Sports in Israel
by Simon Griver
Sports are big business in Israel, as in most of the world. The 1998 World Cup Final between France and Brazil attracted an all-time record television rating of 48.3% of viewers. But not all sports fans are couch potatoes restricting their interest to television viewing. More and more Israelis are participating in sports ranging from tennis and squash to jogging, soccer and basketball. Particularly popular are beach and water sports, including swimming, diving, surfing and sailing.
The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who enjoyed playing tennis in his spare time, once described Amos Mansdorf 末 one of two Israeli tennis players to be ranked in the worlds top 20 末 as the person that he most admired.
Historically, though, Judaism and sports did not mix. This aversion can be traced back to the third century BCE, when the Greeks ruled in the Land of Israel. Then, the Jews viewed sport as an alien Greek concept, and Jewish contingents rarely took part in the classical Olympic games because participants were required to offer gifts to the Greek god Hercules. During the Roman period, sports were associated with the cruelty and violence of gladiatorial combat. Nevertheless, King Herod built stadia throughout the country and encouraged contests in boxing, archery, racing and gladiatorial disciplines. This didnt change opinions, though, and for many centuries Jews saw sports as a "Hellenistic" evil to be rejected. Such opinions still persist among some ultra-orthodox Jews today.
Since the Middle Ages, though, Jewish attitudes toward sports have to some extent paralleled the non-Jewish world. The medieval Jewish philosopher Rabbi Moses Maimonides, who was also an eminent physician, stressed the importance of a healthy body to house a healthy mind and soul. Historical records from the Middle Ages reveal the rise in popularity of ball games and some rabbinical discussions revolved around whether such games may be played on the Sabbath. The tone for the modern era was set in the first half of the 20th century by Chief Rabbi Kook, who emphasized the importance of sports and insisted that the body serves the soul and that only a healthy body can ensure a healthy soul.
The Maccabi movement, established in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, first organized Jewish sporting endeavor. By 1914 there were over 100 Maccabi and other clubs across Europe, and the largest of these clubs 末 Hakoah of Vienna, Bar Kochba of Berlin, M.T.K. of Budapest and Hagibor of Prague 末 produced some of the continents most outstanding teams, including soccer sides that played in their countrys top divisions.
In 1932 the first Maccabiah, the international Jewish Olympics, sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee, were held in what was then Palestine. They attracted 500 Jewish athletes from 23 countries. The second Maccabiah took place in 1935 with similar participation; many athletes stayed in the country, preferring not to return to a Europe threatened by the Nazis. The most recent Maccabiah of 1997 末 the fifteenth 末 drew a record-breaking 5,500 sportsmen and sportswomen from Jewish communities in 54 countries to compete in over 50 sports. The Maccabiah is now the third largest sporting event worldwide, after the Olympics and the World Student Games, and the biggest Jewish event of any kind.
Most Maccabiah participants are eager amateurs, not professional competitors. But there have been some notable exceptions, such as Marc Spitz, who won six gold medals as a teenager in the 1965 Maccabiah swimming competitions. Spitz went on to win four gold medals in the Mexico Olympics in 1968 and an all-time record of seven Olympic gold medals in Munich in 1972.
Israel has regularly participated in the Olympic Games since 1952. It won its first Olympic medals at the 1992 Barcelona games, when judoka Yael Arad (womens under 61 kg. category) took a silver medal and Oren Smadja (judo, mens under 78 kg. category) won a bronze medal. In the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Eitan Friedlander and Shimshon Brockman finished fourth in the 470 sailing category and would certainly have won a medal had the duo not refrained from participating on Yom Kippur (the holiest day of the Jewish year), thus forfeiting one crucial race. Esther Roth, sixth in the 110 meter womens hurdles in the 1972 Munich Olympics, and Edouard Weitz, fifth in the weightlifting competition in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, also came close to winning medals for Israel. Tragically, however, Israels greatest impact on the Olympics was during the 1972 Munich games, when PLO terrorists brutally massacred 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.
Since the early part of the 20th century, sports in the Land of Israel have been firmly linked to politics. The Maccabi movement, founded in Jerusalem in 1911, was initially affiliated with the General Zionist movement, the forerunner of the Liberal party which subsequently became a partner in the Likud party. But the Maccabi movement quickly became depoliticized.
