Despite accounting for over 20 percent of Israel’s population, the Arab sector is all but non-existent when it comes to Olympic sports.
Poor infrastructure, a lack of tradition and inadequate funding are just some of the reasons behind the underrepresentation of the country’s Arab citizens in the blue-and-white delegations down the years.
However, that makes the following fact no less shocking – only two Arabs in total have been part of an Israel delegation to an Olympic Games since the country made its debut in 1952 and no Israeli-Arab has represented Israel since 1976.
It is especially surprising as Israeli-Arabs have played a major role in the country’s top-flight soccer league for decades, as well as representing the Israel national team. In fact, the last Arab to be part of an Israel delegation to the Olympics was soccer star Rifaat “Jimmy” Turk, who became the first Arab to play for the Israel national team in 1976 and was part of the squad for the 1976 Montreal Games.
Weightlifter Edward Maron was the first Israeli-Arab to compete at the Olympics in Rome in 1960 and remains the only one to do so in an individual event.
That will not change in the Rio 2016 Games next month, but there are those who are already aiming to break that drought in the next Olympics in Tokyo in four years’ time.
One of them is the 17-year-old boxer from Nazareth Ahmad Shtewe, who won a bronze medal at the European Youth Boxing Championships in Anapa, Russia last month. His success was no coincidence as it came on the back of the bronze he took at the European Cadet Championships the previous year.
Shtewe, who competes in the under- 60 kilogram category, trains at Maccabi Nazareth under the guidance of coach Imad Moslmi. He began boxing as an eight-year-old when his father took him to the club and won his first national championship two years later. He has since claimed seven more consecutive national titles.
“My dream is to reach the 2020 Olympics and with God’s help I’ll succeed,” said Shtewe. “If I’ll be serious in my training I’m certain I’ll get there.
You can achieve whatever you want in life if you are serious about it.”
Moslmi has coached Shtewe since 2011 and he believes he has a bright future ahead of him.
“I believed from the start that this was a kid that can accomplish a lot of good things,” said Moslmi. “I told him that he must set himself a target and that he will reach it with hard work. He gives his all in training, sometimes even more than he is capable.”
Moslmi wasn’t surprised by Shtewe’s success at the European Youth Boxing Championships, but rather by the fact that he didn’t end the event with the gold medal.
“I was surprised that he lost in the semifinals,” he said. “He was unlucky with the referees, who gave the local Russian a 29-28 win.”
Moslmi is convinced Shtewe will be in Tokyo in 2020.
“I have a dream that he will be at the Olympics in 2020,” he said. “He has a good chance. We receive a lot of support from the Israel Boxing Association and he is currently one of the best boxers in the world in his age group.”
Despite the support afforded to Shtewe, Moslmi coaches him on a voluntary basis.
“The kid has already received a salary since last year and has every opportunity to reach the Olympics. The problem is, his coach doesn’t receive a salary,” added Moslmi. “The municipality didn’t want to help us even though I coach two other junior boxers who competed at the European Championships.
I earn a good salary at Keter Plastic and I can’t stop working to focus on coaching. At the moment I’m only giving Ahmad 60 percent of my time and we have nevertheless reached such success. If I give him all of my time, we will record even better achievements.”
Shtewe will begin competing in senior events next year, a difficult transition even for the best junior boxers.
“There is a pretty big difference in power and physical ability between an 18-year-old and someone who is 23-24,” said Israel Boxing Association CEO Yakov Voloch. “A 24-year-old is a man in every aspect, while an 18-yearold is just a boy who is still developing.
Shtewe will probably need a year to adapt until he can compete with the seniors.”
Voloch added that since the change in leadership in the Israel Boxing Association two years ago the sport has been on the rise, being run in a more professional manner.
“I can’t promise that all the up-and-coming juniors will be Olympic champions, but we are hoping that we will at least be represented in the boxing events in Tokyo in four years,” added Voloch.
The last Israeli boxer to compete at the Olympics was Vladislav Neiman at the Atlanta Games some 20 years ago.
Shtewe wants to be the next, training between two and three times a day while still attending High School. Since the start of Ramadan last month he has reduced his training load to one session day, which he ends shortly before it is time to break the fast.
Olympic Committee of Israel Secretary General Gili Lustig hailed the importance of promoting Olympic sports in the Arab sector, while stressing that every Israeli athlete is given an equal opportunity to be part of the delegation.
“The OCI gives no preference to any sector or religion or gender,” said Lustig.
“I have said many times that we are missing out on this sector. I think that there are certain events in which they can excel. Their success in soccer shows it is possible.”
Lustig says it is the Ministry of Culture & Sport’s responsibility to invest increased resources in the Arab sector and that there isn’t much the OCI can do other than call for a change.
Unlike most Olympic sports, Israeli- Arabs play a significant role in the local boxing community and Shtewe, who is targeting history, believes it helps promote co-existence.
“We are like brothers,” he said of his Jewish teammates. “There is no racism in sport. There is no difference between a Jew and an Arab.”