Financial strain on Israeli fencers emblematic of issue for second-tier sports

Israeli fenc er Vera Kanevski (center) poses with fellow delegation members (from left) Nikol Gavrielko, Yana Botvinik, coach Doron Levit and Dar Hecht after winning the gold medal at the European Junior Championships earlier this month in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Due to the financial situation of the Isr (photo credit: AUGUSTO BIZZI)
Israeli fenc er Vera Kanevski (center) poses with fellow delegation members (from left) Nikol Gavrielko, Yana Botvinik, coach Doron Levit and Dar Hecht after winning the gold medal at the European Junior Championships earlier this month in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Due to the financial situation of the Isr
(photo credit: AUGUSTO BIZZI)
Motivation comes in all shapes and forms.
Consider Israel’s brightest fencing talents. They arrived at the European Junior Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, earlier this month bursting with excitement and impetus to succeed. Scaling the podium and winning a medal was surely their main incentive, but the fencers were also fighting for thousands of shekels they, or to be more accurate, their parents, had spent in order to get them to Plovdiv.
The Israel Fencing Association’s (IFA) financial situation doesn’t allow it to cover the cost of sending even its top prospects to major championships abroad, transferring that burden to their families and clubs.
In the case of the recent under-20 continental championships, that added up to around NIS 5,000.
The decision regarding which athletes are reimbursed is only taken after the championships, based on their results. According to IFA regulations, a fencer who reaches the finals, to which only the top eight advance, will receive a full refund.
Hence, the fencers enter the competition knowing they are not just battling for a sporting achievement, but also for the balance of their families’ bank accounts.
The IFA’s budget has always been modest (NIS 2.1 million in 2016), but the decision made earlier this month to cut it by NIS 600,000 in 2017 complicated the situation even further. IFA chairman Uri Harlap is doing his best not to point fingers or blame anyone for intentionally depriving fencing, but he fully understands that there is little time to waste in finding a solution.
While 17-year-old Vera Kanevski won a gold medal in the women’s epee competition in Plovdiv, the IFA’s board held an emergency meeting to discuss the budget cut.
Most of the board’s members said they will quit should the association not receive help immediately, but they agreed to delay their resignation to allow Harlap to approach the Ministry of Culture and Sport with a plea for help.
“We didn’t come and say that we were deceived or that other associations had taken our share,” Harlap told The Jerusalem Post. “We just stated that from 2013 until 2017 our budget has dropped by nearly one million shekels due to the changes made to the way in which public funding is allocated in sports.
“We can’t accept a situation in which an athlete who represents Israel needs to pay his own way in order to compete at a World or European championship,” he added. “I want everybody to understand that even with our previous budget the IFA couldn’t survive. I worked for many years at the Ministry and I think that the money can be allocated differently.
“For example, by building one arena fewer this year you could help five associations get back on their feet. If they take NIS 5 million from the soccer and NIS 2 million from the basketball, many other sports could also remain afloat.”
Despite being in financial dire straits, Israel’s fencers registered outstanding accomplishments in Bulgaria.
Kanevski’s massive potential was on display once more when the Maccabi Ma’alot fencer overcame two opponents from fencing powerhouse Italy before defeating Ukraine’s Inna Brovko 15-13 in the final.
“I didn’t think this day would end like this,” said Kanevski. “I’m happy that everything fell into place.”
Kanevski already displayed her great promise last year when she ended the 2016 Rio Olympics European Qualification Tournament in 10th place as a 16-year-old, while also finishing the World Junior Championships in fifth place.
Kanevski was joined in the finals in Plovdiv by Ma’alot teammate Nikol Gavrielko, who finished in sixth place, and Yana Botvinik, who ended the competition in eighth, leaving the IFA to search deep in its pockets in order to repay the athletes.
Kanevski, Gavrielko and Botvinik also led Israel to a sixth-place finish in the team event, with a defeat to Italy all that separated the blue-andwhite delegation from another medal.
Israel’s top performer in the men’s events was Jacob Pizenberg, who ended the epee competition in sixth place.
“Many coaches from fencing powerhouses congratulated us on our success and I think we are heading in the right direction. But it is a shame that the athletes and their parents have to pay towards the travel and equipment of an Israel national team,” said the team’s head coach Doron Levit. “Unfortunately, the team doesn’t even have an official Israel track suit. The ones you see in the photos taken in Plovdiv are from the Maccabiah four years ago and are borrowed. I felt uncomfortable asking them for more money. The World Junior Championships will be held in Plovdiv next month and I have no idea how we will be able to prepare for them properly.”
Nevertheless, Harlap is doing his best to remain optimistic.
“I believe that the ministry will find a way to help,” he explained.
“There are two things that are particularly painful for me. One is that the athletes have to pay in order to compete and the other is when I tell a coach that he will receive a third less in his salary for the same job he was doing beforehand as I can’t afford to pay him.”
While added motivation is usually a good thing, having one’s parents’ hefty expenses on the line (and in your head) when you compete is anything but beneficial. That Israel’s youth fencers did so well in Plovdiv, as well as other junior events in previous years, is despite that distraction, not because of it.
It is their dedication, talent and the guidance of their coaches that has put them on the road to one day become fully fledged Olympians, perhaps even household names by winning a medal on the biggest stage.
Hopefully we will soon find out what they can achieve when they can actually fully focus on their sport.