Forget Rio: The Sad State of Israeli Athletics

Ilan Goldman
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Ilan Goldman

The tickets: In a little under two weeks, the Israeli Open Athletics Championships will get underway at the Hadar Yosef stadium in north Tel Aviv. The two-day event is always a lot of fun and even worth the risk that someone will break into your car while you’re watching the events.

This year, however, the heads of the Israel Athletic Association, under new chairman Doron Kaufman, have decided that “this is the time to charge a token admission fee for the top-quality event.” Just how symbolic? NIS 60 for both days and NIS 45 for a single day.

This sum won't leave local sports fans on the verge of bankruptcy, but given that in the past few years the stadium has been half-empty, there's really no logical reason for the charge. With all due respect to Israeli athletics, the fee-paying spectators are not going to see Usain Bolt in action. If they’re lucky, they may catch a glimpse of Donald Sanford.

The goals: Israel athletes don't live in the clouds. Not any more, at least. They know exactly where they stand in the national pecking order and each has experienced firsthand the period of austerity that sports has sunk into since the London Olympics last summer. The goal for almost all those competing next month will be to improve their personal best; if they're lucky, they will qualify for next year’s World Championships in Moscow.

Our old friend Sanford – the California-born naturalized Israeli – is hoping to make the grade in the 400 meters. Talented 1,500-meter runner Maor Tiyouri will try to recreate some of the buzz that earned her headlines during her four years at the University of San Francisco. Veteran sprinter Assaf Malka will, in his own words, “try to get close to an international standard” by bettering his personal record of 10.54 seconds in the 100 meters. Olga Lansky will focus on the 200 meters and will hope to shave .30 seconds off her personal best (23.60 seconds) in order to qualify for Moscow. For shot-putter Itamar Levy, who recently returned from a training camp in Ukraine, the only goal is “to keep growing and to keep putting on weight,” but he does promise to try to break the national record. Last but not least, Anastasia Muchkaev, who missed a month of training due to a hand injury, just wants to get back into competition. For all of them, their goals are very realistic.

The great leap backwards: The shame of Israeli athletics at the moment is represented in the plight of high jumpers Niki Palli and Maayan Shahaf. Both are members of the Maccabi Haifa Athletic Club and both receive a paltry monthly stipend of NIS 1,500. That, of course, is not enough to live on. As long as Israel’s sporting authorities fail to fully fund our athletes, these talented ambassadors are going cap in hand to find sponsors to bankroll their trip to Moscow.

The pain: Instead of using their press conferences to look ahead to the Israeli Championships, our athletes are complaining that they don't have the mental peace of mind to concentrate on training and that they've been left behind. Palli, who was considered the great hope of Israeli athletics until a serious injury left him lagging, is recording heights of around 2.20 meters. Shahaf, on the other hand, is in the best shape of her career.

“I can feel it in my legs,” she claims, saying she is certain she can clear 1.92 meters and score a spot in Moscow. She almost made the cut in her last competition, missing the mark by just a couple of centimeters. Much depends on whether the crowd gets behind her – and that, of course, depends on whether they're willing to buy tickets.

White shirts: No matter how much you love sport, attending an Israel Athletic Association press conference is always a melancholic event. Year after year, it's the same old faces and the results hardly improve. But this time, there was something even more profoundly sad about the proceedings: the athletes' t-shirts. They all wore those white, creased shirts – the cheapest on the market – with an ironed on "Israel Athletics" logo. If the authorities want us to respect these athletes, they have to make sure that they look respectable. The quality of these "uniforms" was so poor that it would have been better if the athletes had turned up in their training clothes. Unfortunately, attending an IAA press conference (or an Israel Olympic Committee press conference, for that matter) is like looking directly into the harrowed face of Israeli sport. Sometimes, it’s better to look away.

The next generation: The Rio Olympic Games are, more or less, a lost cause. That, at least, is the message that Kaufman relayed at the press conference last week. He announced that the lion’s share of the IAA’s resources would be plowed into the next generation, the 2020 kids. The Elite Sports Unit, he said, is on board with the plan, which will – all being well – deliver a generation of athletes the like of which Israel has never seen before. Until then, the upcoming Israeli Championship is an opportunity to be on the lookout for up-and-coming athletes. One day, perhaps, one of them could bring us home a medal.

Israeli high jumper Niki Palli. Credit: Nir Keidar