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Israel’s Olympic Shame

Leaving London’s games without a single medal, Israel needs to get serious about its commitment to sports

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Israeli gymnast Alexander Shatilov competes in the finals of the men’s floor exercise at the London 2012 Olympic Games on Aug. 5, 2012. (Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Have you heard of Guy Matzkin? He could have been a contender. The young Israeli fell in love with archery when he was a teenager after seeing it featured on a reality television show. Like any champion, he devoted hours each day to rigorous training. He didn’t mind that the field where he shot his arrows was muddy, or that it was only 18 meters long, 52 meters shorter than the Olympic standard. He didn’t mind that, unable to afford new targets, he had to recycle his old ones until they fell apart, or that he had to pay out of pocket to fly to international competitions, dragging his father along as his caddy. This May, using the small sum each Israeli soldier receives when he or she completes their mandatory military service, Matzkin flew to the European championship in Amsterdam, faced some of the continent’s best archers, and beat them all. He returned home to Israel, thrilled with the prospect of an upcoming trip to the London Olympics.

It never happened. Israel, he soon learned, had unrealistically exacting criteria to determine which archers merited a spot on the national team. Matzkin didn’t meet them. Nor did any other archer in Europe, Israeli or otherwise. Matzkin appealed and was denied. Rather than face the same people he’d already bested in Holland for a shot at Olympic gold, he stayed home.

Those Israeli athletes who were fortunate enough to earn the opportunity to compete in London didn’t do much better. This week, Israel’s Olympic journey ended with a whimper when the national team concluded its appearance in the London games without a single medal—the first time this has happened since the 1988 games in Seoul. Limor Livnat, the minister of culture and sport, announced her intention to form an official committee to investigate the debacle. And the Israeli press, for the most part, treated the 30th Olympiad as a series of unfortunate events that robbed Israel’s talented athletes of deserved glory. But Israel’s poor performance is not the result of poor fortune. Underfunded and mismanaged, Israeli sport is a rundown disaster—a far cry from the sleek image the start-up nation likes to imagine it sees when it examines itself in the mirror.

It’s a complicated story. In part, it’s about numbers. Israel’s state budget for 2011 was $61 billion. Its investment in sport for the same year was approximately $21 million, or 0.03 percent of the budget, one of the lowest rates in the Western world. Even after agreeing to reduce its national spending to 122 billion euros this year, for example, Spain is still investing around 150 million euros in sport, or, relatively speaking, three times as much as Israel does. Spain has Rafael Nadal, a handful of gold medals, and every soccer championship imaginable to show for it. And Britain, after a disappointing performance in the 1996 Atlanta games—one gold medal, 15 in total—increased its investment from 60 million pounds to 264 million pounds; as of this writing, they are fourth in the overall tally of medals in London, with 22 gold, 13 silver, and 13 bronze. But government support is not the singular criterion for Olympic success. Team USA, the games’ most illustrious and decorated presence, receives no continuous federal funding and relies mostly on contributions and corporate sponsorships.

With major tech companies increasing their presence in Israel, it’s not hard to imagine the Jewish state emulating the American model and teaming up with corporate benefactors, giving us a Google-sponsored fencing team, maybe, or the Intel weightlifters’ squad. Still, even if corporate money started flowing in, the question of management would remain unresolved. The USA’s effort is well-run; Israel’s is not. Of the meager sports budget, a considerable portion goes to the Wingate Institute, a top-notch sports education and training facility in central Israel; schools take up another chunk, and they use the money mainly to form their own youth leagues separate from the national sporting system. But nearly a third of all money invested in sports, the largest single slice of the pie, goes to local authorities who invest it as they see fit. Almost always, the budget ends up in the hands of elected officials who have no expertise in the field: Rather than building a system dedicated to spotting talent and training promising athletes, which is what sports professionals do, the hundreds of mayors who receive a sliver of the sports budget almost always spend it on building new facilities, which is what mayors do. To understand the full impact of this faulty system, imagine that the mayor of Towson, Md., was the one responsible for advancing the career of young resident and prodigious swimmer Michael Phelps but, not knowing anything about swimming, spent his meager sports budget on building a shiny new basketball court instead.

