It’s time we had another female medalist, Israeli Olympic head says

On eve of London games, Zvi Warshaviak speaks of new goals for training, competition, and the podium

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

Zvi Warshaviak (photo credit: Aaron Kalman/Times of Israel)
Zvi Warshaviak (photo credit: Aaron Kalman/Times of Israel)

Israel is aiming to see a female member of its Olympic team on the podium for the first time in 20 years, the head of the Israeli Olympic Committee, Zvi Warshaviak, said ahead of the London 2012 games, which start on July 27. He also said there would be many more candidates for a medal if the country decided to treat sports as an asset.

Judo, gymnastics, and the sailing disciplines are where Israel has its best chances of winning a medal, he said.

“This is a good team, a talented team,” Warshaviak told The Times of Israel. All the athletes worked hard to earn the honor of representing Israel, and they “deserve to compete at the Olympics.”

Warshaviak is in charge of Israel’s Olympic program not only during the games, but also during the four-year cycle between games. Since 1996, he has been involved in long-term planning and program-building for Israel’s Olympic athletes.

One of the most influential people in Israeli sports — Warshaviak also holds positions on the national and international Maccabi boards — the former businessman spoke quietly but firmly about his beliefs and expectations.

If the government looked at sports as something ‘that has educational value,’ Warshaviak said, there would be many more gifted Israeli athletes at the international level. The Olympic team would be bigger and ‘have more chances of winning medals’

There were goals set for this team shortly after the games in ’08 ended, he said. Firstly, they aimed for a team that had an equal number of men and women. And, sure enough, “we were pleased” to see that, of the 38 athletes, “18 team members are women.” A second goal was to have a representative in a new sporting field, and Warshviak pointed at Misha Zilberman as a success in this regard. The 23-year-old will be the first Israeli to play badminton at the Olympic games.

In addition, “there are goals that we hope the team will achieve,” Warshaviak said. These include having a women on the podium for the first time since Yael Arad won a judo bronze in Barcelona, and possibly even winning a medal in a new field.

Speaking during a two-day team convention shortly before the first delegation members flew to the 2012 games, Warshaviak pointed at Alice Schlesinger and Neta Rivkin as potential female winners, and, along with Rivkin, he said Alex Shatilov could potentially bring home Israel’s first medal in gymnastics.

As the person in charge of long-term planning, Warshaviak noted the new “projects” model that the committee has started using in recent years. “Members of the rhythmic gymnastic team eat together, train together, and live together” at the Wingate Institute, he said.

Shimon Peres and Israel's Rhythmic Gymnastics team, January 2012 (photo credit: Mark Nayman/Flash90)
Shimon Peres and Israel’s Rhythmic Gymnastics team, January 2012 (photo credit: Mark Nayman/Flash90)

Gymnastics are not very popular in Israel, he noted, “yet we have 10 gymnasts on the team.” They are an example of “a successful project,” one that takes talented individuals and gives them everything they need in order to “excel and fulfill their potential,” he added.

Israelis are good at anything they focus on, from agriculture to high tech, from the military to medicine, Warshaviak said. If the government looked at sports as something “that has educational value,” there would be many more gifted Israeli athletes at the international level. The Olympic team would be bigger and “have more chances of winning medals.”

It’s not only a question of monetary investment, he said. “It’s about deciding that sports are important.”

Addressing the issue of the Israeli criteria — athletes are required to achieve better results than those required by the International Olympic Committee, preventing some Israelis from competing in London — Warshavski spoke with caution.

“We don’t want people finishing in 80th place,” he explained. But, he added, in some fields of competition “we might have to rethink the Israeli criteria.”

One person who was heavily affected by the much-debated special criteria is archer Guy Matzkin. The 22-year-old placed ninth at the 2011 European championships, but 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.

As a result Matzkin said he was thinking of quitting international competition altogether. “I was approached by the Romanian team,” he told Haaretz. “But I don’t see myself competing for anyone but Israel.”

Warshaviak acknowledged that such criteria could also be harmful. “We might have to remove the special criteria” in some fields, he said, but refused to address the specific example of Matzkin.

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