Arik Kaplan stops to watch a group of young, Arabic-speaking men engage in a tug-of-war at the side of a large field. They groan and shout in unison, until one side heaves the winning yank. Sweating in the Red Sea sun, the victors smile and shake the hands, one by one, of the defeated rope-pullers.
Kaplan nods, then moves on to observe a group of young women playing tag football against an equal number of male opponents. Beyond a wire fence, Israeli rugby players are yelling as they tackle members of a visiting Lithuanian team.
Satisfied that all is going according to plan, Kaplan gets in his car and heads for another arena that is part of the mega event his organization, Ayelet, hosted last week in Eilat - a building, adjacent to which there is a court occupied by roller-blade hockey teams chasing a puck, and a field where a game of softball is under way. Indoors, there are karate and jujitsu competitions going on. Bridge and ballroom dancing are taking place in another area. Kaplan pays at least a perfunctory visit to each. Not an easy feat, with games of squash and cricket - as well as navigation and water-skiing competitions - all being held simultaneously in every gym, field and water source available in the resort town, still cool enough during March to make running around outside bearable to participants and spectators alike.
Kaplan, who has headed the Federation of Non-Olympic Sports in Israel for the past five years, says he is pleased with the turnout of the Second Ayelet (Eilat) Games (a play on words of the venue and the organization, since in Hebrew, they are spelled the same way), a good 75 percent greater than last year's. He hopes to make this an annual gathering, "to show the public what we're doing, and to create unity among the different non-Olympic sports branches in the country. Our motto is 'champions on land, at sea and in the air.'"
As passionate and enthusiastic as the 40-year-old married father of three is about sports in general and his federation's efforts in particular, however, he is also frustrated. The funding Ayelet is supposed to receive from the gaming authority has been less-than-forthcoming since the umbrella organization's establishment in 1996, says Kaplan, former sports adviser to the deputy education minister, who became the chairman of Ayelet five years ago. This resulted, he explains, in Ayelet's previously having to devote the bulk of its energies to guaranteeing its legal financial rights. Though this paid off in the form of "a lot of money" following a civil suit against the gaming authority (Sport Toto), Kaplan claims that it's an ongoing battle against discrimination. But it's not only an issue of money, he asserts, pointing to an overall attitude - fueled by the media - about non-Olympic sports being less important than Olympic ones.
In an hour-long interview in Jerusalem on the eve of the Eilat event, Kaplan describes Ayelet's raison d'etre and dispels misconceptions about sports in this country. "What many people don't know is that Israel has some of the best [non-Olympic] athletes," he says. "Did you know, for example, that we're among the top five worldwide in water-skiing?"
What is the function of a federation like Ayelet? Why is it necessary?
When I entered the job, I changed the entire concept of Ayelet. Until then, it was managed as a body that dealt with legal issues, mainly having to do with the Toto [the gaming authority] and its treatment of non-Olympic sports in this country.
The establishment doesn't consider non-Olympic sports as particularly important. This expresses itself, of course, in the budgets allocated for them. My predecessors understood that without winning the battle for monetary recognition, Ayelet wouldn't have a reason to exist. The battle was conducted primarily against the Toto, which wasn't living up to its financial obligation to support our federation, just as it funds all kinds of other sports organizations. We sued and received a lot of money. Through legal arbitration it was determined that we were indeed discriminated against, and not receiving funds in the amounts we were supposed to. We claim this discrimination is still going on.
How and why does this happen?
The people who distribute the funds are connected to Olympic sports. And they attach more significance to medals than to sports.
Is that not understandable? Sports involve competition, which in turn involves medals.
Yes, and non-Olympic sports are also competitive. But I wanted to turn Ayelet into a body that would provide enrichment - and for the legal issues to be in addition to, not instead of, the rest of it. Since then, I've managed to add many more sports clubs to our list. With maybe two exceptions, all non-Olympic sports clubs today are members of Ayelet.
How does an activity get to be considered a sport? Bridge and ballroom dancing are on your list, after all.
Anything that is recognized by the official local and international sports authority - by the same people who recognize soccer as a sport. This is important to stress, because a lot of people poke fun at us and say things like: "Oh, great, why don't you call 'pick-up sticks' a sport?"
What they have to understand is that many non-Olympic sports are more popular in the world than the Olympic ones. Take rugby, for example. Or softball. Football, certainly. Their popularity and significance is taken for granted in other countries. In Israel, part of the problem is that there aren't enough players. But another real problem is the media. The Israeli media will dedicate an entire article to what a group of soccer players did on a plane on the way to a game (i.e. what book they read or what jokes they told), yet won't even cover a major sports achievement that an Israeli athlete made in a non-Olympic sport, such as petanque. In France and Taiwan, it's played by millions. And Israel's team reached fourth place, after beating the world champions. But this was barely mentioned. It's as though some of the journalists consider soccer, basketball and handball real sports, and think the rest don't count. Why? Because they decided it's the case. But what many people don't know is that Israel has some of the best athletes. Did you know, for example, that we're among the top five worldwide in water-skiing?