All this leaves around 10 percent for the various sporting associations, the professional bodies that are entrusted with regulating their given fields’ development and growth. The largest of these associations, the ones governing soccer and basketball—Israel’s two most popular sports—feel no pain; they receive generous funding from the state-run sports betting lottery, which they use mainly to build new and better stadiums. And, being popular, they enjoy external sources of income, from corporate sponsorships to audience attendance. Archery, rowing, and other, more obscure sports depend solely on the kindness of government strangers. And the government is not always kind: In 2005, yet another committee was formed to investigate why Israel is so far behind in sports, the second such committee convened within the decade, and it found that the best way to promote sports was to discriminate between the various fields and pay more attention to those that could actually yield international achievements. With no professional infrastructure, however, and with no budgets to develop a cadre of knowledgeable professionals, the decision about which field is worthy of investment falls to politically appointed committees with little or no expertise. The committee that denied Matzkin his ticket to London, for example, was headed by the former head of Israel’s Olympic committee; the other two members, however, were a former runner who now heads a bridge association and a former senior officer in the IDF.

Life is not much better for those deemed worthy: For the most part, successful athletes become state-sponsored employees and are richly rewarded regardless of their achievements. Starvation is no way to raise a champion, but neither is gluttony—none of these handsomely rewarded athletes achieved anything of merit, let alone a medal, in London. The few who did win medals in previous Olympic games—Israel has a total of seven—are not the rule but the exception.

If history is any guide, Livnat’s newly appointed investigatory committee is likely to find precisely what its predecessors had already discovered, namely that what Israeli sports so direly need is more money and more power in the hands of professionals who know what to do with it. Neither is easy to come by. Any real effort at reform will undoubtedly meet, as previous efforts had, with the claim that there’s not a shekel to spare; but just this week, the government approved a budget of NIS 8.3 million to transport a few mobile homes from Migron to a nearby settlement. This means that the 50 families that reside in Migron will receive nearly as much money from the state as Israel invests in all its professional sports associations combined.

Most of the world has already realized that sports are more than just a pleasant pastime; they’re an indication of a civic society’s health. According to a report by the global consulting firm Substance, investing in sports tends to empower underprivileged youth, bring about a reduction in crime, and contribute to overall economic growth. It’s sad that 65 other nations have ridden these insights all the way to the Olympic podium while the start-up nation did not. And thank God for the one athlete who did stand up as a winner in London, honoring the Israeli athletes slain in the Munich Olympics, and unleashing a torrent of Jewish pride: the gymnast Aly Raisman, born and trained in the USA.


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Actually, proves that Israel has the right priorities – the Olympics have become an embarrassment and they should receive as little attention as possible

    The fact that any country spends any money on Olympic sports outside of covering the cost of the team to travel to the Olympics and qualifiers while they have children starving is shameful.

      Saint_Etienne says:

      Oh come on. Why restrict your argument to the Olympic games? Why not abolish theater, ballet, symphonic orchestras, non-commercial cinema and sundry other superfluous perks while we are at it?

        Guest says:

        These are not analogous. All of the arts you named are not events held only four years in order to win medals, but continuous events that people can engage in culturally on an ongoing basis. Plus, arts funding is at a serious low in most western countries. It’s absolutely worth investing in athletics in the same way it is worth investing in the arts, but not necessarily the giant show and tell (and splurging) of the Olympic games; besides vague bragging rights on the world-wide scale, they don’t really benefit everyday citizens in the way any of the arts you mention do.

          Saint_Etienne says:

          Well, now that you’ve conceded the principle, the details can be argued about :)

          JeffreyME says:

          For the athletes, the Olympics is a culmination of years of dedication, practice and performance. Many fine and talented athletes do not become Olympians, just as most musicians and sculptors to not become members of great philharmonic orchestras or exhibited at national museums. That does not negate their accomplishments; they still should be applauded for their excellence and commitment.

          The Olympic Games have major problems, but a balanced civic commitment to athletics should be part of a nation’s agenda. Money helps, but as the success of Jamaican sprinters, Kenyan and Ethiopian long distance runners demonstrates, not all of it.

