Rio 2016: Chasing Israel’s Olympic dream

An assessment of the prospects for a medal in Brazil this summer.

Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko wins a silver medal in the women’s triple jump at World Championships in Beijing, August 24, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko wins a silver medal in the women’s triple jump at World Championships in Beijing, August 24, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE LONDON Olympic Games of 2012 were overwhelmingly regarded as an uproarious success. It was not, however, an event to remember for Team Israel who returned empty-handed and downhearted. In sports, you certainly can’t win ’em all ‒ but you at least hope to be in there pitching.
For a variety of reasons, ranging from simply bad luck to unexpectedly below-par performances, the Israelis came up short in London.
It was hugely disappointing for the team and even for a nation such as Israel, whose blinkered attitude toward sports in general means that the often impressive achievements of a host of talented athletes are invariably under-reported and overlooked ‒ with the exception of the Olympic Games.
It’s a sad fact that when you mention the words “Israel” and “Olympic Games,” it is not sporting achievement that first springs to mind but rather the awful massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and officials by Palestinian terrorists that took place at the Munich Games in 1972.
It remains the overriding image of Israel at the Olympics, and it is in memory of that heinous event that Israel’s present-day athletes are always encouraged to do their best on the biggest stage of all. Every year athletes and fans attend a ceremony at a memorial for the “Munich 11” in central Tel Aviv.
It was all the more galling then, in London four years ago, that a major row broke out when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused repeated appeals for there to be a minute of silence at the opening ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre. IOC President Jacques Rogge stated, “We feel that the opening ceremony is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident.”
Speaking to Britain’s Guardian newspaper at the height of the furor, Ankie Spitzer, widow of murdered fencing coach Andrei Spitzer, said, “The IOC says it’s not in the protocol of the opening ceremony to have a commemoration.
Well, my husband coming home in a coffin was not in the protocol either. This was the blackest page in Olympic history.”
Despite the intervention of many world leaders, the IOC would not back down.
Eventually, a minor memorial ceremony was hastily arranged later in the Games, but it did little to pacify those who felt the families of the murdered Israeli athletes, and Israel itself, had been snubbed.
There won’t be a minute of silence at the opening ceremony for this year’s games in Rio de Janeiro, which run from August 5-21, but things will be different, according to Gili Lustig, Secretary General of the Olympic Committee of Israel.
“We already know that there will be a memorial in Rio for the Israeli athletes,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “It will be on August 14 in the gardens of the mayor’s palace in Rio de Janeiro. It was very important for us that Rio would take care of this memorial day.
“Thomas Bach, the new IOC president, promised he will be there to lay a special stone in the village for all the 15 deaths in the Olympic Games ‒ our 11; the German policeman, who also died in the Munich attack; the two people killed in the Olympic park bombing in Atlanta 1996; and the Georgian athlete who was killed in an accident at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.”
As for security arrangements for the team in Rio at a time when Israelis have been increasingly targeted around the world by terrorists, Lustig is understandably reluctant to say too much.
“It is an issue,” he calmly notes, “and together with the authorities we will take care of it. That’s all I can say. After Munich we don’t want to return to this tragedy.”
As for the sporting side, the Israeli team is hoping for a better Olympics in Rio than in London, and if things do indeed show marked improvement, it won’t be by pure chance.
Since the ignominy of London, a new broom has swept through the upper echelons of the Olympic Committee of Israel (OCI). Zvi Varshaviak, the often controversial figurehead of the organization, stepped down from the position after 16 years and was replaced in March 2013 by Igal Carmi.
“We are embarking on a new road,” Carmi told The Jerusalem Post at the time. “It is our responsibility to unite all the forces in the country and work together to promote sports in Israel.”
Intended or not, Carmi’s comment highlighted the upfront and apparent behind-thescenes disquiet that had long characterized his predecessor’s tenure. The day-to-day task of moving on from the London debacle fell to Lustig, a man with a wealth of experience both as a trainer and sports administrator.
The 58-year-old comes with an impressive track record having successfully coached the national volleyball team for many years before moving on to play a key role at the Wingate Sports Institute. He later took charge of the OCI department that focuses on elite athletes.
