Ice skating - Israel's surprising new sport

With a small push we could compete even more impressively on the world sports stage.

figure skating 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
figure skating 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Should ice skating be seen only as a recreational sport, or can Israel produce world-ranking athletes? In my opinion, as regards ice skating, in particular figure skating, Israel has already shown that it can produce world-class athletes - even though it is a mere 10 years since the first, and still only, Olympic ice skating facility was built in Metulla. The first athlete to make his name in this sport was from the former Soviet Union, but Misha Shmerkin was a true oleh - he did not move here to skate. In fact, when he made aliya he was already an internationally known skater, and he assumed that he would never compete internationally again. Fate, however, led to a different scenario. A chance encounter with Yossi Goldberg brought him to Metulla to blaze the trail for our sport. Shmerkin was in Canada representing Israel at a major international event and about to take the ice when he was informed of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. He went onto the ice with tears in his eyes. He told the audience what had happened, asked them to stand in silence and in honor of Rabin - and then gave one of the best performances of his life. He finished second behind Elvis Stoiko, who was then world champion. SHMERKIN ALSO led the way for Israel by becoming the first Israeli to compete at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer in 1994. Since his historic step Israel has participated in two more Winter Olympic Games and, as this is being written, we are preparing to depart for our 4th Winter Olympics. At the last Winter Olympics, in Salt Lake City, Israel was represented by two ice dance couples and a short track speed skater. Our top ice dance couple, Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky, finished in 6th place, and immediately followed this success by taking the bronze medal at the World Championships in Nagano Japan the following month. A top ten placement - at only the second Olympics at which an ice dance couple participated - is a magnificent achievement, far above anything achieved in such a short time in the summer Olympics. For the past 12 years our flag has been flown in the biggest arenas in the US, Canada, Japan, China, Switzerland, France and many, many more countries. Wherever our athletes skate they have been magnificent ambassadors for Israel. Thanks to the vision of Yossi Goldberg, the infrastructure exists - at least in the north - to teach our youth to skate. Educational research has shown that teaching children to skate has a positive effect on eye-hand coordination, discipline and clean living. Today 25% of our population comes from the former Soviet Union, where skating is part of the culture. Teaching skating would help integrate this community in Israeli society. So why is more not being done to advance this beautiful sport? Some Diaspora Jewish communities have expressed a lack of interest in helping to develop sports in Israel. Similarly, the state lottery authority and the Olympic Committee seem uninterested in helping to finance an ice skating facility in the center of the country. The IISF would welcome serious partners to try to realize such a vision, one which would allow our sport to advance to a higher level and give many more youngsters a chance to realize the dream of participating in the Winter Olympics. Although the funding authorities do what they can, the rest of the sports culture in this country is against change, afraid that any new sport would diminish backing for their own sport. Sadly, with a few exceptions, the sports reporters in our newspapers don't understand ice skating, and so they don't write about it. The result is that the public is kept unaware of our skaters' successes. EVEN THOUGH the Skate Israel international competition, held almost annually at the Canada Center in Metulla, has attracted some of the world's best skaters - including former World and Olympic Champion Alexei Yagudin and many other well-known stars - almost none of the senior press in Israel have managed to watch and report on the event, as Metulla is too far away. Within the international figure skating family Israel is regarded with wonder and amazement and has received praise from the top officials for the way it has developed the sport. At the last World Championships in Moscow, Israel was the 7th-ranked country according to the number of competitors - ahead of recognized figure skating countries such as Austria, Germany, Finland, Sweden and the UK. So why not at home? We welcome the appointment of Alex Gilady as the new chairman of Keshet Broadcasting. As a result of his efforts the public will be able to take advantage of the live broadcast from Torino. We wish much success to all our winter Olympians: to Michael Renzhin, the first Israeli to participate in Alpine skiing events; to Roman and Alexandra Zaretsky, who had to fight so hard to get the committee to agree to let them take up their rightful place in Torino; and to Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky, who recently showed just how wonderfully talented they are. The writer is the chairman of the Israel Ice Skating Federation and father of Olympic ice dancer Galit Chait.