This happened less rapidly with Hapoel, which was founded in 1924 and affiliated with the Histadrut 末 General Federation of Labor, dominated by successive labor parties. The declared aim of Hapoel from the outset was socialist 末 to bring sports to the masses, not to produce champions. But by the time the State was established, Hapoels flagship sports teams were geared to chasing championships rather than encouraging mass participation. The Betar sports movement, founded in 1924, was affiliated with the rightist Revisionist Movement, and the Elitzur sports movement, established in 1939, was set up by the religious Hapoel Mizrachi. The Football Association, the first pre-state sporting federation, established in 1928, was the first of 14 umbrella sports organizations to be founded. These sporting organizations absorbed hundreds of leading sportsmen who immigrated when anti-Semitism intensified in Central and Eastern Europe and the USSR during the 1930s.
Throughout the early years of the State, sports were inextricably linked to political parties, with the exception of Maccabi. Consequently the Hapoel movement, supported by the Histadrut and Labor party, flourished in comparison to the other sporting bodies. By 1970 Hapoel boasted 300 branches with 85,000 members, while Maccabi had 75 branches and 18,000 members, Elitzur had 80 branches and 10,000 members and Betar had 74 branches and 5,000 members. The a-political Academic Sports Association (ASA), founded in 1953, had nine branches and 5,000 members.
Above and beyond membership in these organizations, hundreds of thousands of Israelis devote leisure time to participation sports such as soccer, basketball, tennis and running; swimming and diving; and table tennis, tenpin bowling and beach-ball games. The regular annual marathons in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee attract thousands of runners and tens of thousands of participants in the shorter "fun runs." The Jerusalem March, a hike up to the capital, attracts 15,000 "walkers" annually.
The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) also have sports teams, as physical fitness is regarded an integral part of combat readiness. Through the Council For Sporting Excellence, run by the Ministry of Educations Sports Authority, several hundred talented sportsmen and sportswomen recommended by the Council are allowed by the IDF to serve in non-combat positions near their place of training and are given leave of absence to compete in major competitions abroad.
From the 1980s onward sports have been disentangled from politics, though the various movements maintain their old links. Hapoel remains affiliated with the Histadrut but most of its leading sports teams have been sold off to private entrepreneurs. The same is true of Betar. Elitzur remains rooted in its religious affiliations, and while there are leading professional basketball teams like Elitzur Netanya, there are no leading soccer Elitzur teams because professional soccer is played mainly on the Sabbath in Israel.
But if the linkage between sports and politics has declined since the 1970s, it has intensified in the international arena as the countrys Arab neighbors sought to isolate the Jewish state from 1973 onwards. Ironically, this tactic backfired. For while Israel was expelled from all Asian sports federations, it was eventually accepted into the European sports bodies, enabling the country to compete in many of the worlds most prestigious competitions such as the European Athletics Championships, the European Swimming Championships, the UEFA football cups, the European Basketball cups and all other major European tournaments.
The opportunity to compete in Europe has been most significant in basketball and soccer, Israels two most popular spectator sports. Israel has been most successful in basketball. Maccabi Tel Aviv won the European Cup club competition in 1977 and 1981. The first of these triumphs is generally considered to be the single greatest Israeli sporting achievement. Micky Berkovitz, Maccabis leading points scorer in both the 1977 and 1981 triumphs, was recently voted Israels greatest sportsman in its first 50 years.
Tal Brody, who immigrated to Israel from the U.S. after the 1969 Maccabiah with the explicit purpose of putting the country on the sporting map, captained Maccabi Tel Aviv in the first of its European Cup victories. He also led the national team to the runners-up position in 1979 in the European Basketball Championships, defeated in the finals by the Soviet Union.
