Olympic goddesses

Several organizations and authorities are dedicated to increasing financial, emotional support for women in sports.

Swimmer Amit Ivri (photo credit: Inbal Marmari)
Swimmer Amit Ivri
(photo credit: Inbal Marmari)
The London Olympic Games, opening on July 27, are right around the corner, and a number of Israel’s top female athletes will be representing the country, with several serving as candidates for medals in their specific events. Lee Korzits (windsurfing), Alice Schlesinger (judo) and Amit Ivri (swimming) are three of the athletes on whom the nation is pinning its hopes.
With only seven Olympic medals in its history – and only one of these was won by a woman (silver for Yael Arad, women’s half middleweight judo, Barcelona, 1992) – Israel made a conscious investment in 2007 to bring its women’s sports up to par with the opportunities available for men. On both social and infrastructure levels, and after a 2005 government decision, Project Athena – the national council for the promotion of girls and women in sports – took off, with a NIS 80 million, 10-year budget. The project focuses on eight sports within the country’s athletics associations – volleyball, basketball, soccer, swimming, sailing, artistic gymnastics, fencing and taekwondo.
“In essence, the program provides exposure and empowerment to change positioning, to legitimize, to create equality for women and their participation in competitive sports,” says Omrit Yanilov Eden, the project’s professional manager.
She notes that in Israel, competitive sports are primarily the territory of men, with women making up only 19 percent of those participating. There are a few sports in which women outnumber men – ice skating and artistic gymnastics, for example – and in equestrian riding, for instance, the split is more or less even. But in all other sports, men are the clear majority.
It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in a cafe inside the National Sport Center in Hadar Yosef. Yanilov Eden is taking a few minutes to talk about Project Athena and the state of women’s athletics in general, in a country where, for the average person on the street, sports are mostly associated with soccer and basketball – usually men’s.
She has just come from a panel of the Athena Ambassador program at a junior high school in Kfar Saba. The program takes the country’s leading female athletes and brings them into classrooms and youth centers – before audiences of boys and girls alike – in an attempt to increase girls’ and young women’s exposure to sports, as well as the public’s exposure to women’s sports.
“The idea is for social change that reaches the general population,” she says.
“Today on the panel, they gave out these postcards,” she adds, holding one up as she speaks. It has photographs of female athletes competing in their respective sports, with their names listed underneath. There is high jumper Danielle Frenkel, fencer Delila Hatuel, disabled rower Moran Samuel, and a host of others. While she’s talking, one of the panel participants, retired tennis player Tzipi Obziler – ranked 75th in the world in 2007 – stops by to say hello, expressing her satisfaction with the day’s event.
“So the athletes were signing the postcards,” Yanilov Eden explains, returning to her story. But even with other athletes there, the big draw was soccer player Silvi Jan, who scored her 1,000th career goal in club/national play this past February, setting a record for women’s soccer.
“The boys were standing in line for Silvi’s autograph,” she says.
GILI LUSTIG is the sports director for the Israeli Olympic Committee and the director of its Elite Sports Department.
He agrees with Yanilov Eden that increasing the participation of women in sports is an effort that needs an extra push.
“In order to lead young women into the world of sports, we must do work that is very thorough – marketing, offering free [sports] clubs – to expose women to this and to put them into a framework that will provide them the entry into athletics,” he says.
He also emphasizes that while the country has seen an increase in participation and acceptance of both men’s and women’s sports amid the general public, there is still much work to do within the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities, where many have no association with athletics at all.
“The level of sports in Israel is far from what I would want it to be,” he says. “It is still not accepted as cultural or traditional, unlike in many Western countries, or in Europe.”
He adds that if under these circumstances it is difficult to produce elitecaliber male athletes, then for women, the circumstances are “catastrophic.”
There are two main areas in which Israel must invest, if it wishes to change this situation, according to Lustig: physical infrastructure, such as training facilities and programs; and human infrastructure, such as grooming female athletes on the lower levels of competition to enable them to reach an elite level.
This focus on up-and-coming athletes is also in line with one of the Israeli Olympic Committee’s goals for London 2012: having a female competitor bring home another medal. Since judoka Arad’s silver in 1992, Israel has been close twice: at the Sydney games in 2000 with Anat Fabrikant’s and Shani Kedmi’s fourth-place finish in the sailing 470 class, and in Beijing in 2008, with the fourth-place finish of Vered Buskila and Nike Kornecki in the same class.
According to the office of the Culture and Sport Ministry’s spokesperson, the promotion of women’s sports in Israel is one of minister Limor Livnat’s major foci. This includes boosting “the number of female athletes active in Israel [both] within the framework of competitive sports, and within the framework of amateur sports.”
Part of this effort has involved making ministry support for sports associations contingent on their employing a certain number of women in management positions, in relation to the number of female athletes within the association’s membership. Another focal point has been in the promotion of the Athena project, which Livnat officially inaugurated in 2008.
Project Athena incorporates a number of former competitive female athletes from various sports, who now serve as coordinators liaising between Athena and the country’s sports associations.
There are also female coordinators serving within the associations themselves. Their responsibilities include overseeing the activities and the specific goals of the Athena projects being instituted in the field.
According to Yanilov Eden, one of these projects is the Israel Basketball Association’s women’s summer league, established to provide additional playing time for local athletes who might get less court time during the regular season. There is also a joint project of the Israel Water Polo Association and the Israel Swimming Association, encouraging young girls to play water polo. Part of the motivation for the latter project, Yanilov Eden says, came from a 2010 study that found girls prefer to participate in socially oriented sports, as opposed to individual sports.
