Sinai Says: With its back on the mat, Israeli judo at a financial crossroads

“When I tell athletes from around the world that I have to pay towards my own flights they are in shock,” top prospect says.

Top Judo prospect Yarden Gerbi 370 (photo credit: Carlos Ferreira/EJU website)
Top Judo prospect Yarden Gerbi 370
(photo credit: Carlos Ferreira/EJU website)
Almost three years after rising from the ashes of a total meltdown, Israeli judo is still struggling to find its way.
In December 2010, Tel Aviv District Court judge Eitan Orenstein ordered to liquidate the Israeli Judo Association after years of mismanagement and internal wrangling.
The Corporate Authority in the Ministry of Justice appealed to the court a month earlier after revoking the judo association’s government funding due to its disastrous situation.
All along, Israeli judokas continued to compete, and despite often suffering from the consequences of the crisis, brought honor to Israel with medals in major international competitions.
Attorney Nimrod Tepper, appointed by the court, helped the association get back on its feet before Moshe Ponti was selected as the new chairman last January, seemingly marking the start of a new bright era for local judo.
However, it quickly became evident that there was no magic solution to the core problems of Israeli judo, which once more finds itself in dire straits.
After a disappointing performance by Israel’s five judokas at the London 2012 Olympics, Ponti announced a new long-term plan.
However, he soon discovered that he has no way to pay for it.
Ponti has struggled to raise money from the private sector or attract donations, and the funding from the Sports Ministry, the TOTO and the Olympic Committee of Israel is far from sufficient.
The judo association’s budget in 2012 was approximately NIS 4.5 million, of which it received around NIS 2.2 million from the TOTO, with a little over NIS 1 million coming from the Sports Ministry and the OCI.
Trying to make ends meet is especially difficult when roughly NIS 470,000 is being paid back in debts each year due to the bankruptcy of the old association.
Ponti convened a surprise press conference on Monday to make a dramatic announcement, before lashing out at everyone from the Sports Ministry to the OCI.
“I called this press conference to announce that Israel’s judo teams will not take part in next month’s World Championships in Rio, Brazil,” he said.
“We haven’t received a dime from the OCI in the year that has passed since the Olympics. The judo association thought that it would be right to prepare for the Rio Olympics right after the London Games, but the OCI doesn’t seem to understand that.”
Ponti claimed that there needs to be a complete change to the way sport is run in Israel.
“We can live on a small budget, but we can’t record success this way,” he said. “The OCI should have at least offered to give us NIS 500,000 ahead of the World Championships and settled the matter later, but it didn’t say a word.”
However, Ponti should also take a close look at himself while he points fingers at the rest of the world.
Perhaps the top priority for any chairman of a sporting association in Israel is to raise money to make up for the insufficient establishment funding.
Ponti has completely failed in that aspect and his cries for help and empty threats can not hide that.
“We were surprised to hear that the OCI owes the judo association NIS 1.5 million,” an OCI press release read. “For many years the OCI has supported judo, which is very high on the funding priority list as a preferred sport. The OCI owes the judo association nothing.
We would be happy to meet the heads of the association to discuss the matter and find a way to help as much as we can.
“We must remember that the OCI doesn’t budget sports associations, but assists, together with the Sports Ministry, in the funding of the professional programs, medical care and stipends for the athletes belonging to the Olympic squad.”
Nevertheless, 24-year-old Yarden Gerbi, considered to be Israel’s top medal prospect at the World Championships, claimed on Monday that the association’s struggles have caused her personal embarrassment.
“When I tell athletes from around the world that I have to pay towards my own flights they are in shock,” she said.
“I’m part of the association and I’ll do whatever it decides, but I really want to take part in the World Championships and I hope the matter will be sorted.”
Three of Israel’s seven Olympic medals have come in judo, with the likes of Yael Arad, Oren Smadja and Arik Ze’evi regarded as some of the country’s all-time greatest athletes.
Besides Gerbi, there is a new crop of young judokas – including recent European Championship medalist Tommy Arshansky – who are ready to build on Israel’s proud tradition in the sport.
However, who knows what might have been achieved had the recurring financial failures of those running the sport been avoided. Two decades of remarkable success have proven that Israel lacks nothing to become a judo powerhouse.
If only those running the sport off the mat could match the performance of those on it.
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