In the over 60 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, sports have played an increasingly important role in the development of the country both at home and on the international stage. Despite its small population, Israel's athletes such as tennis star Shahar Pe'er and soccer player Yossi Benayoun regularly make an impact and a name for themselves. Israeli sports teams have also found success abroad, most notably the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club, which has established itself as one of the best teams in Europe over the last decade. Israel's national teams have also been improving, with the soccer and basketball teams achieving impressive results.
Outside of the professional arena, sports have always been a significant pastime for hundreds of thousands of Israelis. With miles of beautiful coastline on the country's western border it's no surprise that an estimated half of the population swim regularly. The many months of warm weather encourage Israelis to enjoy outdoor sports, and a competitive attitude ensures youngsters become involved in dozens of different sporting activities from a young age.
- Basketball & Soccer
- The Wingate Institute
- Youngsters Playing Sports
- Sports as a Hobby
- Olympics & Maccabiah
- New Sports
- Disabled Sports
Basketball & Soccer
Soccer just edges basketball as the most popular sport in Israel. The professional soccer league, with 12 teams in the top Premier League division, is followed closely in the media and attracts crowds of up to 20,000 people at games. After half a decade at the top, Maccabi Haifa's era of unrivaled success appears to be waning, with Betar Jerusalem taking over, having won the league championship for the first time in nine years in May 2007.
Israeli clubs continue to outdo themselves in European competition. Israeli clubs continue to outdo themselves in European competition. Over the past few years Maccabi Haifa has performed the best, reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2003 and 2010.
Israeli soccer players are having an increasing impact on the world stage, with 20 Israeli soccer players currently playing in top European clubs. In the summer of 2007, Israel captain Yossi Benayoun moved to Liverpool FC and defender Tal Ben Haim to Chelsea, while in January 2008, Tamir Cohen joined Bolton Wanderers.
In basketball, Maccabi Tel Aviv are the kings of Israel, winning nearly every league championship. In recent years, however, new challengers have arisen. In Europe, Maccabi scored several achievements in the Euroleague Final Four, having reached the final in 2006 and 2008 and won the competition in 2004 and 2005. In 2009, former Maccabi player Omri Casspi made history as the first Israeli to play in the NBA, after he was drafted by the Sacramento Kings.
Hapoel Jerusalem has also had success in the European arena, competing in the ULEB Cup, a competition it won in 2005. The national basketball team has also established itself as a force to be reckoned with. In 2009 it again qualified for the Biannual EuroBasket championship, an event it has participated in since 1993.
Women's basketball is popular in Israel, with two teams - Elitzur Ramle and Anda Ramat Hasharon - regularly battling for the league title. The two also compete in European competition. Female player Shay Doron has, in fact, made one of the biggest impacts of all Israelis after she became the first Israeli to play professional basketball in America in 2007, playing for the New York Liberty in the WNBA.
In recent years Israeli tennis players have become a fixture at the world's biggest tournaments. Teenager Shahar Pe'er broke into the world's top 20 in 2006 and performs well at WTA-ranked tournaments around the world, including reaching the finals of the Australian Open in 2008 (doubles).
Doubles pair Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich have also established themselves as one of the best in the world, winning the 2008 Australian Open and staying in the world's top 10 for years. Ram has also excelled in the mixed doubles competitions, twice winning Grand Slam events at the French Open with Frenchwoman Nathalie Dechy in 2007 and at Wimbledon in 2006 with Russian Vera Zvonerava.
Israel's national Davis Cup team has also performed impressively, reaching the semifinal in 2009 for the first time in its history.
The Wingate Institute
An important factor in the success and development of Israeli sports is the Wingate Institute of Physical Education, the national sports center based in its own grounds close to the city of Netanya in central Israel. The institute includes an elite school for gifted young sports students, as well as the Department of Sports Medicine, a world leader in the field. The Council for Sporting Excellence, which determines which talented athletes will receive stipends to train full time, is also based at Wingate. Numerous Israeli sportsmen and women who have gone on to find success began their careers at Wingate, including Pe'er, Ram, and Erlich.
The Sports Authority of the Ministry of Science, Culture, and Sport sponsors the training of instructors and coaches at Wingate and oversees all sporting activity in Israel, coordinating the activities of the various sports federations and organizations and assisting in the development of programs.
