Artem Dolgopyat’s historic achievement in the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday was exciting and rare. Dolgopyat won Israel’s second Olympic gold medal, the first having been won 17 years ago. He did this in the floor exercises in the gymnastics competition, considered one of the Games’ three core sports.
To be an Olympic champion, especially in gymnastics, requires an exceptional combination: natural talent, top-quality coaches and Sisyphean effort. Dolgopyat has all three, in addition to charm, modesty and a quiet, polite demeanor, which isn’t all that common in these parts.
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Another important element in building champions is sports education and training. The boy who immigrated to Israel when he was 12 saw gymnast Alex Shatilov training, and wanted to imitate the man who eventually became his mentor. But the reality is that Israeli athletes don't usually receive significant sports training in comparison to other countries. Sports education includes an emphasis on practice from a young age, strict discipline and a healthy lifestyle. While there are Israeli athletes who meet these standards, many others suffer from the same “corner-cutting” that exists in every area of Israeli life.
Along with sports education is another element in the equation: money. To grow high-level Olympic sportsmen requires budgets that will enable a broadening of the sporting base – including a significant increase in the physical education hours in schools – and later a focus on those few who demonstrate the potential to succeed at the Olympics. Generally there is a link between the success in an Olympic sport and the financing it receives. A good example of this in Israel is judo, which because of past successes is awash in funding, while other sports don’t merit the same privilege.
The money is there, the question is how it is distributed. Most of the money in Israeli sports goes to soccer and basketball because of their popularity and because the Toto sports betting operation is a serious moneymaker. But these sports, certainly soccer, traditionally haven’t been very successful. The time has come to divide the pie differently.
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Israeli medalists get a lot of money – in the West, only Italy awards more – but there are very few of them. Sports Minister Chili Tropper’s decision to give more money to the elite of the elite, so as to bring more achievements from the top of the pyramid, is mistaken. The pyramid has to be built from the base, with a special emphasis on discovering talented boys and girls and developing them. Investing in good coaches is also very important. That’s the only way Israel will be able to groom more Olympic medalists.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.