London Olympics offer painful lessons for Israelis

The London Olympics came to a close in what Israelis regard as a resounding and painful thud. The games began under a shadow with the offensive refusal of the International Olympic Committee to officially observe a moment of silence on the 40th anniversary of the Munich Olympic massacre in which 11 Israelis were killed by a Palestinian terrorist group.

Many here clearly thought medals were in the air this year. With some impressive international results over the past year in gymnastics, swimming, windsurfing and judo, expectations were high that the medal continuity since Barcelona 1992 would continue.

As the four or five Israeli medal-hopefuls fell, confidence remained that our two-time world champion windsurfer, Lee Korzits, who started the final race in second place, would cruise home to at least a bronze. According to Israeli media, it was almost a no-brainer. Alas, minimal winds and a poor start saw Lee finish ninth out of 10 in the medal round, dropping her to sixth place in the overall standings and out of medal range. That was the end of the medal story for Israel in London.

Despite this being the first Olympics since Seoul 1988 that Israel failed to win at least one medal, I think the games were a success for Israel. For two weeks, local media attention was diverted from its usual trilogy: Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapon, the government’s economic zigzagging and the Islamic anarchy in Sinai that has made our longest border a security threat.

When a swimmer and two gymnasts failed to earn medals after making the final medal round, the weight of the nation rested upon Korzits’ brave shoulders. When it became clear she too would not bring home a medal, disappointment turned to something in which Israel could be a gold medal winner – if only pointing fingers and passing the buck were Olympic sports.

The arrows justifiably were aimed at the heads of the Israeli Olympic Committee and Israeli sports in general, the government and the approach of the relevant authorities. Veteran sportswriter Avinoam Porat wrote in the Y-net website: “Unintentionally, Lee Korzits did a big favor for Israeli Olympic sports in particular and Israeli sports in general. She insured that this would be the first Olympics in 20 years without a medal and moreover exposed Olympic sports in Israel for what they really are. This cannot continue.”

In the Yediot newspaper Amir Peleg was even more critical: “As strange as it sounds, Lee Korzits did a great service to Israeli sports when she lost her nerve in the final race. Just think what would have happened had she eked out a last-minute bronze. The smug Alex Gilady (the only Israeli on the International Olympic Committee) would have worn the medal around his own neck. The arrogant Zvi Varshaviak (head of the Israeli Olympic Committee) would have awarded her the check for 250,000 shekels the size of a highway billboard, Minister of Sports Limor Livnat would have jumped on the podium (which she actually did in Athens 2004 with Gal Friedman when he won Israel’s only gold medal), Prime Minister Netanyahu would have said in a live broadcast ‘We are proud of you’ and President Shimon Peres would have added, ‘We embrace you.’

“With one bronze medal, no one would be talking about the resounding and collective failure of Israeli Olympic sports. The first who must go is Varshaviak, the Kim Jung-On of Israeli sports, a proven dictator and manipulator.”

This criticism is harsh (not to mention cynical, something in which Israelis also have gold medal capabilities) and somewhat simplistic, but not altogether unjustified. Before determining Varshaviak’s culpability, we must put Israel’s 2012 failure into perspective.

Israel clearly lacks the established sports culture and tradition that exist in most developed countries and less developed countries that put sports, particularly Olympic sports, high on the national list of priorities. Israel’s lack of high-level sports facilities and government funding are proof of this.

The self-flagellation in the Israeli sports community and media is acerbated by the fact that in London, Jews representing other nations won eight medals – one more than Israel’s total from all Olympics. The media pointed this out in an interview with the Israeli father of New Zealand sailing medalist Jo Aleh, who could have represented Israel, and discussions of gymnastic’s medalist Aly Reisman’s coaches Michai Bershtain and his wife, who came to Israel to coach but left, frustrated by the Israeli sports bureaucracy. Then there is American-born David Blatt, currently the head coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team. He made aliyah in the early 1980s and played professionally in Israel before becoming one of Europe’s premier coaches. After he was passed over as Israel’s national team coach, he coached the Russian national team to a bronze medal. These are just a few of examples of Israeli sports officials’ bad decisions.

If a nation does not have a reservoir of natural sports talent, it must ensure that ample funding helps develop athletes. The Israel Olympic Committee’s promise of a one million shekel bonus to a gold medal winner is a publicity stunt that hurts rather than helps our athletes. Only a trickle of the necessary money goes to youth training and education programs. Almost all Israeli athletes with Olympic potential do not have enough money to train exclusively. Due to its political connections and impressive international fund-raising, the Israeli Olympic Committee does not lack funding. The question is, what are the priorities of the committee?

Perhaps the most interesting observation came from Harriet Sherwood, the Israeli-based correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. Walking along the Tel Aviv beachfront during the Olympics and asking Israelis about their Olympic failures, she saw two men playing matkot, the beach game with a paddle and ball that is our unofficial national sport. She wrote: “If matkot were played at the Olympics, Israel ought to be gold medalists.” When she made this remark to one of the players, 22-year-old Gal Agar said, “The second matkot became an Olympic game, other countries would take it seriously and the Chinese would move in, then we’d be pushed out. We’re only good as long as we are amateurs.”

Mylan Tanzer is a Portland native who moved to Israel in 1981. He was the founding CEO of the first Israeli cable and satellite sports channel. Since 2005, he has launched, managed and consulted for channels and companies in Israel and Europe. Tanzer lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and five children. He can be reached at mylantanz@gmail.com.

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