Youngsters playing sports
Sports are of course not only for the outstandingly gifted. A sporting culture developed from the early years of the state, with youngsters encouraged to become involved in sports from a young age to promote both fitness and healthy competitiveness. Each week hundreds of thousands of young Israelis compete and play in sports ranging from soccer and basketball to kayaking, sailing, and rock climbing.
A number of major sports organizations run a network of clubs around the country as well as being affiliated to the major sports teams. The most well known include Maccabi (established 1912), Hapoel (1923), Betar (1924), Elitzur (1939), and the Academic Sports Association - ASA (1953). Schools and community centers also run local leagues and competitions with the national school basketball and soccer finals broadcast on national television.
Sports as a hobby
Israel is a sporty nation. On any weekend visitors will see groups of people playing basketball on outside courts in parks around the country, going running in the streets, and playing soccer in the parks. The beaches provide great opportunity for sports. Israel has the highest per capita number of qualified scuba divers in the world, with 50,000, attracted by the unique marine life of the Red Sea. Windsurfing and water skiing are also popular as well as "paddleball", a locally developed beach game played by keeping a ball in the air by hitting it from paddle to paddle.
Away from the beaches, long-distance running is also high on the list of popular sports, with thousands participating in the annual marathon around Lake Kinneret in the North, beginning and ending in Tiberias, and triathlon events. Cycling is also very popular and the golf course in Caesarea is currently embarking on a redevelopment program. In the winter Mount Hermon in the North has become a beacon for local skiers. Other popular sports include table tennis, boxing, wrestling, weightlifting, judo, karate, and a form of self-defense called Krav Maga, developed by the IDF. Popular team sports include volleyball and handball, which both have their own professional leagues.
Olympics & Maccabiah
Israel has always prided itself on its Olympic success, but until 2004 had never won a gold medal. That changed when windsurfer Gal Fridman came first in his competition at the 2004 Athens games. Arik Zeevi also won a medal at Athens, taking a bronze in the judo competition. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics Shahar Zubari won a bronze in men’s sailboard.
Previous medal winners include Yael Arad and Oren Smadja (silver and bronze in judo in Barcelona, 1992) and Michael Kalganov (bronze in kayaking, Sydney, 2000). Pole vaulter Alex Averbukh never won an Olympic medal but won bronze and silver medals at the 1999 and 2001 World Athletics Championships, and the gold medal at the 2002 and 2006 European Athletic Championships.
Every four years Israel hosts its own version of the Olympics - the Maccabiah Games, which since 1932 has brought together thousands of Jewish athletes from all over the world. It is one of only seven worldwide competitions recognized by the International Olympic Committee. Participants compete in events including soccer, basketball, table tennis, and netball and attend an impressive opening ceremony at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan. Many top Jewish athletes have made their names at the Maccabiah, including American swimmers Mark Spitz, who went on to win an unprecedented seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, and Lenny Krayzelburg, who swam at the 2004 Athens games.
English speaking immigrants have brought a number of sports to the country. The Israel Baseball League played professional baseball for a year in 2007. Other sports popular among English speakers are cricket and American football. Israel is a member of the International Cricket Association (ICA); encouraged by Indian immigrants, South African immigrants brought rugby and lawn bowls to the country, and the local men's bowls team is one of the world's best. The American flag football league includes dozens of teams competing for the Holy Land Bowl each season.
Israel has had success in disabled sports, winning medals at the Paralympic games and giving disabled athletes an opportunity to excel. Israel took 42 athletes to the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, competing in archery, athletics, basketball, cycling, equestrian, rowing, sailing, shooting, swimming, table tennis and tennis. The team came home with five silver medals and one bronze. Keren Leibowitz is Israel's most celebrated Paralympic athlete, having won three gold medals in swimming competitions in Sydney 2000, three World Championships, and five European Championships.
The Israel Sports Association for the Disabled (ISAD) conducts a wide range of activities in many fields, including basketball, tennis, volleyball, badminton, table tennis, shooting, riding, archery, swimming, and sailing. The Sports Beit Halohem clubs for disabled army veterans and the Ilan organization for the disabled through injury and illness provide numerous activities.
Sources: Israel Foreign Ministry