There are also projects within a number of Arab villages, encouraging girls to participate in basketball and table tennis in Karmiel and basketball in the Western Galilee.
Another highlighted aspect of Project Athena is the Top Team, which, according to Yanilov Eden, centers on elite athletes and those one level below Olympic caliber. The Top Team provides participants with the funding, coaching, medical and psychological support necessary for them to focus their efforts on improving their performance and achieving competitive goals – as Yanilov Eden says, “to enable them to be Olympic athletes on the most competitive level.”
Ultimately the Top Team project strives to bring home a women’s medal from the 2012 Olympics and increase the number of female athletes reaching the finals in Olympic events.
The assistance that athletes receive within the Top Team allows them to do things like attend special training camps outside Israel, an expense that many could not otherwise afford.
“For the athletes who have not yet made the Olympic team, the expenses would otherwise be paid by the family,” says the Athena professional manager. “And for those on the Olympic team, there is a hierarchy, with those who are lower in the order having the expenses paid by their families and their sports associations.”
ARAD SITS in a coffee shop in a suburban north Tel Aviv neighborhood, looking over the screen of her laptop. She says she knows the athletes’ struggles well.
“Back in my day, we hardly had any medical support,” the judoka explains. “We had to find solutions for most of the things and problems [ourselves] – doctors, physical therapy, treatments… it was difficult not only for me, but also for the family.”
Things began to change for the better, she says, in 1991, about a year before the Barcelona games. Yet she, like Lustig, is quick to note that the issue was less one of being a woman than of being an athlete in general.
“What I had to go through was not because I was female,” she says. “It was quite the same for most of us [male and female].”
The bottom line, she says, is that there is no comparison between the assistance she received, and the assistance the country’s competitive athletes receive today starting at a “very young age.” She credits the efforts of Athena with being a positive driving force behind this change.
Yet even with these improvements, there are world-class athletes who find themselves primarily on their own. Hagar Finer is the WIBF world bantamweight women’s boxing champion.
As a professional athlete, she finds herself carrying most of the expenses for training, travel, medical and other essentials.
“It’s all on me,” she says. “I need to pay for myself and for my coach, even for our flights to the world championship.”
A partial saving grace came in the form of trucking company Iveco, which approached her about sponsorship after seeing her interviewed on the news. Today the company sponsors her fights, and she is extremely grateful, saying its help has been essential in allowing her to focus her efforts more effectively.
“If I didn’t have Iveco’s backing, I wouldn’t have any help,” she says.
Still, as she prepares for the upcoming fight to defend her title this July in Germany, Finer is also employed as a martial arts instructor to make ends meet.
“When I’m working, I can’t concentrate on my training, but I need to work to survive,” she says.
The Iveco website proudly lists the sponsorship, declaring, “Hagar showcases in her life the same values that we so thoroughly believe in: excellence, persistence, caring and commitment.”
This is something that Lustig says he wishes Israeli businesses would express more often, especially when it comes to sponsoring athletes – a practice that is much more common outside Israel.
“In Israel, businesspeople and leaders of companies don’t understand that athletes can be great role models,” he says. “They symbolize excellence, and I think it is time companies realize this regarding athletes and regarding women.”
In one of the broader efforts to raise awareness and influence values, the Athena Project has held its “Athena Goes Far” event yearly since 2002. With the cooperation of the Culture and Sport Ministry and the Tel Aviv- Jaffa Municipality, the happening promotes the participation of girls and women in sports. This year’s event took place early last month at the Tel Aviv Port, where thousands from across the country gathered to participate in a 5-km. and 8-km. walk, as well as spinning and Drums Alive sessions. Model Ilanit Levy hosted, singer Ninet Tayeb preformed, and models Gili Saar and Adi Noyman spun tunes on the DJ stand. Similar events have been held in Jerusalem and Beersheba.
SCHLESINGER, MEANWHILE, says she appreciates the value that the Athena program’s projects provide, especially when it comes to cultivating young girls’ involvement in athletics. The judoka is in high gear, preparing for the upcoming Olympic Games, but in between training, she takes time out for a quick phone interview.
The growing awareness of women to sports in Israel is evident, she says, but adds that while she knew from the moment she stepped on the mat that “this is it, I want to do judo,” there might be social considerations that would scare other girls off. She says she would like to see more girls doing sports in general, and particularly choosing judo, without it being considered “masculine.”
It is a sentiment that Yanilov Eden can understand.
“It’s not trendy to do competitive sports today,” she says. “If there are five dance schools in the city, then the girls go to those. We are fighting for the girls’ free time.”
Competitive sports, she adds, are “not attractive. Girls prefer to walk in the mall. The walk in the mall is much more attractive, and that’s part of the new sport.”
She talks about societal issues like body image and stereotypes – “When a girl goes to play soccer, it does not have to carry a masculine connotation; not every female swimmer is bothered by her broad shoulders” – as well as issues that begin in the home and with the parents, who do not necessarily want their daughters competing. Part of Athena’s mission, as defined by the Culture and Sport Ministry, is to educate these parents, while exposing them to the importance of athletics, and the benefits it can bring their daughters.
When viewed through the broader framework of society, the issue of women’s sports in Israel is, one could argue, actually one of athletics in general and the importance it holds in the national psyche. As Arad says, “I am not so good in looking at life through the eyes of male or female. I can say that my medal made the [world of] Israeli sports believe that everything you want is possible. The psychological barrier was broken – for athletes, men and women, boys and girls; coaches; managers; journalists; and for the public.”