Fishes out of water

Despite being ignored by the government and relying on international donations, Israel's promising water polo program is holding its own against the world's best.

water polo 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy, Adi Koren)
water polo 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy, Adi Koren)
It's a tough sport and you have to be fit," says Issy Kramer, a lawyer and Honorary President of the Israel Water Polo Association (IWPA). "It combines the skills of swimming, soccer, rugby and wrestling." Such a combination begs an obvious question: Any punching? "Sometimes, but discreetly," Kramer laughs. "If soccer is a gentleman's game played by hooligans, then water polo is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen," he adds, plagiarizing an adage normally attached to rugby. Clearly, the honorary president was speaking tongue-in-cheek: "The people who play water polo are the finest. They exhibit the best values of sportsmanship. What's more," he says proudly, "water polo is entrenched with tradition. It has been part of the Summer Olympics since the second games in 1900, and is one of the most exciting sporting events in the Maccabiah." Water polo is very much a minority sport in Israel, attracting minimal media attention and scant funding. The country's top league comprises five teams: Tivon, Tel Aviv University (TAU), Petah Tikva, Kibbutz Givat Haim and the Gush Zvulun kibbutz bloc. There is also a second league comprising six teams, an under-18 league also with six teams, under-16 and under-14 divisions with eight teams apiece, and a women's league with four teams. The word "polo" is something of a misnomer. The sport has nothing to do with snooty Englishmen prancing around on their "high horses." It may be apocryphal, but some suggest that the name originated from an earlier form of the game in which players rode on barrels painted like horses. Whatever the precise origins, the game is a team water sport where each team consists of six "field" players and one goalkeeper. The objective of the game resembles that of soccer - hence its earliest name "football-in-the-water" - to score as many goals as possible. If water polo is tough to play, it's even tougher on the sport to survive in an environment short of facilities and public support. According to Kramer, most of the European water polo teams that dominate the sport today enjoy substantial state and corporate support. "Not in Israel, where the sport is not part of the culture and basketball and soccer are king." Israel does not have many public pools, and the ones that are available are expensive to use. "With soccer, rugby, baseball, cricket, basketball or tennis, if youngsters want to play or practice they can take a ball and go hit, kick or throw in a quiet street, field or driveway. With water polo there is no alternative to a swimming pool, so we have to use the very few that are available - and that's usually at late hours after the recreational club members are finished. This is an enormous strain on our players, who will probably only start their practice after 9 pm." So why do people make the effort when there are so many other sports to choose from? "For the pure love of the game," says Kramer, whose romance with water polo began as a youngster in his native South Africa where he participated in most water sports. While injury may have put paid to his performance in the water - "I was slugged in the eye" - it only spurred him on to greater things outside the pool. From refereeing to judging, Kramer would go on to serve as President of the Eastern Transvaal Swimming Association, then President of the South African Swimming Association which oversaw swimming, diving, synchronized swimming and water polo. In 1979 he was elected President of the SA Swimming Union and Vice President of the SA Olympic Committee. Kramer immigrated to Israel in 1991. He was hardly through Ben-Gurion Airport when he was pounced upon by the local water polo leadership, and following a Hebrew ulpan course, recruited onto the IWPA Executive. He was already well known with the sport's local fraternity, having over the years brought many South African teams to Israel and invited and hosted Israeli teams to South Africa. These visits were mostly clandestine. The reasons were obvious: The apartheid South Africa of the 1980s was being increasingly isolated and the first casualties were their sportsmen, who were denied international competition. "While I was totally against the South African government's policies, I nevertheless arranged overseas matches, whether in Europe or Israel. If we didn't, our sport would have crumbled and our players - mostly youngsters with tremendous talent - would have suffered because of policies that they had no control over," he says. He recalls one amusing incident when he brought a swimming team from South Africa to Israel. "It was an international competition and there were no Jews in our team, mostly Afrikaners. I briefed the members of the squad that if asked where they come from, they must answer Southampton, not South Africa. We began hearing comments like "Wow, those guys from the south of England have an unusual accent." Back in South Africa, Kramer found himself battling in an increasingly hostile environment. Water polo requires immense ball handling skills. Players need to develop the ability to catch and throw the ball with either hand and to catch from any direction. Experienced water polo players can catch and release a pass with a single motion. Such dexterity was required in the political life of Issy Kramer, who apart from practicing law had at one time served as mayor of his hometown of Boksburg and was again standing for the City Council. "My opponent from the ultra-right Conservative Party (CP) was a Dr. van Ryssen, who viciously attacked me in the press. It didn't help him. I trounced him." However that was not the end of the matter. While Kramer won his seat, overall the CP did well, taking over the council. "On the opening day in the new council chamber, the SABC TV network was there to cover the story. The CP victory was big news. The new