Sinai Says: Ice skating slipping through cracks in Israel

Israel’s figure skaters are registering historic accomplishments in international competitions and the sport is blossoming at the youth level.

Daniel Samohin was crowned as the 2016 World Junior champion (photo credit: REUTERS)
Daniel Samohin was crowned as the 2016 World Junior champion
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Daniel Samohin’s crowning as the 2016 World Junior figure skating champion this past weekend was first and foremost a triumph for the athlete and his family.
However, there is also another man whose contribution to Samohin’s success was nothing short of vital, as it was to any other achievement recorded by Israel’s figure skaters over the past two decades.
It is safe to say that without the president of the Israel Ice Skating Federation, Boris Chait, Israel wouldn’t have a junior world champion in Samohin, a European silver medalist in Alexei Bychenko or representation in figure skating in each of the past five Winter Olympics.
But the man who has carried the sport on his shoulders in the country since his daughter, Galit, began representing Israel in Ice Dancing in the mid- 1990s, is growing fed up.
Israel’s figure skaters are registering historic accomplishments in international competitions and the sport is blossoming at the youth level following the opening of the “Ice Peaks” ice rink in Holon three years ago. But the growth has been impeded by lack of funding and insufficient facilities in the country, with Chait personally paying for many of the expenses of Israel’s ice skaters.
“There is some funding from the Olympic Committee of Israel and the Sports Authority but I’m not scared to say to them in their faces, and I don’t think they will even complain about this, that it is bubkes,” Chait told The Jerusalem Post earlier this week. “You don’t prepare a world class athlete on the money they give. You just can’t, so basically I give the money.
“I don’t know how much more success somebody needs in order to do something,” he added. “Especially in Israel where you don’t have that much success in sport. With all due respect, something is wrong.
“People try to say that Israeli kids don’t work hard and that they are spoiled. I don’t buy these stories. It is not true. Sport is just not built the right way in this country. I’m looking at the kids skating in Holon and across the country and there are some very talented kids. But you have to give them a home.”
Like most of Israel’s top class figure skaters, Samohin trains abroad, in his case in San Diego, California, with his family leaving Israel 15 years ago.
Samohin’s father, Igor, coached the Israel national figure skating team when his son was born in 1998 and he now guides Daniel, with his mother Irina in charge of the choreography.
Samohin proved why he is regarded as the future of winter sports in Israel on Friday when he won the gold medal at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Debrecen, Hungary.
Performing to the theme music from Sherlock Holmes, Samohin rose from ninth place after the short program to first overall with a personal best free program score of 165.38 points.
The 18-year-old, who nailed a quad toe-triple-toe, quad Salchow, a solo quad toe as well as a triple Axel and three more triples, finished with a total score of 236.65 points, giving Israel its first World Junior Championship medal of any color.
“I can’t believe this. I’m very happy and very excited,” said Samohin, who finished in seventh place at the senior European Championships earlier this year at which Bychenko took a silver medal.
“I don’t know if I expected it to happen this weekend but in general we definitely expected this to happen. It is not a fluke,” said Chait.
“Last year he was in the top 10 in the junior worlds and qualified as one of the top six in the world for the junior Grand Prix finals in Barcelona.
“He is obviously a diamond and that is not just my assessment. But he is still a rough diamond which needs to be worked on and perfected,” explained Chait. “A lot of things can happen in the life of an athlete like injuries. It depends how hard he is going to work after this, but the understanding of everybody and the feeling of everybody is that he isn’t even close to achieving what he can achieve which is big. He’s Olympic material.”
Samohin came to represent Israel in a similar way to most of Israel’s figure skaters.
“Everybody in the diaspora, Israelis or Jews, they talk to me. I have a very simple message to everybody who has the right to represent Israel, that they are welcome,” said Chait.
“I had a conversation with his father a few years ago and they understood that this is their country. Actually in his case it is a very positive situation because if he would be representing the US he would have to fight his way through and in figure skating there is a lot of politics.”
Chait said he always gets asked why Israel’s figure skaters practice overseas, but on the other hand the Ice Skating Federation receives little to no help in building facilities.
“On the one hand it is great people win and get results but on the other hand we are creating a monster,” he noted. “A good monster, but it needs to be fed. We have done it in a partisan way until now but this is not professional.
“The biggest problem is that they say ‘you come with the results and then we will try to support you somehow’,” he added. “But you need to build the pyramid from the bottom not the top. They aren’t interested in building facilities and there is no more room in the rink. We have run out of ice time.”
Chait said the federation has gone from 20 kids training regularly to over 350 since the opening of the rink in Holon, but that it could do so much more if it were given the funds.
“The ministers of sport are changing and the office holders are changing but the idea of sport and developing sport has not changed,” he said.
“Sport is more than politics. Our athletes are ambassadors. Samohin with the Israeli flag showed them that we are here to stay but nobody understands it.”
Chait has helped to take Israeli figure skating to a new level, but continued growth depends on increased funding from the establishment, which is not forthcoming.
“I’m not a person that gives up easily, but everything has a price and everything has a boundary. Somebody has to help,” he said. “Galit lost quite a few medals by coming back to Israel from the US, but on the other hand we built a legacy, if somebody is interested in it.”