Israeli basketball has never returned to the glory of the 70s and 80s but the national team regularly reaches the quarter finals of the European Basketball Championships (as it did in 1997), and perennial champions Maccabi Tel Aviv usually reach the final 16. And while none of the Israeli stars from the 70s and 80s joined an NBA team in the US, the current crop of Maccabis stars has had more success. Two years ago Maccabi Tel Avivs Doron Sheffer was the first Israeli to be ranked in the NBAs new players draft after three successful college seasons with the University of Connecticut. Though Sheffer was selected by the Los Angeles Clippers, he was not offered a contract. Sheffer followed in the footsteps of Nadav Henefeld, who several years earlier had played for University of Connecticut before returning to Maccabi. Maccabi Tel Aviv recently won the Israeli Championship for the 32nd time in the past 33 years, beating Hapoel Jerusalem in the play-off largely thanks to playmaker Oded Katash who is about to become the first Israeli ever to play in Americas NBA.
While team success has eluded the country at world level, Israeli referee Reuven Virobnik was chosen to adjudicate in the 1998 World Basketball Championship final between Yugoslavia and Russia.
Womens basketball is also a flourishing sector and major matches can attract several thousand spectators. The championship is usually fought between Elitzur Ramla and Elitzur Holon. But in 1998/99 A.S. Ramat HaSharon won the Championship for the first time ever also reaching the final of the European Roncetti Cup before losing to Spains Gran Canaria.
Israels most impressive soccer achievement came in 1970 when the country qualified for the World Cup finals in Mexico for the first 末 and so far the only 末 time. At that time only 16 teams reached the finals and the side performed honorably, forcing draws with Italy and Sweden, though going out in the first round. That team, with Mordechai Spiegler and Giora Spiegel is still considered the greatest-ever Israeli national soccer team.
Israel entered the European Championships after an unprecedented five consecutive victories, all in friendly matches, including a 3-1 win over Argentina. After the first 5 games in Euro 2000, which included a 5-0 home victory over Austria in June 99, Israel is well placed to advance to the finals in Holland and Belgium. These wins have seen the country climb to its record high of 22nd in the FIFA world rankings.
Israels club teams have competed in the major European competitions since 1993 and after some remarkable single victories 末 Hapoel Petah Tikvah 2-1 over Feyenoord in 1993; Maccabi Haifa 1-0 away to Parma in 1994; and Betar Jerusalem 2-1 over Bruges in 1997 末 Maccabi Haifa became the first team to pull off a major shock when it beat Paris St. Germain 4-3 on aggregate in the European Cup Winners Cup in 1998 going on to reach the quarter-finals.
Nevertheless, Israeli soccer seems set to have a promising future with some excellent achievements by the Under 16 and Under 18 national teams in recent years. The Under 16 team won the bronze medal in the European Championships in Austria in 1996 and also reached the final 16 in 1998 and the Under 18 team reached the final eight in 1996. Several stars have emerged from these youth teams including Yossi Benayoun who enjoyed a successful spell with Ajax Amsterdams youth team and Shlomi Dahan and Amos Sassi who won the German Youth Championships with Borussia Dortmund.
In recognition of its success at the youth level, Israel will host the European Under 16 soccer championships in the year 2000.
Israeli referees have also enjoyed some international success. Menahem Ashkenazi refereed in the World Cup finals in England in 1966, while Avraham Klein adjudicated in the World Cup finals in 1970, 1978 and 1982. In the latter competition he refereed in the third/fourth place play-off.
A womens national soccer team was recently established which has scored several victories in international matches following a disastrous opening defeat against Romania in 1997. Leading Israeli player Sylvie Jian is one of the top scorers in the Norwegian womens league which is considered the worlds best female soccer league.
The financial rewards are also big in Israeli soccer. However, those Israeli players with top European clubs earn more than double the amount they would receive back home. Some of the Israeli internationals currently with major European clubs are: Eyal Berkovic (West Ham, England); Haim Revivo (Celta Vigo, Spain); Tal Banin (Brescia, Italy); Avi Tikvah (Grasshoppers Zurich, Switzerland), and Alon Hazan (Watford, England). Ronny Rosenthal, who also plays for Watford, previously enjoyed an illustrious career with two of Englands leading teams 末 Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspurs 末 as did Avi Cohen in the 1970s and 80s 末 when he played for Liverpool and Glasgow Rangers.
