A sunny January sun here seems to have widened the conceptual distance between Israel and next month’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. As a rule, winter sports make the headlines in Israel once every four years, when a delegation to the games is assembled.
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Israeli delegations have competed at the Winter Olympics since 1994. At times, the athletes were among the best in their field – such as ice dancers Galit Hayat and Sergei Sakhnovski, who reached sixth place. At other times the team hardly left an impression.
“This is a huge event and the decision whether to participate or not, is first and foremost, a strategic decision,” says Yael Arad, Israel’s first-ever Olympic medalist (silver, for judo, in 1992). Now in business, she is a member of the Israeli Olympic Committee. “It is important to be present. We’re not accepted easily everywhere and an Israeli flag at the Winter Olympics bears significance.”
Apart from international visibility, there is another factor – the relations between the Israeli Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee. “National Olympic Committees are expected to make an effort to compete in all Olympic events – summer Olympics, winter Olympics, youth Olympics, and in the future – the European Olympics,” Arad says, “as part of the Olympic family you do not only have rights, but you must be committed to an all-around effort.”
The mission to assemble an Israeli delegation to the Winter Olympics is placed squarely on the shoulders of Boris Hayat, Galit’s father, who singlehandedly carries the weight of winter sports in Israel. Hayat, who immigrated to Israel in 1974, persuaded an affluent friend from Moscow to invest lavishly in the Holon Ice Rink, opened last April. The Ice Skating Association’s offices moved from the Canada Center in Metula, on the Golan Heights, to the new complex south of Tel Aviv. Seeing the beautiful rink and dozens of children skating helps to bridge the conceptual distance between Israel and winter sports.
“There is a fine combination here between children whose parents emigrated from Russia, with a tradition of winter sports, and children from other backgrounds,” Hayat says. “We already have more than 200 children skating regularly. The problem is that we don’t have enough ice for everyone.”
In effect, Hayat is battling on two fronts: On one hand he is hoping to nurture young, local athletes at the new skating centers in Holon, Ashdod and Eilat, while on the other is constantly pleading with the sports authorities to increase their minuscule support of winter sports. One can easily argue that winter sports come last in the state’s sports agenda. Hayat gets fired up each time someone repeats the conventional wisdom that since there’s little snow and few athletes, winter sports have no place in Israel.
“Whoever says that hasn’t a clue about winter sports or sports in general,” Hayat says. “Israeli swimmers, for example, spend time in U.S. colleges. Ice-skating is the same, athletes travel to where they can find the best coaches and conditions.”
One of Hayat’s projects is the “Israeli home” in New Jersey, where Israeli athletes live next to their training center. Hayat’s daughter, Galit, coaches the Israeli athletes, together with Ukranian and Japanese coaches. “The mere fact that there are skating centers in Israel is a huge accomplishment,” he says, “but we also need a special school for elite athletes, with dormitories, a mini-Wingate,” in a reference to the Zinman College of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at Netanya’s Wingate Institute.
Hayat’s offices on the second floor of the Holon Ice Rink are abuzz as the Sochi games approach. Every so often he glances, proudly, at the young skaters. “I’ve had enough of this debate over whether we do or don’t need winter sports,” Hayat sais. “This is our sixth consecutive Winter Olympics, and we’ve been successful every time. Summer Olympics athletes receive more budgets and hardly bring results.”
The Israeli delegation to Sochi will have five athletes: four of Hayat’s skaters and one Alpine skier, Virgile Vandeput. As to their Israeli ties, skaters Alexei Bychenko and Evgeni Krasnopolski reportedly grew up in Israel and completed their compulsory military service. The relationship of the other athletes to the Jewish state is questionable.
“The basic question – if one should construct an Olympic delegation that includes athletes who immigrated in order to be part of an Olympic team – is an issue faced by many national Olympic committees,” says Arad, adding, “I really don’t have an answer to that, but when I think of the big picture and see the athletes with the spark in their eyes, it affects me. The connection between the two Israelis who grew up here and Jews from the other parts of the world is a good link, as far as our strategic targets and encouraging a new generation of athletes in Israel.”
Arad recently persuaded Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar to grant temporary citizenship to Emili Rossno, the Belgian judoka who will, from now on, represent Israel. There are similar cases of “importing” athletes in track and field, as well, such as pole vaulter Alex Averbuch, high jumper Jillian Schwartz and triple jumper Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko.
“We cannot discriminate between the sports,” Arad says. “If the Rossno move is legitimate, why not the winter sports athletes? As long as these are worthy individuals and elite athletes it seems legitimate to me, especially considering that it happens everywhere else.”
Hayat, too, would prefer to see his athletes practice in Holon, but is aware that other countries offer better training facilities. “It would be more convenient for me to grow them here, but at this stage we need the help of athletes from abroad. We’re open to Jews from all over the world. It’s very clear. The athletes we accept must be Jewish and then they must meet the Olympics’ criteria. If we attract Jewish athletes, what could be wrong with that?”
Still, there is a difference between those who choose to move to Israel and those who receive citizenship and then represent Israel, but who return to their own countries.
“Many of them stay here,” Hayat says, “and those who choose to return to skate in the U.S. actually serve as our scouts. When they spot a talented skater, they tell us.”
Hayat is already planning for after the games, and has applied for an allocation of 15 million shekels ($4.3 million). He currently receives barely one percent of this sum, but he insists on being optimistic. Hayat is supported by Elite Sports Unit head Gili Lustig, who believes ice skating has a future in Israel: “We must develop skating here. Athletes can use the new centers, and the Russian community loves the sport. On top of that we have role models such as Hayat and Sakhnovski and Alexandra and Roman Zaretsky. Many children love the sport so this is a huge opportunity.”