leader of the council entered the chamber with all the fanfare, brandishing a revolver in one hand and a bible in the other," he recounts. This was a portend of what was to follow. As Kramer approached his seat, a woman member of the council let out a blood-curdling scream, which all South Africa heard. The TV cameras were rolling. Draped over Kramer's seat was the Israeli flag. It was humped in the middle and there was blood oozing from the sides. Kramer lifted up the blue-and-while Star of David, to reveal a grotesquely perched bloody pig's head. Unfazed, the intrepid councilor asked for his seat to be cleaned and sat down. After the puffed-up CP chairman profusely denied involvement, Kramer was then given the floor. "I began slowly with the words, 'I really am enjoying this. This is a wonderful reawakening. I only hope that all Jews in South Africa take note.'" Staring intently at those he thought were the guilty culprits, Kramer continued, "When you behave like this, you unite us. And the more outrageous your behavior, the more united we become and we will bust you. And neither your president's bible nor his revolver will protect you." The twilight years of the apartheid era drew in without Issy Kramer. He and his wife Fay had immigrated to Israel, settling in Neve Amirim in the Sharon. Since arriving, Kramer has been campaigning tirelessly to promote water polo in Israel, extending both its contacts abroad and its influence on worldwide sporting bodies. He has been representing Israel at the League of European Nations (LEN), the governing body of over 50 national European Swimming Federations, since 1998. Kramer maintains that Israel's water polo players "are of such a high standard that they could compete with the best in the world. Take South Africa today, which is not short of facilities - we would whip 'em." Contrary to the trend in the Diaspora where Jews are participating less and less in sport, rather "directing their energies in other pursuits, Israelis are today taking sport far more seriously," he asserts. "Encouraged and supported by their parents, we are seeing favorable changes - and even in water polo we are benefiting from this trend." However, laments Kramer, "If only we had the facilities! I tell you, if I could take poor kids and bring them to a swimming pool, I would coach them every morning for free. It would be my pleasure. We have such potential. Look how well our youngsters performed this year in the States." Adi Koren of Ramat Hasharon volunteers her expertise in public relations to promote Israeli water polo. Her husband Itzik, an orthopedic surgeon, is the president of the Israel Water Polo Association. At her own expense, she accompanied the Israeli national team earlier this year to the South Florida Tournament, an international competition in Miami, Florida, from where they returned home with the winning trophy. "Our players, average age 17, were up against teams from Russia, Hungary, Stanford University and a bunch of teams from California, a state strong in water polo - 24 teams altogether," Koren told Metro. "These are all teams that enjoy enormous financial support," she added. "Israel only managed to go because of the generosity of the Jewish community in Miami. A fundraising campaign spearheaded by Dan Rosenthal and Alan Serure covered the team's airfares as well as the accommodation. Now our boys all have their names emblazed in the Orlando 'Hall of Fame.' This is a measure of what we can achieve." She saw an important opportunity to strengthen the ties between the Miami Jewish community and Israel. "Our players were treated like movie stars. Everyone wanted to meet them, invite them over. Their young peers in the schools and colleges really looked up to them with awe and respect. The fact that they did so well only enhanced their popularity." Koren addressed the Jewish community one evening. "Many in the audience were big donors to Israel. I spoke about last summer's Second Lebanon War and handed out photographs of all the young participants in our team," she recounts. "Then I said that next year, all these kids will be in the best units in the Israeli army, air force or navy. They were staring with such intensity that I could sense what they were thinking - that their kids of the same age would be going to college, possibly on water polo scholarships. Army and war were the furthest things from their agendas." It was the second year that the Israeli national water polo team visited Miami and participated in the annual tournament. "A relationship has been forged and we hope for their teams to visit Israel in the future," says Adi Koren. Her husband Itzik, the IWPA president, has never actually played water polo. "In fact I never even knew about the sport until our three boys, all excellent swimmers, started playing," he says. Now he is fired up to popularize the sport throughout Israel. Like Kramer, he too would like to see the day when Israel qualifies for the Olympic Games. Ideally, he would like to replicate what the Israel Tennis Centers have achieved, by building centers throughout the country, particularly in poorer neighborhoods and development towns. "Swimming, like tennis, should not have to be an elitist sport. I would like to start by building a swimming center, not for recreation like a country club, but exclusively for all the serious swimming activities - racing, water polo and diving. I want to start in Haifa and then spread elsewhere, about six centers around the country." Who will you be looking to, to finance such an ambitious plan? "God," says Itzik Koren. Well, in Israel they say that's just a local call away. Upcoming International tournament On August 2-5, the Wingate Institute will host an international water polo tournament featuring some of the top national teams in the world: Serbia (current world champions), Russia (European Champions and former Olympic Champions), Greece (third in the last Olympics), Romania, Netherlands, Australia, France and Israel. The tournament is considered a preliminary for Olympic qualification. Admission to games will be free. For further information, contact Issy Kramer at 054-4888-922.