Israels Arab community plays an integral part in the countrys sports in general and in soccer in particular. Rifat Turk (Hapoel Tel Aviv) and Zahi Armeli (Maccabi Haifa) have both won championship medals and played for Israel in the 1980s. The current national squad includes Walid Badir (Hapoel Petah Tikvah) and Nejwan Grayev (Hapoel Haifa) who recently signed for Englands Tottenham Hotspurs. Hapoel Taibe became the first Arab-owned club to compete in Israels top soccer division in the 1996/97 season and referee Daoud Sahil was in charge of Israels 1996 cup final.
With access to four bodies of water 末 the Mediterranean sea, the Red Sea, the Dead Sea and Lake Kinneret 末 swimming is Israels most popular participation sport. There are hundreds of public swimming pools and almost every kibbutz and moshav have pools. An estimated 50% of the countrys residents go swimming at least several times a year. And with over 40,000 qualified divers, Israel also has the highest per capita number of divers in the world.
At the professional level, Israel has enjoyed some notable achievements in swimming in recent years. In 1997 Eitan Urbach scooped the countrys first medal in a major international competition when he won the silver medal in the 100 meters backstroke in the European Swimming Championships in Spain. In the World Swimming Championships in Australia in 1998 Urbach finished seventh in the 100 meters backstroke final 末 the best performance by an Israeli swimmer in the world championships - and in the 1999 European Swimming Championships won the bronze medal. At this meet, Yoav Gat placed fourth in the 200 meters backstroke final. In the 1996 Olympics Israel reached its first swimming final when the 4x100 meters medley relay team finished eighth. The same team finished fifth in the European Championships. And Yoav Bruck, a member of that team, became the first-ever Israeli to reach a final of a major world swimming championship when he finished eighth in the 100 meters freestyle final in the World Swimming Championships in Korea in 1994. Mikki Halika finished fourth in the 400 meters medley in the world short-course swimming championships in Hong Kong in 1999, and won the silver medal in the European Swimming Championships in Istanbul in the summer of 1999.
Among the most promising crop of young female swimmers is new immigrant Anna Gostamelsky, 17, who won a gold medal in the 100 meters freestyle in a World Cup grand prix competition in Spain and Adi Bichman, 14, who won two silver and two bronze medals in the World Youth Olympics in Moscow.
In other water sports, Israel has hosted two major world championships in recent years 末 the World 470 Sailing Class Championships (Tel Aviv 1997) and the World Windsurfing Championships (Haifa 1996). In the former competition, the female duo of Anat Fabrikant and Shani Kedmi finished fifth while in the mens tournament brothers Nir and Ran Shental, bronze medallists in 1995, only mustered eighth place, and Zeev Kalach and David Schwartz finished ninth.
In windsurfing, Olympic bronze medalist Gal Friedman took the silver medal in the World Championships in Haifa in 1996, while his local rival Amit Inbar won gold medals in the World Championships in 1994 and the European Championships in 1998 and an additional silver medal in the 1998 World Championships. In kayaking Lior Carmi reached the semi-final of the 500 meters in the Atlanta Olympics, while new immigrant Michael Kolganov is an Olympic medal candidate after winning the gold medal in the 200 meters World Kayaking Championships in Hungary in 1998 and a silver medal in the 500 meters.
Amos Mansdorf has reached the highest international ranking for an Israeli tennis player, with a career-high of 18th place in the world ATP ranking in 1988. This superseded Shlomo Glicksteins achievement a decade earlier of reaching 19th place. Glickstein and Mansdorf, together with Shahar Perkis (who retired because of injury) and Gilad Bloom, kept Israel in the World Division (top 16 countries) of the Davis Cup for nearly a decade from 1985 until 1993. Since then Israel has sustained its position in the European/African Zone A (second division) with players like Eyal Ran (highest-ever ranking 138), Eyal Ehrlich (highest-ever ranking 160) and Oren Motevessel (highest-ever ranking 190). Seven other young Israeli players are currently ranked in the worlds top 300 - Lior Mor, Harel Levy, Amir Hadad, Ofer Sela, Noam Behr, Nir Walgreen and Noam Okan.
In womens tennis, Anna Smashnova, who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, became a teenage prodigy when she reached 42nd spot in the world ATP rankings in 1995 at just 18. A disastrous loss of form saw her slip below 200 by 1997 but a recent recovery saw her climb back to a record high 38th in the world rankings. Other promising female players include Hila Rosen (162) and Tsipi Opsula (284).
