Israel's new generation of track & field stars seek new heights

Track and field talent is hard to come by, especially in Israel.

track hurdle 88 (photo credit: )
track hurdle 88
(photo credit: )
Track and field talent is hard to come by, especially in Israel, where nearly every promising physical specimen will prefer more popular sports like soccer and basketball, or sports where Israel can boast a rich past, like judo and sailing. Against these odds, the Israel Athletics Association has developed a successful young crop of athletes, which will be on display on Tuesday and Wednesday at the national championships. According to IAA board member Arik Cooks, the battle is not just against the other sports. "More and more youth are taking interest in computers and the hi-tech industry and not in sports," said Cooks. "This is especially so in track and field because it is so difficult and not 'fun' like baseball or football. "We are in competition with a lot of other sports to find the young and talented who we can cultivate for the Olympics." Cooks joked that someone must a "a real crazy" to train 10 months of the year for only two or three months of competition like track and field athletes do, and that conditions are not ideal. "It's difficult and hard, it takes a lot of effort in order to improve," said Cooks. "[The athletes] train outside and in the summer it is too hot and in the winter it is too cold." How then does Israel have the young talent that it does this year, one may ask? Cooks said that he wouldn't put a finger on one thing but that the athletes of this crop definitely have a lot of potential to continue achieving. Yevgenia Zabolotniy broke her own national hammer-throw record last weekend with a 50.20-meter throw and Cooks said that this mark should not deter her from scoring even better at the nationals. "She breaks the record at almost every competition," said Cooks. "This is her first time over 50m but for her to compete internationally she needs to be breaking 60 and not 50 - she will continue to improve." National team captain Lior Peretz, himself a discus thrower, agrees with Cooks that Zabolotniy has a very bright future. "She is only 22, she is very young for the hammer," said Peretz. "I really believe she can throw further." Peretz has been in the sport for 16 years and said he feels that next year will probably be his last season because it is getting more difficult to keep up his training schedule, while working 10 hour days at the office. Peretz feels that he hasn't seen much improvement in efforts to make track and field more popular in Israel and echoes Cooks's feelings that this year's young crop of athletes is almost by chance. "In the last few years athletics has been getting weaker," Peretz said. "High ranked athletes in Israel have retired and it left a void for a year or two. Now the void is being filled and we are achieving better results." Peretz points out specific areas that make it hard for Israeli athletes to compete on the international level. "The amount of money invested is minimal - the budget is six or eight times greater in other countries," he said. "There are also problems with the stadiums, which make it harder to hold competitions here and have exposure of our athletes to higher levels." With these issues at hand, Peretz still looks favorably toward the results from the upcoming nationals. Aside from Zabolotniy, another young star to keep an eye out for is high jumper Niki Palli, who cleared 2.25m recently at a Grand Prix competition in Haifa. "I saw him in Haifa and he jumped over 2.25 easily," said Peretz. "He wasn't even close to the bar." Others developing their skills and rising to the front of the pack are men's hurdler Michael Illin and women's sprinter Rita Pogarelov. Another rising star is Sivan Jean, who like Peretz throws discus, but also holds the national mark in the shotput. "I admire her - it is an event close to my heart," said Peretz. "People outside of the close track and field circle don't get to see how bright a talent she is to achieve the results she has at such a young age." Israel has never seen anyone like Sivan before," Peretz said. "No one ever got to the same international levels as her. "If [the IAA] nurtures her properly and invests in her, she will go very far." Peretz said he hopes the issues he mentioned previously about funding will not cause Jean's talent to go to waste. "She can really represent Israel at higher levels of athletics and be the finest in the world," Peretz said. "I really think she can do it." The more modest Jean said she is pretty experienced in championships like this and that her real target is the European Championships this August in Sweden. "It's the first time that I will be competing at that level," she said. "In competition I feel excited and have adrenaline, but right now I am not thinking about it and just training." Jean said she does not have much of an opinion on the young crop of athletes this season, but that she "hopes it will be more interesting to the audience." As for her results, Jean is optimistic about how she will perform next week, but added that nothing in track and field is ever black and white. "I can only hope for personal bests," she said. The two-day event at Hadar Yosef will help show if this young generation will be able to reach the highest international standards and bring the sport in Israel to new heights.