The Last Word: Appreciating Israel's sporting heroes

Since the state's creation in 1948, Israeli sports has come on in leaps and bounds.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
This coming May, Israel will celebrate 60 years of independence, a significant milestone for this young country. Since it was born out of the ashes of the Holocaust Israel has managed to become one of the leaders in many fields, from science to academia, and also sports. Of course, sports existed in what was then called Palestine before the State of Israel existed - the Maccabi Federation of Israel unified many sports clubs around the country back in 1912, with Maccabi Tel Aviv formed in 1932. Other sporting rivals were also formed in the 1930s including Betar Jerusalem in 1936, while Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer club was created even earlier in 1923. But, since the state's creation in 1948, Israeli sports has come on in leaps and bounds, and Israelis have been able to compete with pride under the blue and white flag of this country. The strides and achievements made over the last half a century or so have been nothing short of amazing. Israeli sportsmen have firmly placed themselves "on the map" as Tal Brody would say, making a name for themselves around the globe. In light of the upcoming 60th anniversary, we at The Jerusalem Post Sports department have launched a new initiative. After a long, hard, selection process we have compiled our list of the 60 greatest sporting heroes of the last 60 years. And, starting from today, each day over the next ten weeks we will count down the list, featuring an Israeli star from the past (or the present) who has made a strong impact on the sporting world. The number one Israeli sporting great in the history of the country will be announced on Independence in the May 8 issue of the newspaper. It was not easy to whittle the list down to 60 personalities. There have been many more sporting heroes from Israel than one first thinks of. From the athletes of the '60s to Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball players of the '70s, soccer stars of the '80s, swimmers of the '90s, and Olympic medal winners of the '00s. And there's little doubt that this is another golden period for Israeli sports stars. Shahar Pe'er is smashing away her opposition in tennis tournaments around the world, Yossi Benayoun is scoring crucial goals for one of the best soccer teams in England and Maccabi Tel Aviv appears to be regaining its position as one of the best basketball teams in Europe. But, while celebrating the current success, it is also important to look back on the past and appreciate the impact sports had on the fledgling State of Israel, and the wider Jewish world. Like it or not, Israel represents international Jewry on the world stage and there are few better positive examples of Israelis in the world than its sporting stars. Although sports can, and sometimes does, get involved in politics, the way so many Israelis have conducted themselves in the international arena, as true athletes and competitors, has had a valuable effect on the way Israel is pereceived by people in other countries. In recent interviews to this newspaper, tennis stars Andy Ram and Shahar Pe'er have confirmed that they see themelves as ambassadors for the their home country, representing Israel at tournaments from Memphis to Beijing both to the public and their fellow competitors. Pe'er's appearance at last week's Qatar Open in Doha was another example of sports breaking barriers. Pe'er and Ram also often comment about how much support they get from Jewish communities around the world, proving the deep connection Jews feel with Israel, something which is reinforced with the importance of Israelis abroad. Just look at the interest Jews in England had in last year's England vs Israel soccer match in London. Sports stars will always be held up as examples to others, and we in Israel are lucky to have had so many representatives who have lived up to that billing. Over the next ten weeks we will show our appreciation for those sporting greats.