On the field, in the sea, on the track or under the basket, brandishing a tennis racket or a vaulting pole, Israel has produced a number of athletes worthy of the title “best Israeli sportsperson.”
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There is no exact formula for ranking them. It could be argued − in fact, it probably should be argued − that there’s no space in this list for Eyal Berkovic, Omri Casspi, Keren Leibowitz or Arik Ze’evi. If the reader choses to include any of them in his/her personal list, then take into account who will be ejected from the list to make room. Beyond that, this list is not based on sporting achievements alone.
10. Lee Korzits (Windsurfing)
No Israeli has ever won more world titles (apart from paraplegic athletes), and no Israeli has won a world title three times in succession − even if she did fail at the Olympic Games.
9. Baruch Hagai (Paralympic sports)
Long before Keren Leibowitz or Noam Gershoni, who so moved us all, Israeli paralympic sports notched up many achievements, far from the media spotlight: at sports halls operated by the Beit Halochem center for injured IDF soldiers and the Ilan (Israel Foundation for Handicapped Children) nonprofit, and at various Olympiads. Baruch Hagai − basketball, tennis, table-tennis player and swimmer − was the greatest of them all. Hagai, who was awarded the Israel Prize, has eight Olympic gold medals.
8. Alex Averbuch (Pole vault)
To stand on the medals podium at the World Athletics Championship, to take the gold medal at the European Championships − and in such a technical sport as pole vaulting − was an amazing achievement that will probably not be emulated by any Israeli track-and-field athlete in the near future.
7. Alex Shatilov (Gymnastics)
His achievements in such a prestigious sport, his medals in European Championships and his Olympic battles afford him a place of honor in this list.
6. Amos Mansdorf (Tennis)
Shlomo Glickstein paved the way to the international stage, and Shahar Peer and Anna Smashnova reached higher world rankings, but his talent and ability (as well as his big mouth) put Mansdorf and Israel on the world tennis map.
5. Mordechai Spiegler (Soccer)
Maybe nowadays he talks too much, but the player who took Israel to its only World Cup Finals, the only one to ever score for Israel on world soccer’s biggest stage, who played alongside Pele and Beckenbauer at New York Cosmos and also put Netanya on the local map, is still the greatest soccer player Israel has produced.
4. Miki Berkovich (Basketball)
No other player like him has been − or probably will be − born in Israel. He wasn’t just an outstanding hoopster (who in a later era would have played much of his career overseas), but first and foremost he was the ultimate winner and a professional par excellence, for both Maccabi Tel Aviv and the national team.
3. Yael Arad (Judo)
She was both Israel’s first ever Olympic medalist and also the only woman to achieve that honor, but Yael Arad was primarily a groundbreaker who turned judo into a flourishing sport in Israel, who showed that we Israelis can succeed at sport, and proved that with the right combination of ability and belief, an Israeli athlete can go far.
2. Gal Fridman (Windsurfing)
He not only broke the glass ceiling by bringing home Israel’s first (and so far only) Olympic gold medal and Limor Livnat to the podium, he has also won two Olympic medals − something that no Israeli has done since, and who knows if any Israeli will soon.
1. Esther Roth-Shachamorov (Track-and-field athletics)
She didn’t win an Olympic medal or even stand on the podium of a world or European championship, but in her time she was one of the world’s top athletes − and not in some esoteric sporting branch, but sprinting and hurdling. Those who beat her − for example, at the Montreal Olympic final in 1976 − were (allegedly) drugged-up East European athletes. Add to that the trauma of Munich, her personality and other rare qualities, and then you will understand that, even without silverware, Esther Roth-Shachamorov remains the champion of Israeli sport.