Israelis in Sport: Second in Brawn, First in Brains

Israelis may not be meeting the high standards it has set for itself on the playing field, but they are at the forefront everywhere when it comes to sports technology.

Simon Spungin
Simon Spungin
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
The San Antonio Spurs, in black, use SportVU technology developed in Israel.
The San Antonio Spurs, in black, use SportVU technology developed in Israel.Credit: Reuters
Simon Spungin
Simon Spungin

Wembley Stadium, London. June 30, 1966: the World Cup final between England and West Germany. After 90 minutes of normal time, the score is tied at 2-2 and extra time is being played. Four minutes before the end of the first period, red-headed winger Alan Ball crosses the ball from the right wing and Geoff Hurst shoots from inside the penalty area. The ball hits the underside of the crossbar and drops back down onto the goal line.

The England players start celebrating, the German players protest that the ball never crossed the line. The referee, unsure whether to allow the goal, consults with his Russian linesman, who signals that the ball crossed the line and the goal stands. England goes on to win 4-2 and lifts the Jules Rimet trophy for the first time.

Now imagine that Orad, an Israeli video technology company based in Kfar Sava, had been on the scene. With its Invictus graphic enhancement system, Orad allows broadcasters showing live television events to manipulate the images captured by their cameras and, using highly sophisticated computer technology, to view an incident from every possible angle in real time. If the referee at Wembley that day had access to Invictus, he would probably have denied that England goal.

Second-tier nation

It’s no secret that the sporting achievements of Israelis on the world stage have – how to put this delicately? – fallen short of the exceptionally high standards that the country has set in other fields. Israel may boast more chess grandmasters than China, for example, and may have more Nobel Prize winners per capita than nearly any other country, but when it comes to more athletic pursuits, the Jewish state is very much a second-tier sporting nation.

Orad's Invictus graphic enhancement system. The company is based in Kfar Sava.Credit: Orad

That is not the case, however, in the field of sports technology. With a deep-rooted love of sport and the kind of innovative thinking that brought us such monster hits as Waze, USB flash drives and Rummikub, it is little wonder that Israel is a world leader in sports technology. From broadcasting to clothing, from nutrition to martial arts, it seems that there’s hardly any aspect of the athletic world that Israel isn’t involved in.

Take Tefron Industries, for example. Established in 1977, Tefron was a struggling garment manufacturer battling to compete with cheaper products from Asia. In 1997, however, Tefron invented the seamless garment and, within five years, was making state-of-the-art sports garments for swimmers and athletes. Now its customers include giants such as Nike and Reebok and, most recently, the company signed a deal to make and distribute garments for award-winning Swiss company XTS, which designs everything from protective suits for cyclists to high-performance socks for runners.

Tefron’s success was inspired by economic necessity. The textile industry in Israel was struggling, so the company’s owner needed to branch out to survive.
Another area in which necessity spurred an Israeli success story is in the field of security and defense. Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has been forced to rely on technological superiority to overcome numerical disadvantage and has developed products – offensive and defensive – that do just that. From machines that detect the odor of explosives to highly advanced radar systems, the Israeli defense industry is a world leader.

So even though the Israeli national soccer team may not be participating in next year’s soccer World Cup, which will be held in Brazil, Israeli technology certainly will. Israeli-made drones and unmanned helicopters are already in place; they flew overhead last month as tens of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets to protest the government’s economic policy and were used to monitor events at last month’s Confederations Cup.

Israeli-made technology has even been used in the construction of the stadium that will host the opening ceremony for next summer’s World Cup. Ziggurat Systems provided the companies building the stadium with a $1 million technological system that highlighted possible design flaws and enhancing coordination between the architectural, engineering and planning aspects of the project.

Orad's Invictus system for tennis.Credit: Orad

Flyboys and pucks

Israeli technology has also made a telling contribution to the world of ice hockey, thanks to IntelliGym – software developed by Prof. Daniel Gopher of the Technion in Haifa to train fighter pilots in the Israel Air Force. Gopher and his colleagues thought they could train pilots’ brains on land, using a cognitive simulator, or “cognitive trainer,” to the point where anticipating challenges in flight became completely instinctive. The results were immediate: According to Gopher’s findings, flight performance improved by 30 percent after using their system.

Following their initial success, Gopher’s team demilitarized the technology and soon discovered that, strangely enough, flying a plane was remarkably similar to playing hockey; quick decision-making under pressure, shot selection, anticipation, execution, team work and spatial orientation are all common skills to flying a jet and playing team sports.

Gopher’s software is now available for download and use on any personal computer and was part of the training regimen for members of the United States national hockey team, which recently won a bronze medal at the World Championships.

A similar system, developed by former Soreq Nuclear Research Center scientist Dr. Miky Tamir, has been used of late by the San Antonio Spurs. According to Tamir, SportVU uses the same technology that the IDF uses to track and intercept missiles to track the movement of players on the court. Every few seconds, it churns out reams of data about players’ positions and decision-making and can be used by coaches to make training sessions more effective. SportVU was also responsible for CNN’s so-called ‘hologram’ election coverage in 2008.

Tefron's seamless athletic outfit.Credit: Tefron

A new dimension

Israeli technology is also very much evident in the sports entertainment business. The advent of three-dimensional television was supposed to revolutionize the way that spectators watch events in their homes. The relatively high cost of suitable television sets, however, has delayed the arrival of such broadcasts, leaving home viewers frustrated. So Tamir – having sold SportVU to STATS, one of the largest sports data and analytics providers in the world, for an estimated $15 million in 2008 – founded SterGen and invented the technology to convert two-dimensional video to 3D.

The company has a range of products capable of converting any sports feed into 3D in real time or in post-production and has attracted attention from coaches across the world. During last months’ European under-21 soccer championships, which were played in Israel, the coach of the Italian national team visited SterGen’s offices to see their product in action and possibly to incorporate it his training methods.

According to Tamir, the future looks very bright for Israeli companies involved in sports technology.

"We're heading in two directions," he says. "The first direction is to make high-quality outside broadcasts accessible to nearly everyone. There are thousands of high schools in the United States which play millions of basketball games every year. Thanks to technology that's being developed here in Israel, every school will be able to afford professional-level broadcast equipment and can stream the games over the Internet."

There's also good news for armchair sports fans, Tamir says.

"The other trend is for more interactivity. Several Israeli companies are developing systems that will allow viewers at home to select which camera they want to watch. They can track a certain player or a specific part of the pitch. The viewer will become the director."

Tamir also has a simple explanation for the large number of Israeli companies involved on sports technology. "As a people," he says, "we love sport. And it beats making cameras that go up people's backsides."

Click the alert icon to follow topics: