Sports, the Microcosm of the New Israel: Now, It's All About the Money

Once upon a time, world titles weren't the most important achievement for Israelis. The move from popular sports to competitive sports reflects a deep change in Israeli society.

Uzi Dann
Uzi Dann
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Uzi Dann
Uzi Dann

Lee Korzits, the world champion windsurfer, missed out on winning a medal in the final race in the London Olympics last summer. The Israeli public was all worked up about the possibility of a medal and went through a form of collective depression when none materialized.

Ariel Ze'evi, an Israeli judoka who had already won an Olympic medal and numerous world and European medals, lost the first encounter in London. In moments, Israeli moved from mania to moping.

These two episodes reveal the changes Israeli sports have gone through in recent years. There was a time when competing – participating – was the most important thing. Now, everyone expects medals, victories and achievements, nothing less.

Once upon a time, Israeli athletes who reached a world or Olympic semi-final were deeply appreciated, even if it was a relatively non-important field. Nowadays, when Alex Shatilov only finishes sixth in one of the most important and prestigious games of the summer Olympics – gymnastics – Israeli feel deeply disappointed.

This metamorphosis in the public's attitude took several decades and is a direct result of changes in Israeli society. The move from social-democracy to outright capitalism, from collectivity to individualism, has caused endless changes. The emphasis moved from popular sport to competitive sports.

Hapoel, the Israeli sports organization founded in 1926, once had a popular slogan: "Thousands leads to champions." The saying stressed the importance of popular participation in sports events, with the hope that champions would emerge. Nowadays the champions are the only ones who really count. It's no coincidence that the Hapoel Games, which was once the leading Israeli sports event and featured 20 branches of sport, drawing thousands of athletes and spectators, was discontinued in 1995. And it's no fluke that the Maccabiah games, the "Jewish Olympics," have never been held in high regard internationally and have now become a superfluous, anachronistic event in the eyes of many.

Still, yet another Maccabiah will take place this summer – it's harder to cancel since it still involves issues of Zionism, immigration and history – but it simply won't engender any excitement among sports fans. There was a time when the question who would light the Maccabiah torch truly interested the public. Those days are gone.

The new Israeli sports fan won't trouble himself to go to Ramat Gan to watch the Israeli Athletics Championships, but will fly to Barcelona to watch Leo Messi, the Argentine footballer. The average Israeli won't send his son to play soccer because it's healthy or fun for the kid, but because he nurtures the hope that his son will turn out to be the next Cristiano Ronaldo, who plays for Real Madrid.

The bottom line is money and success. The move from collective solidarity to extreme individualism in sports has less to do with liberty and self-fulfillment – which also do exist – but much more with the simple hope of future profits.

Not too long ago, the idea of a professional Israeli athlete was unthinkable. Our athletes worked as bus drivers or in the kibbutz dairy barn. Others were overjoyed when they got a job in the municipality that would leave them time for training. Nowadays, successful athletes make millions of shekels – but still are envious of those who make even more.

Windsurfer Lee Korzits at the London 2012 Olympic Games in southern England.Credit: Reuters
Ariel "Arik" Ze'evi announcing his retirement from judo after his disappointment in the London 2012 Olympic Games.Credit: Nir Keidar

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