Another Wingate Institute Sport: Run-around the Law

Supervision of what goes on at sports training center exists mostly on paper because of built-in conflicts of interest.

Guy Leshem, Yulie Khromchenko
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Guy Leshem, Yulie Khromchenko

The large crowds that recently visited the green hill at the Wingate Institute where the new Olympic-sized pool is supposed to be built, included quite a few well-known celebrities. There were Olympic swimmers, members of Israel's Olympic Committee and, of course, a number of very wealthy donors.

They were all invited to a party organized for them by the head of the institute, Dr. Uri Shefer. The celebration marked the start of a new "national project" -- the building of the pool -- and to start raising the money for it.

Only a very few of those invited actually knew what the Wingate Institute's original purpose was. Today it represents itself as the Israel's National Center for Physical Education and Sport, and how very far it is from fulfilling its mission.

Most of those attending the impeccably planned event preferred to smile for the cameras and enjoyed rubbing elbows with the rich and famous instead of dealing with the reality of the institute and its contribution to developing Israeli sport.

Since its founding in 1957 as an institute for training coaches for sport, Wingate has turned into the national synonym for sport. Under the label of this incredibly positive brand, it has enjoyed generous budgets from public funds, and it has been given some of the most valuable real estate in the country for free.

In practice, as the years have passed, Wingate has abandoned most of its original goals. Instead its managers have filled the vacuum with commercial activities: renting out halls for events, hosting tourists and running a successful country club.

The institute's name and logo have been rented out, for example, for advertising "health breads" for a private company.

Even its educational activities toward healthier lifestyles have been sponsored, for millions of shekels, by Coca-Cola.

But in spite of the commercial activity, and in light of constantly decreasing state support, Wingate has run up serious debts and has had to reallocate development budgets to paying for day-to-day operations.

The state comptroller's reports on the institute have continued to warn, time after time, of the decline in the center's fortunes, without any real response from the state. The recommendations of professional committees established to study the conditions of sports education in Israel have simply evaporated with no results.

Supervision of what goes on at Wingate exists mostly on paper because of built-in conflicts of interest: The person who is the supervisor on behalf of the state, Dr. Yehoshua (Shuki) Dekel, also happens to be the chairman of the institute.

Many in Israeli sport are pinning their hopes for a change on Ophir Pines-Paz, the new minister of sports. He has already visited the institute and ordered a thorough examination of the government's support for sport, and of its management.

Red rising Last summer a soccer tournament was held at Wingate for 240 elementary schools. The finals were held during the last few days of the summer vacation, and at the end the heads of the institute and the soccer association presented trophies and certificates.

But all around there was no doubt as to the identity of the sponsor: The tournament and awards ceremony were due to the "generosity" of the Central Bottling Company, better known as Coca-Cola. The students certainly were aware who paid for it all: They recognized the logo everywhere and, of course, the red color, and even all the signs surrounding the fields screamed Coca-Cola.

The Education Ministry forbids commercial sponsorship of educational activities, or allowing advertising in educational frameworks unless it gives special permission.

The relationship between Coca-Cola and Wingate was intended to skirt the ministry's orders. During the previous school year the ministry banned the cooperation between the institute and Coca-Cola. The official directive from the ministry's director-general specifically bans schoolchildren from using the center Coca-Cola established at Wingate. Even though the directive was sent to every school principle in March of last year, by the end of April 13,000 school kids had managed to pass through the center.

The Wingate Institute simply related to the order as if it was a recommendation -- and ignored it.

The Education Ministry studied the question intensively, and examined the materials passed out to the children, and in the end the ministry decided that there was no significant educational value involved in the activities, and the commercial advertising violated the ministry's educational guidelines. Therefore, the ministry notified the institute that it did not have permission to continue the activities.

The original idea came from Coca-Cola's marketing department: setting up an area for school children to learn about an active lifestyle to prevent obesity and other diseases.

The institute certainly liked the idea, and the NIS 3 million it brought in annually, the free course materials and professional counselors, as well as the additional NIS 1 million for rent of the space. Coca-Cola gets for its money a captive audience of its best consumers.

Self-supervision The authority that supervises Wingate is in the hands of the Sports Authority in the Science, Culture and Sports Ministry. It is solely responsible for the budgets given to the institute.

These budgets were cut only 19 percent between 2001 to 2005, while the rest of the sports budgets were cut 45 percent.

It is not hard to understand the love for Wingate in the Sports Ministry. At the head of the Wingate's board sits Shuki Dekel. Dekel also wears a second hat as the supervisor for the ministry and the Sports Authority. It should then come as no surprise that over 90 percent of the authority's budgets went to Wingate, which came out to NIS 74.6 million over the 2000-2005 period. In fact, Wingate's budget requests were approved by the authority in their entirety.

Pines, responding to TheMarker's question on the subject, said that he is already dealing with the matter of Dekel's filling two roles simultaneously, and he had ordered the rules changed on August 15. He also said that the criteria used for allocating funds will be examined, and wherever they are not clear or transparent, they will be changed.

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