Over the past few years, Israel has established itself as a respected competitor in winter sports cycles. Though far from a major force, Israeli athletes in figure skating, speed skating and ice hockey have made their mark thanks to late Metulla mayor Yossi Goldberg's vision and drive, against all the odds that the Canada Center, the home of the local winter sport scene, was built.
Now a controversy is threatening the very existence of the Canada Center and it is rapidly coming to a head.
The Canada Center is suing the Israel Ice Skating Federation (IISF) for NIS 1.4 million it claims it's owed for past usage of the ice at the center by IISF athletes. The IISF in turn claims that the norm when Goldberg ran both the center and was the founding IISF chairman was that athletes trained for free. Moreover federations in other countries do not pay for their athletes' ice time.
Although it could take time for the suit to be settled, its effects could be disastrous for Israeli winter sports.
"If the lawsuit is successful [in its entirety] and we would have to pay out that kind of money, all the winter Olympic sports [programs ]in Israel would have to be closed," IISF chairman Boris Chait told The Jerusalem Post.
The suit was first filed several months ago. On the eve of Skate Israel, a court order was served with a temporary lien against the IISF, freezing its savings accounts and preventing funds from being placed into those accounts.
Max Blankstein, the chairman of the Canada Center, told the Post that "the center is suing for money owed for the past three years, in the neighborhood of some NIS 1.4m. If they [IISF] would pay what they owe us, we would be able to pay off all our current outstanding debts. We tried to negotiate, but when the federation refused to discuss their debts to the Canada Center, the board of the Canada Center decided to go to court."
Chait relays a somewhat different version of events. "We feel that it's very suspicious that the papers were served on the very eve of Skate Israel. Apart from that, the Canada Center is suing for amounts that they claim we owe for the years 2002 and part of 2003. When we received the notification of the lien, we forwarded it on to our attorney, where it is being handled...
"Skate Israel will not be affected. Our dispute with the Canada Center is in the concept as to how they reach the evaluation of what the Ice Skating Federation should be required to pay."
Historically, from the first day of the center's existence, the IISF has never had to pay for ice time.
Chait added, "No skating federation in the world pays for ice usage, except for the national team training and competitions."
Uri Harlap, the director of all competitive sports for the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, was on hand for the tournament.
"The Skate Israel competition must continue," he told the Post. "It has become a tradition in sports in Israel. Furthermore, if there is no competitive sport taking place at the Canada Center, then there is no reason for the Canada Center to exist at all."
Past conflict between the center and the IISF caused problems, including the cancellation of last year's Skate Israel. It was nearly cancelled again, which would have spelled the end of the international event. As it was, the delay in officially announcing the competition due to ironing out the financial details caused some countries that had expressed a desire to participate to send their skaters to other competitions.
That is doubly sad since many of those same countries chose not to send athletes in previous years due to the security situation. Now it is Israeli bureaucracy that has gotten in the way.
With the very high cost of maintaining the ice at the two Canada Center rinks, less revenue being generated owing to the loss of tourism during the past four years, and fewer donations coming into the Canada Center's coffers, the question becomes: Will the ice sheets turn into one gigantic puddle in the coming months?
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