One step I took to counteract this attitude was to negotiate with the Toto on our budget. (When I took over the job, our budget was around NIS 80,000; today, it's more than NIS 1 million.) It's still not enough - it's still discriminatory - but the fact that they recognized Ayelet financially caused the sports authority to recognize us as an official body. And, the main point is to have Ayelet recognized as equal to the Olympic Committee - which, like Ayelet, is a non-profit organization.
What do you do with the money?
As an umbrella organization, we distribute it among the 29 different sports federations and clubs for them to purchase items they require, each according to its needs. Equipment, for example, such as water skis.
In addition, I established a unit for competitive sports and hired Dr. Itzik Ben-Melech - who established the Olympic Committee's competitive sports unit at the Education Ministry - create and run it. The idea is to cultivate excellence in athletes who have a chance at competing in world championships.
We also provide logistical-psychological-medical-nutritional help for the players. We have a reservoir of professionals with whom we reached all kinds of agreements, and they provide such assistance at subsidized prices, and I subsidize it even more. This is something that members of Ayelet didn't previously have access to.
We also help the different sports clubs to draw up professional plans. And we help them hire coaches: If they hire a coach, I commit to paying part of his salary. This is because we want to work with licensed professionals (which is why one of the first things I did in Ayelet was to create a course for counselors and coaches). Today, there's no overseeing of who is authorized to be a trainer. So, one of our goals is to guarantee an abundance of trained professionals, recognized - and/or taught - by schools like Wingate.
What was the purpose of the event in Eilat?
To show the public what we're doing, and to create unity among the different non-Olympic sports branches in the country. Our motto is "champions on land, at sea and in the air."
Last year, there were 800 participants. This year, 1,400. We hope that next year, additional branches will participate, including from abroad. This year, a rugby team came from Lithuania.
Which brings me to another crucial aspect of Ayelet - the social, societal one, especially in a country like Israel. Tug-of-war is dominated by Druse, for example. And the chairman of the roller-blades federation is a Christian Arab. This kind of integration is something we encourage.
And the patriotism aspect? It seems that even Israelis who don't understand basketball get excited when Maccabi Tel Aviv beats European champions.
Yes. And, unlike Maccabi's, our athletes are all actually Israelis - half of them aren't traded from other countries. So, it's true that we aren't yet as good in sports like rugby when we play teams from Europe, but at least we are all home-grown.
So, what we're doing now is looking 10 years down the line and trying to cultivate the youth. Then, we'll have a chance to beat teams outside of Israel.
What is the male-female ratio among players?
That depends on the sport. Ballroom dancing, obviously, is 50 percent women. Petanque, too, has a high percentage. And there are women's flag football and softball teams. In tug-of-war, as well. We have a 14-year-old girl golfer who is showing great promise.
Are the players of sports that aren't traditionally common in Israel, such as football and petanque, influenced by the countries of origin of the parents?
Of course. Rugby, for example, began mainly in Ra'anana, where there is a large Anglo population. Today, it's the kids of Anglos, and has spread to other populations in the country.
What about baseball?
Baseball used to be an Olympic sport, but was removed as one. They're about to begin a league in Israel, and we asked them to join Ayelet.
Is there really a chance for baseball to take off in Israel?
There's no reason why it shouldn't. I don't think it will become as popular as it is in the US, but I believe that after Israelis become familiar with the game, they'll learn to like it. It takes time. But every sport has people who are crazy about it.
Which sports that didn't use to be popular in Israel became so over time?
Football is one example. There is flag football and tackle football. Flag football is growing in popularity. As for tackle: We Israelis know it from TV. The beauty of it is not only that it's an intricate game with complex rules, but that it's a show - with those great uniforms and all. It's fun. If we manage to get it into the media and market it properly, it could become one of the more popular games in this country.
Another example relates to a game that used to have a bad reputation, not without some justification: billiards. I grew up in Arad [today, he lives in Jerusalem]. My parents wouldn't allow me to get near the pool hall, because of the type of people who hung around there. But the game itself is extremely sophisticated. Two years ago, the billiards federation approached me and I helped them build a program. Today, they have a league; they have championships; they travel abroad.
Then there's bridge, which has become extremely popular, even among the young generation. And our youth have made great achievements in the world. Because it's a game that involves thinking, cooperation and teamwork, many schools consider it very valuable for their pupils.
Now, I'm not sure that all of the 29 federations will succeed here. But they have to be given the opportunity.
These different fields are so diverse. How do you keep track of them all? Do you follow each sport?
I don't pretend to know all the ins and outs of each one. But I do familiarize myself with them and follow as much as I can. Look, I love sports. When they said that Channel 5 was going to start costing money, I got annoyed because I knew I was going to pay for it. I watch tons of sports on TV. And I play soccer once a week.
The main thing about Ayelet is that we are a group of "believers." I have no personal agenda. I don't represent any particular sport or club. I see this as my contribution to society.
You have to do something for your society. Which is why, when I was offered the job by Ayelet, I saw it as a kind of calling. If each of us devoted some of his time and energy to making society better, everything here would look different.
I believe that every person has to something for his soul and something for society. For me, sports is a little bit of both.
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