Israel's Electoral Stalemate Endangers Olympics Prospects

Lack of a fully functioning government leads to funding crisis that means no training camps, no competitions abroad, and no equipment purchases for sports associations

Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir
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A man walks past a large Tokyo 2020 banner hanging on the facade of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, Nov. 21, 2019, in Tokyo.
A man walks past a large Tokyo 2020 banner hanging on the facade of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, Nov. 21, 2019, in Tokyo. Credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir

The absence of a fully functioning government for a year (and counting) is starting to take its toll on Israeli sports. The Culture and Sports Ministry, which is responsible for the funds that come in from the Toto sports lottery and manages the support payments to the various sports associations, will not be able to transfer funds in an orderly fashion, if at all. As a result, sports associations are facing financial difficulties that are especially aggravating during an Olympic year.

Many sports associations hoping to bring home a medal from the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo have had to go into emergency mode and might have to stop their activities altogether within a few months. No more training camps, no more competitions abroad, no more equipment purchases. Some of the athletes will have to pay their own way to competitions abroad, and those who can’t afford to, especially if they haven’t met their Olympic prerequisites, may have to give up their Olympic dreams.

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Until last year, much of the funding for Israeli sports was managed and distributed by the Committee for Sports Betting, known as Toto. Last year a reform plan transferred responsibility for these funds to the state, which distributes them through the state budget. While many sports officials opposed the move, during its first year even skeptics agreed that the reform proved itself: In 2019, sports associations, which govern various fields of sport, received 50 percent of their funding in January, while the sports organizations, which run the competitive sports teams, got 75 percent of their funding at the same time. After July, all the sports agencies got the balance, in accordance with execution reports they submitted to the ministry.

Now, however, sports officials are experiencing the flip side of the reform: When the money is managed by the government, their activities are hostage to political developments.

Because there was a transition government in place throughout 2019, no 2020 budget was passed. Now the government is being run on a “shadow budget,” meaning that every month the various ministries get 1/12th of their budget from the previous year. When we’re talking about an Olympic year, when the budgets are meant to increase to allow athletes and their coaches the best possible conditions to prepare for the Tokyo games, the problem is clear. While the Olympic delegation for 2020 is expected to be much larger than originally planned, there is no one from who to seek a budget increase.

The Culture and Sports Ministry insists that it isn’t a budgetary problem, but a cash flow problem. No one doubts that the money will be made available, it says; the question is when it will be available. According to ministry director-general Yossi Sharabi, his ministry and the treasury had signed an agreement that this year’s sports budget would not be cut, even if budgetary cutbacks are forced on other ministries. But with the Olympic Games starting on July 24 and a host of preliminary competitions and training camps planned for the first half of the year, the money is needed now.

Some sports associations aren’t so worried yet. “Of course we’d be happy to get a higher allocation at the beginning of the year,” said Israel Swimming Association CEO Amir Tito. “But the responsibility for the financial management of the organization is ours.”

Dudu Malka, head of the ministry’s Sports Administration, conveyed a similar calming message to the sports officials when he sent them a Powerpoint presentation stating that 20 percent of their budgets would be transferred in January-February, another 20 percent in March-April, and 50 percent after July, like last year. But this still left unclear when and how much money was actually going to be transferred during the critical months before the Olympics.

“In an association like ours, with high operating costs and the transport of expensive equipment, the lack of clarity relating to the budget level raises grave concern that we won’t be able to implement our professional plan,” warned Israel Sailing Association CEO Smadar Pintov. While the ministry is trying to keep everyone calm, it’s clear that it has its limitations. “Government funds will be distributed according to the rule of 1/12 of the 2019 budget,” the ministry said. “This is a limited expense framework, which will be directed primarily to meeting legal commitments, contracts and conventions, and to fund vital activity in accordance with the approval of the accountant general’s exceptions committee.” In other words, existing agreements will be fulfilled. But enlarging the budget as Israeli sports requires this year is another story. It’s not a headache Israeli athletes need in such a critical stage of their careers.