Sinai Says: Foreign-born Averbukh, Knyazyeva-Minenko bound as Israeli heroes

Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko’s silver medal in the women’s triple jump final in Beijing on Monday was a rare moment of glory for Israeli athletics.

August 26, 2015 01:28
4 minute read.
Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko of Israel competes in the women's triple jump qualification

Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko of Israel competes in the women's triple jump qualification during the 15th IAAF World Championships in Beijing. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Alex Averbukh was surprised it took 14 years for a fellow Israeli to emulate his achievement of winning a medal at the athletics world championships.

He was certain it would take much longer.

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It is not that the now-40-year-old pole vaulter, who won silver and bronze medals at the global showcase in 2001 and 1999, is in any way arrogant. He is simply a realist who is all too well aware of the state of local athletics.

Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko’s silver medal in the women’s triple jump final in Beijing on Monday was a rare moment of glory for Israeli athletics.

However, Knyazyeva-Minenko and the four other Israelis in Beijing are like a fancy display case fronting a virtually empty store.

While the top echelon of Israel’s athletes record the occasional major achievement, there is little depth behind them. For example, Israel’s next best triple jumper can barely come within two meters of Knyazyeva-Minenko.

Knyazyeva-Minenko produced her best when it mattered most on Monday, recording a new national record and personal best of 14.78 meters, a seven centimeter improvement on her previous best which she set when she still represented Ukraine three years ago.

Knyazyeva-Minenko chose to represent Israel after marrying former decathlete Anatoly Minenko, who is originally from Kazakhstan but arrived in Israel in 1997 at the age of 10 with his parents.

Unlike some Jewish athletes who enjoyed the benefits of their right to Israeli citizenship only to hardly even visit the country and disappear once their sporting careers ended, the 25-year-old Knyazyeva-Minenko has made every effort to settle in Israel. She already gives interviews in Hebrew and often speaks of her pride at representing the country.

“When Anatoly proposed to me, it was not easy for me to make up my mind to come to Israel,” Knyazyeva-Minenko recently told the IAAF website.

“People in Ukraine said there were lots of problems, it’s dangerous, there’s war and conflict, no sort of normal life.

“But when we got married and I came over here, I myself was very surprised to see how different life is in Israel.

I’m very happy with Israelis, with Israel, and with our home in Tel Aviv.”

Knyazyeva-Minenko, who couldn’t have married Anatoly in Israel as she is not Jewish, has much in common with Averbukh, who was already a top athlete when he made aliya from Siberia through the Law of Return in 1999, but only finally scaled the podium in major competitions as an Israeli.

He was crowned European Champion twice in a row, in 2002 and 2006, and also claimed the gold medal at the European Indoor Championships in 2000 and reached the final of the Olympic Games in 2004.

“In Israel, we know how to take care of top athletes and help them reach the podium. Hanna set a personal best and new national record in a major competition, which is far from simple,” Averbukh told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.

“I came to Israel with a lot of love for the country and I connected with the country. I think her story is similar to mine, as she made aliya and no longer lives in Ukraine. She trains here, her coach is here, her family is here and she experiences all the problems like all Israelis. For me she is already an Israeli.”

Knyazyeva-Minenko entered the championships in excellent form after jumping 14.61m in Prague in June to improve her own national record.

However, she peaked at the perfect time on Monday and will be among Israel’s best medal hopes at next summer’s Rio Olympics.

Knyazyeva-Minenko finished in fourth position as a Ukrainian at the London 2012 Olympics and in sixth place in the previous edition of the world championships in Moscow two years ago, her first major event as an Israeli.

Averbukh, who remained in athletics following his retirement in 2009 and is coaching the future of Israeli pole-vaulters, believes that Israeli athletics, and sports as a whole, can make great strides by improving the status of coaches in the country.

“If you let the coach work properly and give him financial backing, I think that will take local sports to a different level,” noted Averbukh. “I have no doubt that we will see a lot more accomplishments abroad. If the country would pay the coach’s salary instead of him having to try and earn money elsewhere the achievements would follow.

There is a budget to hold a training camp and to fly to competitions abroad, but the coach is only paid a part-time salary. There are talented kids in Israel who want to be athletes and it all comes down to coaching.

“I think that you need to have an option allowing athletes to make aliya, but that you shouldn’t only count on that,” he added. “You need to build the system properly. We don’t have a system in Israel. If we advance the status of the coaches that will change. We will see better achievements in every sport in 10 years.”

Averbukh said he was optimistic Knyazyeva-Minenko would win a medal in Beijing, and after waiting 14 years for someone to join him, he believes Israel could have another medalist at the world championships as soon as next Sunday in javelin-thrower Marharyta Dorozhon.

Like Knyazyeva-Minenko, Dorozhon moved to Israel from Ukraine after marrying an Israeli, in her case former 800m runner and current track coach Alex Bugoslavsky.

“I thought it would take even longer [for another Israeli to win a medal at the world championships],” admitted Averbukh. “However, I think another medal is on the way. I thought Marharyta was an even better medal prospect before the championships. She had a good season and a proper preparation and I’m expecting a medal from her as well.”

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