Cold shoulder

Amid Olympic highs, frustration grows for Israel’s figure skaters.

zaretsky ice skating 311 (photo credit: AP)
zaretsky ice skating 311
(photo credit: AP)
VANCOUVER – At 6 a.m., hours before Israel’s ice dancing Olympic hopefuls would suit up for one of their final practice sessions before performing for the judges, Boris Chait was already up and on the phone.
Chait – chef de mission of the Israeli Olympic team, head of Israel’s skating association, father of the coach of Israel’s ice dancing team and all-around mover-and-shaker when it comes to getting Israelis onto international ice – had gotten up at the crack of dawn to reach Israeli officials before the close of business across the ocean. He needed to appeal to them, again, to send the fourth and final installment of funding for ice dancers Roman and Alexandra “Sasha” Zaretsky from the 2009 budget.
“I’m still fighting. Six o’clock in the morning from here I’m arguing with the Ministry of Sport for them to give the money that was in the contract for Roman and Sasha,” he told The Jerusalem Post during a break in the pair’s training session.
Despite the Olympic-sized excitement hanging in the Vancouver air these past two weeks, a palpable frustration on the part of Israel’s figure skating team also lingered. The dancers feel overshadowed at home by more popular sports even when featured on the world stage, as they were for a career-high finish last week, and the protracted fight over promised funds is merely indicative of what Chait sees as chronic disregard and underfunding for Israeli ice skating.
Chait puts the tab for a year of the Zaretskys’ training – including rink time, travel costs, choreography, costumes and the scores of other expenses racked up by world-class competitors – at $150,000. The ministry, even if it came through with the pledged funds, would only cover two-thirds of that. The gap is essentially filled by Chait.
“If it wasn’t for the support of me and my wife, we wouldn’t be here,” he said, a claim which the athletes second.
Chait charged that Israel’s Olympic Committee and sports officials marginalize the figure skating program that exists and don’t take steps to foster a stronger program for the future.
“We’ve been treated like we’re bastards,” he stated bluntly, accusing them of failing to provide funding, encouragement and attention. “It’s all done in a terribly wrong way.”
He highlighted the treatment of a rising figure skater as a sign of the disinterest in growing the discipline. Twenty-year-old Tamar Katz qualified to participate in the 2010 Olympic Games by the International Olympic Committee’s standards, but was barred from competing by Israel’s own Olympic Committee because she didn’t meet its more stringent rule of placing in the top 14 at the European Championships.
“We need her here,” Chait declared, not just because of Katz’s own talent and abilities, but to build morale and a heightened profile for Israel at the Winter Games – what he called “the moral and political situation.”
To one day have a top-notch program, he argued, it was important that even lower-qualifying athletes be sent not only to improve their chances the second time around, but also to encourage greater participation in the sport.
“You have to start somewhere. When you send someone to the Olympics, you have other kids who say, ‘Wow, we can be there,’” he said of a process akin to an old adage: “They say, ‘You have to kiss a lot of frogs to get a prince.’ This is the same thing.”
He pointed out that other countries that are now figure skating powerhouses weren’t always that way. “Japan didn’t start to medal in one day,” he noted. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It took decade after decade until they built it.”
TO ROMAN ZARETSKY, the number stretches back much further, to when Russia sent its first figure skaters to the world championships at the beginning of the 20th century: “The first figure skater from Israel that went to the Olympics was in 1994, so we’re 84 years behind. That’s enough said.”
While he sees his sister and himself helping to make up that span, it’s tough going. Especially when at the peak of their career – a week in which they came in 10th at the Olympic Games in three clean, well-regarded performances – the Israeli press coverage he saw gave more attention to third league soccer.
“It’s sad,” he said, taking a break from their twice-daily practice sessions in the lead-up to the actual competitions.
A lack of Israeli interest, of course, translates into a lack of facilities (with one regulation-sized rink in the whole country, the Zaretskys spend most of the year at a New Jersey facility with four rinks under one roof) and a lack of potential champions-in-the-making (compared to America’s 1 million official figure skating association members, if Israel had 50 figure skaters it would be “amazing,” according to Roman).
And when an Israeli skater does break the mold by competing internationally, as far as the Israeli public and sporting world is concerned, “They care only when they get a medal,” Alexandra Zaretsky lamented.
Tamar Katz would seem to be a case in point.
The Israeli Olympic Committee and Ministry of Sport did not respond to questions from the Post about Katz and the funding of figure skating by deadline. But Efraim Zinger, the Olympic Committee’s secretary-general, told <The New York Times when asked about Katz in January, “We set the target about two years ahead of time for our athletes. Those who don’t make it must stay back. Some countries’ main goals are to participate, some send their athletes to win. We are interested in our athletes reaching the top.”
Israeli athletes from various sports face this restriction, as the country is interested in devoting its limited resources toward those with the best chance of success.
Zinger also told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Katz’s situation was “heartbreaking,” but that “in the end, you either did it or not.” (Chait retorted, “Then they shouldn’t have taken the whole summer team to Beijing. Nobody was expected to medal, except in windsurfing.”)
Zinger was also quoted by JTA as saying that, overall, he didn’t have the greatest hopes when it came to the country’s ability to compete at the highest levels at the Winter Olympics, since “Israel is not really a winter sport country.”
That’s a charge that both Chait and his proteges bristle at.
Alexandra noted that Australia had medaled in skiing, and asserted that the land of “kangaroos and koalas” was no more of a winter country than Israel.
“It’s hard to build an ice rink there? Well, it’s the same thing in Israel,” her brother agreed. “They build, we don’t.” (As it happened, once Israel told the IOC Katz would not be competing, her slot was reallocated to an Australian skater.)
“Israel’s more a winter country than 50 percent of the countries here,” Chait claimed, pointing to the population of Israel rather than its climate. “We have a million and a half people who came from the former Soviet Union. These people have skating in their blood.”
IN FACT, thanks in large part to the FSU influx, Israel has managed to field an internationally competitive skating program despite all the frustrations and obstacles. Its first winter Olympian was a figure skater, Misha Shmerkin, who participated in the Lillihammer games in 1994. The Zarestskys are the third Israeli ice dancing couple to compete. They were preceded by Sergei Sakhnovsky and Galit Chait, Boris’s daughter, who finished a record sixth in the Salt Lake City games in 2002. It’s an impressive record for such a young program.
Boris, who made aliya before later settling in America, is from Moldova; the Zaretskys were born in Belarus before their family moved them to Israel at an early age. Shmerkin and Sakhnovsky were also born in the FSU.
Chait explained that the root love for skating brought by these immigrants was given a toehold by Yossi Goldberg – a former Metulla mayor who was the brain behind the ice rink there – and has flourished more than any other winter sport because of its international, if not domestic, appeal.
“Skating is a premier sport,” he said. “It’s a very elite sport. It attracts athletes, it attracts television, it attracts everything.”
Roman also pointed to the influx of FSU immigrants to explain figure skating’s success in Israel relative to other cold-weather sports, but he offered an additional explanation.
“It’s a lot easier to build a skating rink than build a mountain and put snow on it. If Mount Hermon gets 15 centimeters of snow it’s a miracle,” he laughed.
Of course, creating a competitive figure skating program involves more than erecting a rink, and the Zaretskys see themselves as contributing an important piece to this larger effort – one they see paying off.
They said the attention from these Olympics has been exceptional andthat they received support and kudos from Israelis who are more andmore aware of the sport.
And that was part of the reason they came to Vancouver.
“It’s not just about our personal goals,” Roman said. “It’s torepresent the country in the best way and to promote the sport in ourcountry the best way.”