Even though Israel has taken part in every Winter Olympics since 1994, there will still be many people who will somehow be surprised that the blue-and-white will once again be represented in the upcoming Games next February in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
One can hardly blame them, considering this is a country that is brought to a standstill by a day of rain and every snowfall is a cause for national celebration.
But not only will Israel be sending athletes to South Korea, it will be represented by its biggest-ever delegation at the Winter Games.
Eight Israeli sportsmen and sportswomen seem all but certain to compete in Pyeongchang, a number that could grow by one or even two more. Israel has never previously sent more than five representatives to the Winter Games. It will have at least six athletes in the figure skating competitions in February, possibly even seven if it manages to qualify for the team event.
Alexei Bychenko and Daniel Samohin will take part in the men’s competition, Evgeni Krasnopolski and Paige Conners will participate in the pairs and Adel Tanakova and Ronald Zilberberg will compete in the ice dancing event. Isabella Tobias and Ilia Tkachenko earned Israel’s berth in the ice dancing by finishing in 12th place at the World Championships earlier this year.
However, they will not be able to compete in Pyeongchang as Tkachenko’s requests for Israeli citizenship have been turned down.
Both skaters must have citizenship in their country to take part in the Olympics. In the World Championships, it is enough for one of them to be a citizen. As a result, Tanakova and Zilberberg will take their place.
Aimee Buchanan will skate in the women’s contest should Israel manage to qualify for the team event by being ranked among the top 10 nations in the world. There are two places still up for grabs and Israel is among a handful of countries battling for the berths.
Besides the figure skaters, short-track speed skater Vladislav Bykanov will be participating in his second straight Olympics, while Itamar Biran seems likely to clinch a spot in the alpine skiing competitions.
Israel may also send an athlete to the men’s skeleton contest for the first time, with Joel Seligstein and Adam Edelman still having an outside chance of qualifying.
“We will be sending a record number of athletes and if we also participate in a team event that will be above and beyond our expectations,” Olympic Committee of Israel Secretary General Gili Lustig told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, 80 days to the start of the Olympics on February 9, 2018.
“Israel Ice Skating Federation president Boris Chait, who is the driving force behind Israeli figure skating, including making large investments from his own pockets, said that he thinks we can qualify for the team event and people looked at him with disrespect and disbelief.
But the fact that we are still in the picture to qualify proves he was right. For us, it is unbelievable that Israel might take part in a team event at the Winter Olympics.”
The undoubted star of the Israel team is Bychenko, who looks to be entering the Games in promising form. The 29-year-old ended this past weekend’s grand prix event in France in fifth place, a week after claiming a bronze medal at the Japan grand prix in Osaka.
Bychenko, who also represented Israel at the 2014 Sochi Games, registered the best-ever finish for an Israeli man at the figure skating world championships in Helsinki this year, ending the event in 10th place, which earned Israel a second berth in the men’s competition.
Last year, Bychenko won a bronze medal in the grand prix event in Moscow after also taking a medal at the European Figure Skating Championships when he finished in second place.
He will be confident on improving on his 21st-place finish at the last Olympics in Sochi.
With Israel not having a single Olympic-size ice rink, Bychenko, and the rest of the country’s figure skaters, are based in North America.
Bychenko began representing Israel in 2011 after leaving Ukraine. But unlike previous delegations, the blue-and-white team this time around does include several athletes who grew up in Israel, including Samohin, who won the gold medal at the 2016 world junior figure skating championships, and Krasnopolski, who also participated in Sochi, as well as Zilberberg, Bykanov and Biran.
“One of the most important things to me is continuity. We see that Israeli ice skating systematically achieves success and sends representatives to the Olympics,” said Lustig. “We also have several athletes who will be taking part in their second Games. Evgeni Krasnopolski for example, who has qualified again despite changing a partner. His participation is also important to us as he is someone who grew up in Israel and served in the IDF. We also have Bykanov, who grew up in Israel and did everything he needed to, and will also be competing in his second Olympics.”
Lustig said it is unfair to demand of Israel’s representatives to be based in the country as long as there aren’t any adequate facilities for them.
“It is personally very important to me that our delegation will include as many local Israelis as possible,” he noted. “But for that to happen we need to give them the conditions they need. We can’t demand something like this when we can’t provide the conditions they require. That is why it is clear that at this stage our top winter athletes need to train in high quality centers abroad.
“There are plans to build an Olympic rink in Holon and once that happens we will be able to make Israel the center of activity,” added Lustig. “We are aware of the fact that some of our representatives are not exactly involved in Israeli life, but once we have the facilities, one of our goals is to change that.”
Figure skating was chosen as a preferred sport by the OCI and the Sports Ministry ahead of the 2018 Games, resulting in an additional funding of NIS 900,000 just this past year.
“Figure skating is a sport with a bright future in Israel,” explained Lustig. “It is a sport you can practice any time of the year because it is done indoors. We have a tradition, good coaches and a track record of reaching the Olympics. I think this sport can continue to develop in Israel and we need to invest in it.”
Winter sports and Israel may sound like somewhat of an oxymoron. But with every Olympics it is becoming clearer that this is not the case.
Israel may have about 300 sunny days a year, but that won’t stop it from trying to become associated with ice and snow, at least in the sporting world.