As we meet to discuss the team’s Olympic prospects, he is keen to walk me through the new direction in which he and his team are taking Israeli sport.
“The ultimate goal is to achieve the success of Israeli athletes in international competitions,” he states with determination. “There are very good scholarships, medical and professional support, and sports psychology ‒ a very important project after the London Games, which has been a success. We have widened its perspective, taking in all the judo team, for example, especially during coaching.We have made great steps forward.”
Sports psychology has long been seen as the key to success in world sport, and is clearly seen as a priority under Lustig’s tenure. Another “must” is having the latest state-of-the-art equipment.
“We provide the best athletes with the best equipment ‒ sailors get the best boats, shooters get the best rifles, etc. ‒ because you are competing against the very best in the world. I think and hope that the athletes will perform better in Rio because of this, but I think we will see the main impact in the long-term – in Tokyo 2020,” he says.
“We also have a new project which we feel will tackle one of the biggest problems in local sport ‒ the level of the coaching. We have a few very good coaches, but we now took 14 young coaches and gave them a special two-year program that costs around $50,000 for each coach, sending them to overseas sport centers, such as Paris and Madrid, to learn. We have also brought international coaches over here to help us.”
As a sports journalist, I’ve met my share of athletes, coaches and administrators over the last three decades. For some, being in charge doesn’t seem to sit comfortably with them; for others, it does, but they often fail to achieve. Bespectacled Lustig (who, if he were wearing a shirt and tie would very easily pass as an authoritative bank manager) seems, to my eyes, to be the right man at the right time for what is a pivotal role.
HE LIVES and breathes sports. It’s written all over him that he truly wants to bring pride back to Israeli sports. He genuinely cares about the athletes, and is no pen-pushing executive who has haphazardly stepped into the breach. His eyes light up when we talk about different events and athletes, and he easily admits, “I made my hobby into a job. It’s the best thing in the world.”
There are definite signs that Israel is making progress. The team performed well at the inaugural European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, last year, with Donald Sanford’s gold medal in the men’s 400 meters being one of the biggest successes.
Lustig highlights the new regime in place at the OCI and the targets that have been set. But should Israel be achieving more, I wondered? With a growing population, its results don’t compare favorably, on the face of it, to many similar-sized nations.
“We have a small population,” Lustig explains, “and among them most of the religious and most of the Arabs do not play sports. It’s a pity, and I think we should do something about this, but these are the facts at the moment. We select our athletes from the half of the population that remains.
“The worst problem, though, is that we have very few professional athletes. All athletes in Israel, including soccer players, number just 18,000 people. It’s a similar figure to a small city in Britain and because of this we are working with a vertical pyramid and choose our athletes from a very small pool,” he says.
“In Israel, we have a lot of security problems and the government understandably allocates huge budgets to the army, etc., but I believe in the Olympism project because it begins at an early age, teaching youngsters the value of sport in life. Olympism crosses religions, gender, height and weight, color, everything.
“Sport is the best bridge for a better life.
It is important to me to reach out to the children, because if they learn what sports can do, what is excellence, not just in sports, you know that you can dream for something and be a successful man or woman. Through the value of sports we can reach this goal.
“The children who come here (the OCI headquarters in Tel Aviv includes a popular new Olympic Experience museum) speak with their parents about what they see. It is something for all citizens that will develop in the future, because I hope that, like in Australia and Britain, the spirit of sports will be more than a religion. If you participate in sport you become a better person.
I believe that our new program will be the catalyst for a new culture in Israel.”
It’s with a view to the future that Lustig also has initiated plans to help athletes when their competitive careers come to a close. It’s often a time of crisis for men and women who, up to that point, have only really known one direction and regime in their life.
“We know we have to take care of the athletes the day after. When they are athletes, they know exactly what they are going to do. When to eat, when to sleep, etc. Then, one day they wake up and it’s all over. We have a new project that teaches them how to find the right direction after their sporting careers are over. This project will move into full stride this year.”
