Birdie in Hand, Olympics in Bush: Israel's Self-made Badminton Champ

Badminton in Israel plays a back seat to tennis, volleyball and even table tennis, but the sport has a rich history.

Misha Zilberman's family funded his training and competitions abroad; now he is Israel's first-ever badminton rep.

While badminton in Israel plays a back seat to tennis, volleyball and even table tennis, the sport has a history its advocates take pride in.

"Tennis, table tennis and volleyball took from badminton," says Michael Schneidman, chairman of the Israel Badminton Association, regarding the rules of the game. He stresses that badminton was invented first - in China, more than 3,000 years ago.

The relative ignorance about badminton in Israel (see box ) should change for the better soon when Misha Zilberman plays in London as Israel's first badminton representative.

"No one even came close until now," says Schneidman. "Misha was born into the world of badminton. His parents invested a lot in him and funded all his competitions and training camps abroad. The association helped very little, because our budget is just NIS 350,000 per year."

Zilberman, an only child, was born in Belarus in 1989. His father, Mikhail, was on the Soviet national team in floor gymnastics. After an injury forced him to retire, he became a badminton coach. Mikhail Zilberman was an assistant coach to the Soviet national badminton team and founded the Olympic center in Moscow.

He married Svetlana, one of his students, who also has an athletic background that includes table tennis. She finished third in the 1986 European Championships.

Mikhail recalls that right after Misha was born, Svetlana had no choice but to return to training two months later and she took him to practice in a stroller.

Champion from an early age

The family moved to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Mikhail started working in Pardes Hannah. Later he worked in Rishon Letzion, coaching first the national youth team and eventually the national adult team. Over the past three years, his wife is the one who has been coaching the team - which has men and women together.

Mikhail says Misha started playing organized badminton at age 7 in Nes Tziona. He played in his first international competition alongside 11-year-olds when he was 9. By the time he was 15, he won a tournament in Germany in which 70 youth of the same age competed, says his father.

Misha Zilberman won the Israel Championship for all ages when he was 16 and is now the Israel champion for mixed doubles along with his mother, who is the world champion in mixed doubles in the senior division, the runner-up in singles, the European champion and the Israeli champion. Mikhail says his wife has won 60 separate titles in the sport.

Misha Zilberman reached the finals of a tournament in Tahiti three months ago and consequently moved up from 81st in the world rankings to 67th. He also jumped to number 33 in the Olympic rankings because each country is only allowed six players.

Mikhail says his son qualified for the Olympics as a result of a joint effort by son and parents. "He has received support from the Sports Authority and the Olympic Committee of Israel since November, but it's not like they have been in the picture over the past four years," he says. "Everything came from us. We paid for his competitions and training camps because we believed he could do it."

Tennis' forgotten ancestor

Badminton reached Israel only in 1968. Only Ashdod, one of the three original clubs founded that year along with Tel Aviv and Haifa, still exists today.

Schneidman offered his services as a badminton coach shortly after arriving in Israel in 1973. He recalls that the Hapoel secretary in Pardes Hannah was happy to oblige. The gym was too small for a regulation-size badminton court, but Schneidman still began looking for others who were crazy about the sport.

Israel currently has 21 badminton clubs and 400 registered players of all ages.

Ida Seckler