Not only has Israel enjoyed success at the international tournament level, the country has also pioneered the concept of tennis as an educational medium to help children from disadvantaged neighborhoods. A network of Tennis Centers from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Ashkelon in the south enables thousands of schoolchildren from all socio-economic sectors to take tennis lessons. The children learn the sport as well as discipline and manners which are an integral part of modern tennis.
The Israel Tennis Centers also run intensive programs for gifted young tennis players and most of the countrys professional players, including Amos Mansdorf, have emerged from this program.
New immigrants from the former Soviet Union have been especially dominant in Israeli athletics. Pole vaulter Danny Krasnov (best-ever 5.75 meters) has reached the finals of the last two Olympics as well as the 1997 World Championships finals in Athens. However, vaulter Konstantin Semyonov, who has failed in the major championships, is the Israeli record holder with a leap of 5.76 meters. In the high jump Konstantin Matusevitch holds the Israeli record of 2.33 meters, one of the best jumps in the world today but he too has failed in major championships. Rogel Nachum, who recently equaled his personal best of 17.20 meters in the triple-jump, has twice reached the finals of the World Championships and in the spring of 1998 finished fourth in the World Indoor Championships. But Israels best-ever track and field performance remains the fifth place achieved by Esther Roth in the 110 meters hurdles final in the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Volleyball is a particularly popular sport, though Israels teams have not been able to make an impact in Europe at club level. The national team captain Alon Greenberg plays for a leading Greek club. Israeli trainer Aryeh Zelinger has coached leading Japanese womens teams and he has also coached the Dutch mens volleyball team that included his son Avital, which won a silver medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Handball is also popular in Israel and leading teams like champions Hapoel Rishon Lezion are able to sign up professional stars from the former Soviet Union.
Beach volleyball has emerged as a popular sport in recent years. The sport was included in the last Maccabiah and Avital Zelinger coached the Dutch womens doubles beach volleyball team at the Atlanta Olympics. Beach sports have always been popular in Israel, particularly a locally developed game called "matkot" rackets which is a cross between tennis and table tennis.
Judo: Israel has excelled in judo; two champions, Yael Arad and Oren Smadja, have won Olympic medals.
Boxing: Israel currently has a world champion in Johar Abu Lashin who first won the IPC World Light Heavyweight title in 1996. Abu Lashin, an Arab from Nazareth who fights under the name "Israel Kid," has successfully defended his title four times. New immigrant boxer Vaclav Neiman won a bronze medal in the 1995 European Championships (under 51 kgs).
Shooting: Boris Polack, a former colonel in the Red Army, who immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union in 1990, was world champion in the 1994 air rifle category but has since performed disappointingly. Alex Tripolsky won a silver medal in the 1995 World Championships in the pistol division, while Guy Starik took fourth place in the 1998 World Championships.
Fencing: Israel has performed well in the womens foil division, with veteran fencer Lydia Hatoel-Zuckerman and young hopeful Ayelet Ohayon winning several medals in world cup competitions.
Wrestling: Olympic medal hopeful Gotcha Tzitziashvili only managed sixth place in the Graeco-Roman under 82 kg. category, after winning a silver medal in the World Championships the previous year. Other Olympic hopefuls include Henry Papiashvili (Tzitziashvilis brother-in-law) who won the under 90 kilo Graeco-Roman category gold medal in the World Youth Wrestling Championships in the summer of 1998, and new immigrant Yuri Yevchachik, who won a bronze medal in the World Graeco-Roman Wrestling Championships under 130 kilogram class in Sweden in 1998.
Weightlifting: Edouard Weitzs fifth place in the 1976 Montreal Olympics remains Israels greatest weightlifting achievement.
Ice Skating: Michael Schmerkin finished 13th in figure skating in the 1994 Winter Olympics and 16th in the 1998 Winter Olympics. Gilat Chyat and Sergei Saknovsky finished 14th in the doubles figure skating.
Triathlon: International meets of this sport, which involves swimming, cycling and running, are held in Eilat each winter.
Parachuting: Competition revolves around the Sky Club near Hadera.
