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Athletics / Israeli Open Championships

Israel's national athletics team last week finished eighth and last at the European Athletics Team Championship 2nd League in Belgrade, and will return to the 3rd league after a year in the higher tier.

"The situation has deteriorated, and that's cause for concern," says Dorit Naor, who at 40 continues to set national records in the javelin and doesn't see any successors. "We're treading in place while the other countries are moving forward. When I went to tournaments 20 years ago, rivals like Turkey and Greece were on our level, but nowadays where are they and where are we? It's really sad."

Actually, the Israeli men, among them high jumper Dima Kroyter and long jumper Yochai Halevi, managed to finish a respectable third. The women, save for the talented high jumper Maayan Forman and inexhaustible sprinter Irinia Lansky, finished a disappointing eighth, far behind the other teams. "Because of the weighted point system, the women pulled down the men as well," said Jack Cohen, the secretary general of the Israel Athletics Association. He said it was therefore a must to improve women's athletics for the men's sake.

While the IAA was disappointed with the results in Belgrade, its immediate task at hand is filling the stands at the Israeli Open Championships, which commence tomorrow, to show support for the athletes and provide them with optimal conditions for meeting the qualifying criteria for the European Championships.

In the long term, the IAA is banking on a new initiative to provide intensive training for a small group of elite Israeli athletes for Olympic competition. Last year, Sports Minister Limor Livnat responded to IAA lobbying by agreeing to fund a project for raising the professionalism of leading athletes. With an annual budget of NIS 2.5 million, 21 athletes who met a set of criteria began training with increased financial and medical support. A partnership of the ministry, the Israel Olympic Committee and the IAA appointed Averbukh the program's professional coordinator.

The goal is to send six male and female graduates of the project to the 2012 London Games. There are three further sets of criteria to meet, the last being qualifying for the Olympics, and so far 12 of the 21 have met the first set with the deadline this August, says Cohen. Those who don't meet the first set in time will be out.

Livnat's budget helps, but Israel is still wanting for good coaches. "Most coaches work part-time, or they are retirees and can get by with a low salary in athletics," says Anatoly Shefran, Kroyter's coach. "Coaching in Israel isn't a profession, and that's where it starts. A public school physical education teacher makes more than a national coach. You can't get ahead in this kind of situation."

Averbukh says there aren't any coaches out there who can develop athletes' talents. "If in the coming period there won't be good enough coaches, there won't be any athletics here in another 10 or 15 years," he says.