Once every four years the same questions seem to pop up.
At the start of every Winter Olympics, the fact that Israel sends a delegation to the Games and the identity of its representatives are almost unanimously received by bewilderment, and often even ridicule, from the general public.
After all, where do these athletes even train in a country which enjoys approximately 300 days of sunshine a year? Are they really Israelis? What is the point in even sending them considering they almost never register any success of note, not to mention win a medal? The director of the Olympic Committee of Israel’s Elite Sport Department, Gili Lustig, has the answers to all these questions. And he believes that Israel must invest in winter sports.
“It is very important that the State of Israel is represented in winter sports and at every Olympic Games.
“Sport is our best ambassador. This shouldn’t even be questioned,” he told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
“Israel needs to compete in every major international sporting event, certainly one under the Olympic flag which is held every four years. It is important not just from a sporting standpoint. It is important in many aspects. But we need to do everything so that we will not only participate, but also send quality athletes.”
Lustig believes the real issue lies elsewhere.
“The important question is in which events we should be investing our time and money,” he explained.
“We need to invest in an event which can contribute to Israeli society and to the country’s sporting culture.
That event is figure skating. This is a sport which can be practiced 365 days a year. We have several facilities across the country and have had representation in this event in the Olympics for the past 20 years. We have won a medal at the World Championships in this sport and finished in sixth place at the Olympics, both achieved by ice dancing duo Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovski.
“We shouldn’t be investing in sports which have no possibility of developing in the country, events with no national championship, suitable facilities or tradition.”
Lustig admitted that more needs to be done to attract children to the skating rinks, but he is hopeful that the Olympics in Sochi will help promote the sport in Israel.
“There is one main skating center in Holon which works from dawn to dusk. There are children aged 3-4 who are already skating,” he said.
“There are also skating centers in Eilat and Metulla and a smaller rink in Ashdod and another one which is about to be opened in Jerusalem.
More and more skating centers are popping up and I have no doubt that due to the exposure the sport received during these Olympics many children will want to take up figure skating.”
Israel sent five representatives to the Sochi Olympics, which began almost two weeks ago and will end this coming Sunday. Israel has never sent more than five athletes to a Winter Olympics, with the delegations in 2002 and 2006 also numbering five members.
The teams in 1998 and 2010 each totaled three athletes, with figure skater Michael Shmerkin being the country’s lone representative in Lillehammer in 1994 in what was Israel’s debut at the Winter Games.
In Sochi, Evgeni Krasnopolski and Andrea Davidovich ended the pairs’ figure skating competition in 15th place last Wednesday, while Alexei Bychenko finished the men’s figure skating event in 21st place on Friday.
Short track speed skater Vladislav Bykanov failed to progress past the heats in all three of his events (500m, 1,000m and 1,500m). The fifth and final Israeli to compete in the Olympics will be skier Virgile Vandeput, who will take part in the giant slalom on Wednesday before also racing the slalom on Saturday.
Krasnopolski, Davidovich and Bychenko are all based in Hackensack, New Jersey, while the born-and-raised Belgian Vandeput mainly trains in the French Alps, with Bykanov practicing much of the year in the Netherlands.
Lustig was pleased with the performance of the figure skaters, but disappointed with Bykanov’s showing.
“The figure skaters met our expectations,” he noted. “Krasnopolski and Davidovich advanced to the free skating and finished in 15th place, which is very nice. Bychenko also progressed to the free skating and finished in 21st place, which is what we anticipated. We certainly expected more from Bykanov. He’s an excellent sportsman and we thought he would come through the heats in at least one of his three events.”
One of the major talking points surrounding every Israeli delegation to the Winter Olympics is regarding the true national identity of the athletes.
There should be no questioning where the hearts of Krasnopolski and Bykanov lie, with both moving to Israel as children with their families from the former USSR in the 1990’s, learning their trade and beginning their careers in the country, and even completing a full IDF service.
However, some of the delegation’s other athletes have spent no more than a few weeks (at most) in Israel throughout their lives and can barely pronounce a handful of words in Hebrew.
“This is a legitimate issue. It is controversial, both to the general public and the Olympic Committee of Israel. But... this is something which is common practice across the world,” Lustig said.
“This is just the reality. We have a clear criterion of who can represent Israel and as soon as an athlete achieves it he can compete for us. Of course we are happy that two of our representatives were raised and nurtured in Israel and also completed their IDF service.
“We hope that in the future, a bigger percentage of the delegation will come from such a background. However, if due to the Olympic Games we will also be able to attract some athletes to make aliya and they will bring others with them we will also profit from that.”
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