Water Skiing: This sport is popular off the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Lake Kinneret coasts. Israels Moshe Ganzi was a world champion in 1979.
Immigrants to Israel from English-speaking countries have introduced a range of sports, which are played on an amateur basis. Some of these are:
Rugby: Israel was accepted into the European Rugby Federation in 1996. An initial victory over Luxembourg has been followed by a string of defeats. Most of the leading players are immigrants from South Africa. A major rugby sevens tournament was recently held in Jerusalem attracting some of the worlds leading teams.
Cricket: Cricket was introduced to the region by the British during the Mandatory Period. Later, in the 1950s, South African and Indian immigrants established the Israel Cricket Association (ICA), which today is comprised of 16 teams including a special league for those who dont play on the Sabbath. The ICA was a founding member of the European Cricket Council. Elected as an Associate Member of the International Cricket Council (ICC), Israel has competed in all six ICC trophies, winning outstanding victories in 1990 and 1994. In 1997, Israel won the Bronze Medal at the Maccabiah Games.
Lawn Bowls: Israels men痴 teams have emerged as one of the leading bowls sides worldwide, largely thanks to the efforts of South African immigrants Cecil Bransky and Jeff Rabkin.
Softball: American immigrants have set up a nationwide amateur softball league with teams sponsored by small businesses.
American Football: The US National Football League (NFL) started a national training program with a view to sponsoring a professional team that will compete in the European league.
Located on the coast south of Netanya, the Wingate Institute is the countrys most prestigious sports institution. The leading athletic and swimming stars train here, and top soccer clubs and international athletes from Europe often come to Wingate for winter training camps. The Wingate Institute is a world leader in sports medicine with a department which investigates the physical and psychological stresses that sports place on the body and mind. The "Wingate Test," carried out worldwide, is a blood test which determines an individual athletes anaerobic lung capacity. The Wingate Institute also has a residential high school for some 40 talented sports students in disciplines such as swimming and judo.
Israel is a world leader in sports rehabilitation. The four Beit Halochem clubs for disabled servicemen in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Nahariya and the Ilan Sports Club in Ramat Gan use sports to help those injured and disabled by war, car accidents or illness to rebuild their lives. As a result of the work done by these organizations, Israel has consistently won medals in the Paralympics (Olympics for the handicapped) and the Transplant Olympics (Olympics for persons who have undergone organ transplants).
Government allocations to sports through the Ministry of Education and Culture amounted to $25.7 million. Of this figure, $5.7 million was used for policing sports events, mainly soccer matches. Of the remaining $20 million some 50% was allocated to municipalities and local authorities which use the funds to maintain and operate existing facilities, support local sports teams and arrange tournaments between schools and community centers. The remaining 50% is disbursed to other bodies and institutions, including the sports movements (Hapoel, Maccabi etc.), the sports associations, the Israel Olympic Committee, the Wingate Institute, and the Council for Excellence in Sports. These funds are also used for major events such as the Maccabiah and the various sports championships.
More significant funding is channeled into sports from the Toto 末 Israel Council for Sports Gambling 末 which in a manner similar to the British football pools, requires pundits to guess the results of soccer and basketball games. In 1997, Toto put $45.2 million back into sports, mainly the Israel Football Association, as payment for the use of soccers copyright matches. A large proportion of these funds is also used for stadium improvement, though Toto money also finds its way into the municipalities and other sports bodies for the construction of new facilities and renovation of existing ones.
The municipalities use government and Toto funds, as well as their local taxes, to finance sports in schools and community centers and local sports teams.
But sports, at the national and municipal levels, are struggling to find funding and tend to lose out to more pressing needs such as defense and security, education, health and welfare, housing and infrastructure improvement. Some success has been enjoyed in encouraging the private sector to invest in sports sponsorship and advertisement. However, Israeli sports are caught in a vicious circle, with the relative lack of success discouraging businesses. For example, the Israel Tennis Open Championship was discontinued in 1997 when ten companies withdrew their sponsorship.
Yet sporting success is imperative. In the modern world, it is one of the single most important expressions of international prestige after economic success. Nobody is more universally admired than a sports champion. At present, Israel has all too few such heroes.
Source: Israeli Foreign Ministry