Alex Averbukh Embarks on Farewell Tour

After a long, star-studded career, Israeli pole vaulter Alex Averbukh knows it is time to exit the stage. "If it isn't too much chutzpah," he said gingerly, "I would like, via this newspaper, to invite President Shimon Peres to the Maccabiah, where I will jump for the last time in front of Israeli spectators, my home crowd. As far as I'm concerned, Peres is both the president and a distinguished person. He was the first person to congratulate me after I won the European gold in Munich in 2002."

Next week, Averbukh will launch his personal farewell tour in the Israel athletic championship. He will play in the Maccabiah next month and compete in his final world championship as a professional athlete in August.

"Perhaps I'll find another event," he pondered. "Maybe I'll be invited to the Grand Prix, but nothing more than that. That's it - it's over."

Averbukh confided he thought about retiring immediately after the Beijing Olympics last year, but opted to stick around because of this summer's Maccabiah.

With typical sobriety, he said he is aware of the retiring athlete syndrome. "You make an announcement - that's it, it's over - and then some inexplicable force draws you back. You hear a whisper in your ear that you can still do it, that you're still young and strong."

But he insists that will not happen to him. He has enough memories to help him avoid temptation. They include three European championships nad victories in the Golden League.

Being married with two daughters and a third child on the way, he may have to put his dreams aside. Averbukh will probably need another year at Wingate even to secure an administrative, minimum-wage job with the Maccabi Association, and that's just the start.

"I feel like I'm in the draft, in basketball terms," he said. "I'll hear out any reasonable offer about my professional future, here or elsewhere. I would say I have enough experience to put me in the top 10 percent of leading experts in the world. There's no need to be modest."

He has made a living from athletics over the past decade. Not a bad living, but also not enough. "My friend, a Greek athlete, insists I would have millions in the bank by now in Greece. I managed to see the world in 10 years, save for the U.S., and I made it as far as Australia. I have no idea how my life would have turned out in another place and whether I would have achieved the same as I did here, but I do not regret for a moment being in Israel."

If anything bothers Averbukh, it is his blown chance at the Olympics. "I made especially sure before the Olympics to do the best training, and I hoped I would succeed. But you don't always peak when you want to."

Averbukh is at peace with his life here. Over the last year, he started speaking more Hebrew, after taking a course as part of a deal he made with his oldest daughter, who is 14 - Hebrew for Russian.

"Perhaps what saved me here was not knowing how to read or write Hebrew," he said. "I had no idea what they were writing or saying about me. If I had known Hebrew better earlier, maybe I would not have shut up and said things to people's faces. I often wanted to tell some people, 'Go to hell,' but I always remembered that you have to remain a diplomat. I gather that I did not disappoint my country, Israel, and that I brought it due respect."

Are people jealous of you?

"There was some jealousy, which I think is natural. I'm familiar with all the talk by locals - that a guy came from abroad ready to go, and received everything, and we sweat here for years. If you ask me, it's a duty to invest more in locals. On the other hand, perhaps I managed to send a message of professionalism. I was lucky to work with amazing coaches for years, from my late father to Yekatarina Fogel and Valery Kogan. A coach like that, one of the top five in the world, is forced to leave the country to teach children in Uzbekistan. It's ridiculous."

You're not pleased with the way athletes are treated here?

"What Olympic athletes earn here is a joke. A guy who works as a driver in the Israel Electric Corporation told me once he was stunned that a three-time European champion earns less than he does. We don't get pay slips and pensions, so you start all over at age 35. Immigrant athletes, who get NIS 2,500 to NIS 5,000 [per month] from the Absorption Ministry, pray every morning for the health of the ministry's clerks. If a payment is one week late, a round of phone calls begins. Is it a temporary delay, or is it over? We must build a healthy foundation for sport. My oldest child dances, while the little one does tennis. But in the current situation, I don't want them to follow me into sports."

Averbukh has a dream: to address problems in Israeli sport, such as inadequate stadiums; to find a sponsor to invest in promoting track and field as if it were a high-tech start-up. He would start out with the decathlon, create a permanent financial base and then, he promised, "within five years, we can reach the European Super League in all-around sports."

Asked about who will fill the vacuum left by his departure, Averbukh hesitantly mentioned Niki Palli or 16-year-old Dima Kroyter as possibilities. "It depends on how the state helps them and whether the right people are found to improve their future."

As an example of the problem, he cited 23-year-old Kostia Krunitsky from Haifa, who he thinks could qualify for the 2012 Olympics if he did not have to work his 18-hour-a-day job as a security guard.

"It's a calculated risk," he said, and added a Russian saying: "He who doesn't take risks never gets to drink champagne."