It Isn't Worth Being an Athlete in Israel

A champion French swimmer did not manage to repeat her success in Beijing, but French media still embraced her with love. Such is not the case here.

One of the sports channels on television, on a split screen, is showing pictures of Israeli athletes at the Beijing Olympics this week. The captions are short - one barbed line tries to sum up what the Israeli media perceive as the failure of Israeli sports at the Olympics. The same idea is behind an article in the Haaretz English Edition: "The dog ate my medal: Top 10 excuses for Israel's poor showing in Beijing." Sports reporters, commentators and broadcasters are vying over who can be more scornful of the athletes who don't win a medal.

Even Shahar Zubari's bronze-medal win for windsurfing has not changed the spirit. Scorn and derision have become the media fashion.

As in cult rituals, this scene repeats itself every four years. In the meantime, the Israeli media ignore most branches of Olympic sports as well as the athletes. The authorities and government also give them the cold shoulder. The media concentrate mainly on soccer and basketball.

Any statement by a basketball or soccer player, however banal and stupid, on or off the field or court, is immediately picked up by the media.

The fact that soccer, Israel's most popular sport, suffers failures time after time in the international arena - even though the players are recompensed well beyond their contribution and achievements - does not deter the media, which never stop reporting on them.

And then along come the Olympics and sports reporters remember that Israel also has swimmers and gymnasts, both male and female. Not only are they suddenly raised from the depths of obscurity, they are transformed into the heroes and heroines of the day. They are exalted and praised before the Games and they are expected to achieve and win medals.

This contrast between the lack of investment and unrealistic expectations, and the result - unkindness and scorn - is not just something that characterizes Israeli society; it attests to a basic lack of understanding. People who by opening their mouths or with a flick of their pens express ridicule for an athlete show that they understand nothing about sports.

This is because they do not understand or appreciate the tremendous efforts athletes invest, in nearly every sport, to prepare themselves for the Olympics - the waking up at dawn, the many hours of training every day, the oppressive routine, the sacrifices and the renunciations - of food, a social life and so on.

Athletes devote, in fact, their youth to their sport. Moreover, determination is not the only condition. Athletes have to compete, withstand heavy pressures and go begging at the doors of obtuse government authorities or private companies. And after this obstacle course they have to maneuver through the high qualifying criteria set by the sports institutions, or they won't make the Olympic team. So they get to the Games and when they don't win a medal they become an object of scorn and derision. Vered Bouskila and Nike Kornecki came in fourth in a sailing event? Not good enough. Judoka Gal Yekutiel came in fifth? A disgrace. Semifinals in swimming? Wretched.

The obvious conclusion is that it isn't worth being an athlete in Israel. Athletes aren't treated this way in every country. Swimmer Laure Manaudou of France - a world champion, European champion and Olympic medalist - did not manage to repeat her success in Beijing. The French media have not been scornful of her. On the contrary - they have blanketed her in love.

Israel is not a sports power, to put it mildly. For it to become one, it will have to change its entire sports culture - to encourage a love of all kinds of sports (not just soccer and basketball) and to have children engage in sports starting in kindergarten.

Popular sports should be encouraged, user-friendly facilities should be built, the sports budget should be doubled (yes, even at the expense of the defense budget.

A society in which sports are important will produce leaner, more determined and better military personnel). And a bit of proportion is necessary. A huge country like India, with a population of 1.2 billion, has won only two medals. So why should we complain?