Elite Israeli High-jumper Laments: Olympic Athletes Here Struggle to Survive

Four-time national high jump champion Niki Palli lives off a paltry NIS 1,500 per month,

Watching Niki Palli prepare for a tournament in Haifa last week, it seemed that nothing can penetrate his tranquility. Israel’s top high jumper sat in the corner of the stadium listening to a style of music he refers to as “Hard Style,” a fusion of electronic, trance and house that leaked from his earphones.

Every few minutes he gets up, removes his silver shades and slowly walks toward the bar, before rehearsing the exact number of steps he will take an hour later when he actually attempts the jump. It’s hot − about 30 degrees Celsius. Palli then performs a few stretching drills and returns to his seat, sipping from his energy drink.

Still, he was far from being calm. Only last week, during a press conference aimed at promoting the national athletic championships, he confessed that “I can’t focus on training. For eight months now I’ve been hearing talk about various projects, but nothing really happens.”

The 26-year-old former world number 2 youth high jumper, who cleared 2.29 meters at the 2006 World Junior Championships in Beijing and competed in the Olympic Games two years later, is now forced to live off a paltry NIS 1,500 per month, a salary he receives from his club, Maccabi Haifa.

The basketball players went on strike when they thought there was no other choice. Isn’t it time that the Olympic athletes struggle for their future?

“I don’t think wars will do any good. Basketball players can afford to strike for six months, but we can’t. After all, the Israel Athletic Association doesn’t have money and they can’t do that much for their athletes. The soccer and basketball associations receive millions of shekels, while our budget, if I’m not mistaken, is no more than NIS 1.5 million. We don’t have the means to advertise or attract the public. And nobody wants to begin investing in us, because everybody wants to see immediate gains.

“All the athletes are afraid to lose the meager support we do get from the associations. Even my coach always tells me to hold my tongue. For a long time now I fear no one, because in any case I’ve got nothing to lose. I can’t be stripped of what I don’t have. In order to be listened to in Israel you have to break a world record, otherwise nobody cares about you. Nobody treats athletes seriously. The NIS 5,000 Olympic athletes receive is a sad joke. For a long time I was upset and angry at these things, but now I understand I only made myself unhappy by nursing superfluous thoughts.”

How much do you believe an athlete of your standing should earn?

“At least NIS 10,000 per month. It’s simply unfair that soccer players in clubs that hardly have any achievements will earn more than athletes who make it to the finals of European or World championships. Why do we always have to plead with sponsors in order to make a living?”

Palli’s girlfriend, who joined us for the interview, nods in agreement: “There were times I told Niki he must find a job, but these days he can and wants to jump. I know that’s the most important thing in his life and I won’t stand in his way.”

Several weeks ago, having no other choice left, Palli launched a web campaign, together with fellow high jumper Maayan Shahaf, with the aim of raising NIS 80,000 to fund their effort to make it to the next Olympic Games in Brazil.

“We’re constantly worried about how we make ends meet every month,” the two athletes wrote. “We can hardly cover our fuel expenses to get to training.”

At the time of writing, Palli and Shahaf had raised just NIS 5,800, with only 20 days left before the crowdfunding website, Headstart, removes their plea.

“I believe that if we were soccer players we would easily raise this sum,” Palli says, still sweating after winning another competition. “I admit we thought it would be different, but I still haven’t lost all hope. Much of our success depends on publicity.”

Palli gives me a rather embarrassed look, adding: “If I don’t clear the required Olympic criterion and make progress, I’ll almost definitely retire. I can’t go on living this way.”

Financial hardships aside, Palli believes he can do it. His results are improving every competition, and he managed to get rid of the rust resulting from his injuries and retirement from the sport when he began working in a metal plant. After returning from the Haifa competition he posted on his Facebook page: “Finally, a good competition! 2.17 meters at the first attempt, really close to 2.22 meters.”

Before he does anything rash, Palli wants to be certain he has maximized his abilities. He says that high jumpers reach their peak toward the age of 28.

If things don’t work out, he does have a plan B: studies. Last week he was accepted to the Tiltan College for Design and Visual Communication in Haifa. “I began to draw when I was 14,” says Palli, who is due to begin his studies in October. “I was always told that I’m good at it but never gave it much thought before.”

After showing me several of his works on his cellular phone − complex works resembling tribal tattoos − he says he “paints about 20 of these every month. I’m very passionate about it, but it’s a different passion than athletics. When I don’t feel like drawing I simply give it a break, since it depends on my muse. In sport, even if you don’t feel like training you must continue. I’m beginning these studies in order to have another route, so I don’t end up being stuck.”

Do you believe that one day things will change in Israeli sports?

“There was a time I did, but for several months now I don’t. When you’re told for almost a year that something is about to change and nothing does, you give up. Today I understand that I’m the only one who can help myself. The IAA won’t be there for me, and until I clear the criterion, the Olympic Committee of Israel won’t support me either. They want results first, and don’t care how you achieve them.”

Every season Palli is pressured by the need to show immediate results. “You have to have good results every year in order to live quietly,” he says. “Even if you’re injured you tell yourself you must recover fast in order to supply the goods. And then you actually harm yourself every day, making your injury worse.”

Palli believes that instead of a short-term Olympic project, if the IAA comes up with a long-term plan that would allow athletes to recover between seasons, everybody would be better off. The present situation, he says, is intolerable.

Watching Palli compete at the Haifa stadium one can understand his complaints. As he tries to continue his comeback he only has one rival, who gives up when the bar is raised to 2.12 meters. At the beginning of the competition there are only two spectators, a man and a woman who came to cheer on their son. Only when the school competition is over and the students enter the stands there is a bit of atmosphere in the stadium.

“At this stage in my career I don’t really need cheering from the stands,” Palli says. “I have a strong desire to jump, and my passion runs high even in these smaller competitions.”

Asked whether he will soon make it back to the top level, he answers: “When you jump, your body must respond automatically, like a robot, and I’m still not there yet. As I run toward the bar my mind is still flooded with thoughts. Still, if I didn’t believe in myself, I wouldn’t have attempted this comeback.”

Rami Chelouche