The first European Games will get underway in Baku, Azerbaijan, in one month, meaning the schedule of Olympic Committee of Israel Secretary General Gili Lustig is particularly hectic these days.
Lustig is working fervently to put the finishing touches on Israel’s preparations for what is a sporting and logistical challenge matched only by the Olympic Games.
The inaugural edition of the European Games, an international multi-sport event for athletes representing the National Olympic Committees of Europe, will take place from June 12-28 and will feature more than 6,000 athletes from 50 nations competing in 20 sports.
Israel will send its largest ever delegation to a sporting event, with 142 athletes to take part in the different competitions.
“There is much excitement ahead of the first European Games,” Lustig told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, exactly a month before the opening ceremony.
“First and foremost because this is the first time this event is being held and it is always exciting to take part in something new. The second reason is the size of the delegation. This will be the largest ever delegation Israel has sent to a sporting event and that will also be quite a test.”
With Baku 2015 to include an athletes’ village, ceremonies and similar logistics to those of Olympic Games, Lustig believes Israel’s athletes can gain invaluable experience ahead of next summer’s Olympics in Rio.
“In events like judo and gymnastics this is a real dress rehearsal for Rio,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for athletes who may have experienced European and World Championships in their sports, but never had the chance to compete in an event similar to the Olympic Games.
“Take Yarden Gerbi for example. She is a former world champion and has won a medal at the European Championships, but she has never taken part in an event like this.”
According to Lustig, the European Games are also unique due to the heterogeneous nature of the delegation.
The main focus for Lustig is the group of athletes who are preparing and aiming to qualify for Rio 2016.
In 12 of the events in Baku, athletes can either gather ranking points as part of their qualification process for the 2016 Olympics or already book their place in Brazil. In events like judo and taekwondo, there will be precious ranking points up for grabs, while in the triathlon, table tennis and shooting contests participants can clinch a berth in Rio.
The winners of the triathlon, table tennis and shooting competitions will qualify automatically for next year’s Olympics. A lower final position may also be sufficient assuming the competitors who finish in front of Israel’s representatives have already received their Olympic quota in another competition.
Athletes will also be able to set the Olympic qualifying time standards for Rio in the swimming and athletics events, meaning several Israelis are hoping to return from Baku with a ticket to Brazil.
Israel’s top artistic and rhythmic gymnasts won’t be able to qualify for Rio in Azerbaijan, but they will be aiming to put on a good showing ahead of the World Championships. The judo and wrestling competitions in the European Games will also act as this year’s European Championships, giving those events added importance.
“We will also be essentially sending a youth delegation because it was decided that the swimming events will only include youth and will also act as the European Youth Championships,” explained Lustig. “We are sending a girls’ water polo team for the first time and all in all we will have 27 participants in the swimming events, 16 of them girls.”
There will also be five non-Olympic events taking place in Baku, with Israel to be represented in three of them. There will be Israeli teams in the men’s and women’s 3x3 basketball competitions, which may well become an Olympic event in Tokyo 2020, and there will also be a team of three women competing in the gymnastics acrobatics contest and one participant in the sambo (a Russian martial art and combat sport).
“A big part of the delegation will be the athletics team,” added Lustig. “After much deliberation it was decided that the athletics competitions in Baku will be held as the European Athletics Team Championships Third League and we will be one of 14 teams looking to qualify for the Second League.”
There will only be team medals handed out in the athletics competition, but Lustig is hoping Israel’s best can still make their mark.
“We will be sending our best athletes and I believe that some of them like Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko (triple jump), Marharyta Dorozhon (javelin) and Donald Sanford (400m) could even register the Olympic qualifying result standards,” he noted.
The Olympic Committee of Israel announced on Tuesday that it will be handing out special bonuses for achievements recorded in Baku.
A gold medal winner will be awarded NIS 30,000, with a silver medal to be worth NIS 21,000 and a bronze medal to result in a NIS 15,000 check.
In judo and wrestling, the financial prizes will be greater as those events are also acting as this year’s European Championships. A gold medal winner in those competitions will receive a NIS 40,000 bonus.
Finishing in first place in Baku will also secure the winner a place in Israel’s golden Olympic squad, whose members receive a monthly stipend of NIS 8,500. Silver and bronze medalists will be added to the silver squad (NIS 6,000), with those who finish in fourth to eighth positions to be included in the bronze squad (NIS 4,500).
“We are expecting between six and nine medals and between 12 and 16 finalists,” said Lustig.
The organizers in Baku have invested heavily to set up facilities of an Olympic standard and to ensure the success of the first ever European Games.
Israel’s many representatives will be entering the competition with varied expectations. However, for many of Israel’s athletes, the hope is that Baku will be remembered as a stepping stone on the way to Olympic glory next summer.