Should Israelis, and Jewish communities around the world who follow Israeli athletes, be frustrated then that, thus far, the Jewish state has achieved a total haul of just seven Olympic medals? Gal Fridman’s superb performance in winning the Mistral Windsurfing gold medal came at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and is the only time “Hatikva” has been played at the summer Games (although Noam Gershony took a memorable gold medal at the London Paralympics in Men’s Singles wheelchair tennis).
“No, it has not been frustrating,” Lustig insists.
“I can tell you that when the Elite Sport Department was founded in 1984, it was a dream for us to achieve and take even one medal. Before then, Israeli sport was without a program or structure. Now, every coach knows he must have a program and we will check every aspect of what has been achieved.
“A lot of people have asked this question because sport in Israel is not a first priority.
Our budget at the OCI is something like 16 million shekels ($4.2m.). It’s nothing. It can’t even compare to soccer, but we manage everything with this budget ‒ half of which comes from the IOC, the EOC [European Olympic Committee] and our sponsors ‒ and we are very proud of this.
“I think that if you check the 12 years before London, we took five times more gold medals in world and European championships and two and a half times more medals than before. We have made dramatic progress, but it is not enough.”
In view of that statistic, I wonder, could it be that Israelis overlook their athletes’ achievements at other major games and only focus on the Olympics? “Yes. You’re right. The Olympic Games is the main issue and it’s important to bring results. However, people should look at the journey we have made ‒ this is the most important thing. We are trying hard to produce better results and we have set goals for Rio. We hope to make it to eight to 10 finals ‒ that means 25 percent of our delegation of 35 to 40 athletes will reach the final in their event.”
HERE ARE a few of my picks for Israel’s brightest hopes to reach finals and possibly win a medal in Rio, although some are still awaiting confirmation of their place on the team: Yarden Gerbi (women’s judo) ‒ Earlier this year rated world No. 1 in the 63 kilo category (although now rated 5th). She was the 2013 world champion, significantly winning her title in Rio de Janeiro, to become Israel’s first ever world champion judoka. She took silver in the 2014 world championships and bronze in the 2015 European Games. A realistic medal prospect for Israel Sagi Muki (men’s judo) ‒ Won gold at the 2015 Baku games, becoming the first Israeli European champion since the now-retired multiple- gold medalist Arik Ze’evi. Muki is currently ranked third in the world in the 73 kilo division and is another realistic medal prospect.
Ilana Kratysh (women’s wrestling) – 2015 European Games silver medalist in women’s wrestling 69 kilo division. Born just one hour after her parents made aliya from St. Petersburg in July, 1990, she defeated the 2012 Olympic champion on her way to silver in Baku last summer.
Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko (women’s triple jump) – Probably the best prospect for a medal in track and field, the Ukrainianborn 25-year-old triple jumper has competed for Israel since 2013 and took gold in the 2015 European Games. She is currently ranked 4th in the world.
Ziv Kalontarov (men’s 50 meter freestyle swimming) – At just 19, has the potential to improve on his surprise gold medal at the European Games in Baku last year where his time of 22.16 for the men’s 50 meter freestyle swimming highlighted the Rishon Lezion-born swimmer’s latent talent. A potential surprise package, he could reach the final of his event.
Laetitia Beck (women’s golf) – Israel’s only professional golfer, US-based Beck hinted she is closing in on peak form when she tied for 15th place in the prestigious Yokohama Tire LPGA Classic at Prattville, Alabama on May 8.
Women’s rhythmic gymnastics team – Currently ranked No. 2 in the world (after Russia), the team already has claimed a series of individual gold medals this year in top competitions.
The Olympic Games will be tougher, though since medals are handed out only for all-round performances and not individual events. Nevertheless, the Israeli team has a sporting chance of reaching the podium.
Before they set off for Brazil, the Israeli team will visit the Tel Aviv memorial to the 11 murdered athletes of the Munich Games.
“They promise to continue to compete for them,” Lustig says. “This sends a message that nobody will stop us. If we reach a final, and, if the Israeli flag flies, it is first and foremost flying for them.”
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. His website is and he can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster