Sports in Israel
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, have achieved international recognition. Israeli sports teams have also found success abroad, most notably the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club, which has consistently ranked among the best teams in Europe and won multiple championships. Israel’s national teams, especially in soccer and basketball, have also been improving.
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 swims regularly. The many months of warm weather encourage Israelis to enjoy outdoor sports, and a competitive attitude ensures youngsters become involved in dozens of sporting activities from a young age.
The Wingate Institute
Youngsters Playing Sports
Sports as a Hobby
Olympics & Maccabiah
Sports for the Disabled
Soccer 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 improve in European competition, and Maccabi Haifa reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2003 and 2010.
Israeli soccer players are having an increasing impact on the world stage. 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 November 2017, Israeli soccer star Eran Zahavi was named the Most Valuable Player in the Chinese Super League after finishing the season as the league’s top goal scorer. Before being recruited by the Guangzhou R&F club in 2015, Zahavi played for the Maccabi Tel Aviv team in Israel.
Israel participates in the Homeless World Cup, a soccer competition run by the Homeless World Cup Foundation. The organization hopes to alleviate homelessness worldwide by providing homeless individuals with a social safety net and self-confidence. Israel is one of 74 countries, including the United States, participating in the Homeless World Cup, which draws an annual attendance of approximately 80,000 people.
In November 2017, FIFA, the international governing body of professional football, rejected a Palestinian Football Association request to take punitive action against Israeli soccer teams based in settlements beyond the Green Line. The Palestinian group argued that the Israeli teams violated FIFA rules forbidding teams from playing in another nation’s territory without permission. FIFA rejected the Palestinian arguments because there is no permanent, recognized border in the area.
The Israeli Basketball Association, Israel’s professional basketball league, is comprised of eleven teams based mostly in cities in the center of the country, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Herzliya, though there are also teams in Haifa, Ashkelon, and Ashdod. Maccabi Tel Aviv is the most successful of these teams and has historically dominated the league. Maccabi Tel Aviv has also won the Euroleague championship six times, the first time on April 7, 1977, and then again in 1981, 2001, 2004, and 2005, and 2014.
In 2009, former Maccabi player Omri Casspi made history as the first Israeli to play in the NBA after the Sacramento Kings drafted him.
Hapoel Jerusalem has also had success in the European arena, competing in the ULEB Cup, a competition it won in 2005. 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 competitions. Shay Doron became the first Israeli to play professional basketball in America in 2007, playing for the New York Liberty in the WNBA.
The Basketball Without Borders program sponsored a camp in Israel featuring current and former NBA players and coaches in August 2017. Sixty of the top under-17 basketball players throughout Europe and the Middle East participated in the program and trained under professional players. Additionally, Basketball Without Borders brought Israeli and Palestinian children together to play games and sponsored a new area for children at the Jerusalem YMCA. Basketball Without Borders has held camps in 26 countries since its founding in 2001, and this was the first time that Israel hosted a camp.
Israel’s national under-20 basketball team won their first European Championship title in July 2018, beating the Croatian squad 80-66.
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 performed well at WTA-ranked tournaments worldwide, including reaching the doubles finals of the Australian Open in 2008.
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 mixed doubles competitions. In 2006, he won Wimbledon with Russian Vera Zvonerava and, in 2007, captured the French Open with his French partner Nathalie Dechy.
Israel also regularly participates in the Davis Cup competition. In 2009, the team reached the semifinal 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 on its grounds close to the city of Netanya in central Israel. The institute includes an elite school for gifted young sports students and the Department of Sports Medicine, a world leader in the field. The Council for Sporting Excellence determines which talented athletes will receive full-time stipends to train and is also based at Wingate. Numerous successful Israeli athletes, including Pe’er, Ram, and Erlich, began their careers at Wingate.
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 developing programs.
Youngsters playing sports
A sporting culture developed from the state’s early years, with youngsters encouraged to participate in sports from a young age to promote fitness and healthy competitiveness. Hundreds of thousands of young Israelis join in sports ranging from soccer and basketball to kayaking, sailing, and rock climbing each week.
Several major sports organizations run a network of clubs around the country and are affiliated with 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.
Israel was home to the International Children’s Games in early August 2018, hosting 750 boys and 750 girls from 29 countries in Jerusalem for the event. The International Children’s Games is held in a different city around the globe every year and is an official organization of the International Olympic Committee. Children aged 12-15 participated in nine sports over the three-day event: basketball, soccer, street ball, volleyball, fencing, judo, athletics, tennis, and swimming.
Sports as a hobby
On any weekend, visitors will see groups of people playing basketball on outside courts in parks around the country, running in the streets, and playing soccer in the parks. The beaches provide an excellent opportunity for water 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 Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Windsurfing and water skiing are also popular, as well as Matkot, 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 famous sports, with thousands participating in the annual marathon around Lake Kinneret in the North, beginning and ending in Tiberias. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv also have yearly marathons. More than 35,000 runners from 72 different countries participated in the 2018 Jerusalem Marathon, the largest participation in the event’s history.
In the winter, Mount Hermon in the North has become a beacon for local skiers. Other popular sports include cycling, 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 in Israel.
Olympics & Maccabiah
Israel participated in its first Summer Olympics at Helsinki in 1952 and participated in everyone except the 1980 Moscow Games. Israel began participating in the Winter Olympics in 1994. Figure skater Michael “Misha” Shmerkin was the only member of the team. He marched in the opening ceremonies on February 12 and finished 16th in his event.
Israel has won 10 medals in the Summer Olympics (3 gold, one silver, and nine bronze). Yael Arad won Israel’s first, a silver in judo, at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. Gal Fridman became Israel’s first gold medalist when winning the 2004 Athens Games windsurfing competition. Other medal winners include Arik Zeevi (bronze in judo in 2004), Shahar Zubari (bronze in men’s sailboard in 2008), Oren Smadja (silver and bronze in judo in 1992), and Michael Kalganov (bronze in kayaking in 2000).
Israel sent its largest delegation (90) to the Tokyo Games in 2020 (held in 2021 because of the covid pandemic), nearly double the size of the 2016 delegation. Athletes were scheduled to compete in archery, track and field, badminton, baseball, cycling (road and mountain), equestrian, gymnastics (artistic and rhythmic), judo, sailing, shooting, surfing, swimming (artistic, competitive, and open water), taekwondo and triathlon. On the first day of the Games, Avishag Semberg won Israel’s 10th medal, taking the bronze in Taekwondo. Artem Dolgopyat and Linoy Ashram then won Israel’s second and third gold medals in artistic gymnastics. Ashram was the first Israeli gold medalist. In addition to Semberg’s bronze, the Israeli mixed judo team also took home a bronze medal to make 2020 Israel’s most successful Olympics.
Israel also made its debut in baseball in the 2020 Games. The team is led by four-time Major League Baseball All-Star Ian Kinsler. Eight other players on the 24-man roster have played in the MLB. After being ranked only 41st in the world in 2017, the team won the Africa/Europe Olympic qualifying tournament in 2020.
Israel sent six athletes to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. None won a medal, but skier Barnabas Szollos did have a surprising sixth-place finish in the men’s alpine combined, Israel’s best-ever Olympic skiing result. Szollos matched Israel’s best-ever Winter Olympics ranking, which was set in 2002 when ice dancers Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovski also finished sixth.
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 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 soccer, basketball, table tennis, and netball events 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 won four gold medals in his career.
At the 2017 Maccabiah Games, a special 4 x 50-meter relay race was held between Israeli and American all-star teams, American Olympic champions Krayzelburg, Jason Lezak (four Olympic golds), and Anthony Ervin (three Olympic golds), with masters swimmer Alex Blavatnik, defeated Israeli Olympians Guy Barnea, Yoav Bruck, Eran Groumi, and Tal Stricker.
The men’s squash world championship after the country refused to allow Israeli athletes to participate. The International Olympic Committee subsequently declared that countries that bar athletes from other nations will not be allowed to host international sports championships.
English-speaking immigrants have brought several sports to the country. The Israel Baseball League played professional baseball for a year, starting on June 24, 2007. In 2017, the Israeli World Baseball Classic team began the Classic with four straight wins, including victories over powerhouses South Korea and Cuba. Although baseball is not widely played in Israel, the WBC team (composed chiefly of American Jews) hopes to raise awareness about the sport in Israel.
Other sports popular among English speakers are cricket and American football. Israel is a member of the International Cricket Association (ICA). New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has promoted playing American football by building two stadiums in Jerusalem. An American flag football league includes dozens of teams competing for the Holy Land Bowl each season.
The Israel Lacrosse Association has grown exponentially since its inception in 2010 and now boasts an 8-city league with a budget of over $4.8 million. In 2016, the Israeli team earned a silver medal at the European Lacrosse Championships, winning first place in the 2017 European Indoor Lacrosse Championships. The Israel Lacrosse Association was chosen to host the World Lacrosse Championship in 2018 after Manchester, UK, had to back out because of financial problems. The event was the largest in the championship’s fifty-year history, with 46 teams vying for the title in Netanya.
Indian and South African immigrants brought rugby and lawn bowling to the country.
Israel has one professional cycling team, the Israel Cycling Academy. The first Olympic indoor cycling arena in the Middle East, dubbed the Sylvan Adams Velodrome, was unveiled near Israel’s National Sports Center in May 2018.
The largest cycling event in the world outside of the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, began in Israel in May 2018, the first time the race had ever been held outside of Europe. Participants spent three days cycling through Israel, starting in Jerusalem and ending near Eilat and the Mitzpeh Ramon Crater. Following the Israeli leg of the race, the participants went to Italy. Twenty-two teams from twenty countries participated, including teams representing Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Sports for the Disabled
Israel sent 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 in 2000, three World Championships, and five European Championships. Swimmer Inbal Pezaro, runner Moran Samuel and shooter Doron Shaziri won Israel three bronze medals at the 2016 Paralympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The Israeli wheelchair tennis team came home with a silver medal in doubles from the BNP Paribas World Team Cup, held in Alghero, Italy, in May 2017. The team had previously won the gold medal at the 2012 World Team Cup in South Korea and the bronze medal at the 2014 competition in the Netherlands.
In October 2017, an Israeli team participated for the first time in the European Para Youth Games held in Liguria, Italy. The games included over 600 Paralympic teenage athletes from 24 European countries participating in eleven sporting events such as archery, bocce, soccer, judo, and table tennis. The Israeli team took home eight medals from their first trip to the European Para Youth Games: three gold, two silver, and three bronze.
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 also offer numerous sporting activities.
Two Israeli paralympic athletes brought home gold medals in swimming from the European Paralympic championship in August 2018. Israeli athletes Inbal Pezaro and Ami Dadaon finished first in the 200m and 100m freestyle events, respectively. Pezaro, 31, has represented Israel in the paralympic games since 2004 and has won four Olympic silver medals and five Olympic bronze medals. The 2018 European Paralympic championship was 17-year-old Dadaon’s first European championship competition.
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