Olympic delegation was given NIS 10 million to prepare for London — 0.003 percent of the country’s budget. The ministry in charge of sports and culture has an annual budget of NIS 120 million — less than 0.05% of the national budget.

In the past, when projects have received proper funding — like the rhythmic gymnastic team or young judokas — they have proven themselves.

2. Allow and encourage kids to excel in all sports

Israeli students need a passing grade in their sports (or gym, or physical education) class in order to graduate high school. The standard test includes running, push-ups and sit-ups, with some variations in the expected results between boys and girls.

For years, students who excelled in sports during after-school hours received no official recognition for their efforts.

Why isn’t the national under-18 judo champion rewarded for his athletic abilities by the Education Ministry?

Things are starting to change. Recently, mainstream sports like basketball, soccer and swimming have begun to receive formal attention, and a student who competes at the national level in certain fields will be awarded extra points on his final test in gym class.

That’s a start, but it’s far from enough.

Thousands of children and teenagers engage in gymnastics, track and field, judo, cycling, fencing and a whole array of other disciplines every year.

Why isn’t the national under-18 judo champion rewarded for his athletic abilities by the Education Ministry? Why not allow students who compete in the long jump or 200-meter dash to be examined by professionals in their field?

Israel's under 18 weight lifting championship (photo credit: screen capture yairehr/Youtube)
Israel’s under 18 weightlifting championship (photo credit: screen capture yairehr/Youtube)

In 2010, a special report by the Knesset’s committee on education and sports (Hebrew) noted the lack of gyms and others sport facilities in schools throughout the country. Only 30% of these schools had access to a gym or indoor space for gym class. The situation hasn’t improved much since. Even if budgetary constraints prevent the Ministry of Education from speedily investing larger amounts in gym facilities — and more must be invested — the government should at least recognize young athletes and their efforts.

3. Cancel the national criteria

For someone to participate in the Olympics, he or she must match the minimum criteria set by the International Olympic Committee, be it a world ranking — as with team rhythmic gymnastics, where only the top 12 attended the Summer Games — or a minimum measurable result, like those required of track and field athletes and swimmers.

However, for Israelis, meeting the criteria set by the IOC isn’t enough. To join the blue-and-white delegation, one must meet the Israeli standards — which are stricter than the international criteria. “We don’t want people finishing in 80th place,” Zvi Warshaviak, the head of Israel’s Olympic committee, told The Times of Israel before the London games.

However, for Israelis, meeting the criteria set by the IOC isn’t enough… One must meet the Israeli criteria, which are stricter than the international criteria

One person who was heavily affected by the much-debated special criteria before the 2012 Games was archer Guy Matzkin. The 22-year-old placed ninth at the 2011 European championships, and in 2012 he came in first place in the Olympic qualifying tournament.

However, the Israeli committee had imposed stricter criteria, demanding a top-eight placement at either the European or world championships. Matzkin therefore could not compete in London, and was considering retirement.

Matzkin was hardly likely to finish 80th, as Warshaviak feared, or even 50th. Would Israel truly have suffered from another top-ten performance at the Olympics, even if Matzkin didn’t win a medal?

And finally

A country that doesn’t invest in its athletes or its sports culture won’t produce multiple medal-winning Olympians. More significantly, it will also be a less healthy country.

Britain, realizing the boost the Olympics have given to interest in sports, is now contemplating reversing years of neglect and underfunding — years of all-but frowning on competitive sports, cutting back on physical education hours at school, selling off and building over playing fields and outdoor recreation areas. There are lessons here for Israel.

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