I’m not even sure Israel should be participating in the Olympics. It is, after all, a Greek circus to compete with the Roman gladiators. It just seems like so much competition in an area where we don’t have it in us.

    Saint_Etienne says:

    There is no such thing as a “Greek circus” (unless one counts the recent elections in Greece). And also, the Romans used the circus for chariot races, not for gladiator games.

    You are so right. We shouldn’t be.

herbcaen says:

What does Israel get in exchange for Olympic medals.. The money is better spent for education and medical research

    Saint_Etienne says:

    You can always make this argument about practically anything….

      herbcaen says:

      I agree-Liel is arguing for public funding. I have no problem of private funding for Olympics, arts, music, etc, but not at taxpayer expense

        Saint_Etienne says:

        I’m sorry – what exactly did you agree with? I was trying to argue that the money spent on Olympics is not so very badly spent, in principle. But let’s put Olympics aside – do you seriously argue for public funding for, say, music to be withdrawn? Wouldn’t that be a blow for culture?

        JeffreyME says:

        I feel the same way about religion.

Great article. David Blatt who coaches the Russian national basketball team said that sports must be integrated at a young age within the Israel school system.

Jonathan Kopp says:

No worries, Israel. With gold medaling Jewish athletes, like Aly Raisman, the US has got it covered! :)

    Well when you bribe the Judges anything is possible!

    50ftqueenie18 says:

    And attitudes like that are exactly what lead to people believing that Jews outside Israel are not loyal to any other nation but their ethnic nation.

liel_leibovitz says:

Thank you all for commenting. Two points seem worth restating. The first is that Israel cares a great deal about its Olympic performance, which is why there’s a new official committee of inquiry in the making; praising Israel for seeing sports as superfluous, then, is simply incorrect. Second of all, as the article clearly states, there’s sufficient evidence that suggests that investing in sports allows underprivileged youth a much-needed outlet, reduces crime, improves the economy, and a host of other real-world effects. It’s simple mathematics: for each Michael Phelps, hundreds of thousands of tickets are sold to swim meets and millions of dollars invested in sponsorships. This is very real money that could then be invested in culture, education, or any other direly underfunded facet of civic life.

    Your general statement is correct, the money that Israel spends on the Olympic events is wasted because of “other priorities” and inept officials. Frankly, I can’t stand the Olympics, but sports/athletics/physical education is very important for individuals and a society. In the long run a person who spends all of his/her time studying and praying is a very incomplete person and will never be able to live a full life and will never be able to contribute the most to a civil society. On the other hand, someone who only lives for athletics (and more so for someone who only lives for one sport) lives just as incomplete a life.

    The advantage of having someone win an Olympic medal or win the Tour de France or the Wimbledon championship provides a hero/heroine for a child to look up to. Very few of the young people will actually end up with professional careers in athletics, but many of the sports cited become lifelong pursuits. I may think that golf is a good walk spoiled, but many who play the game get both physical and mental benefits, ditto tennis, baseball (or its little brother/sister, softball) is a game I played well into my fifties, and other athletic events have the same effect. I could go on and on, but my point has been made.

“Israel’s Olympic shame” is no shame at all, except in the mind of so-called writers like Leibovitz, who seek only to sensationalize with false headlines.
Apart from not winning a medal, a number of athletes performed better than hoped for, while a few others fell short of their own standards, and for the most part, proudly represented Israel at the highest levels..
Most of the funding points made are accurate, however, and changes do have to be made. However, as long as the money management is in the hands of an inept bureaucracy, starting with Livnat, who only comes to life as minister of sports once every four years, and Varshaviak, who heads the Olympic committee, [ whose time has passed long ago ] then no great strides will be made.

ravkarp says:

All this seems only fair. After all, the IOC has made it abundantly clear that is does not care in the least for Israel or Israeli Olympic athletes, so why should Israel care overly much about the Olympics. It is not like they are really welcomed. They are barely tolerated. I strongly suspect that if the IOC could engineer an excuse to exclude Israel from Olympic competition, it would do so in a heartbeat. After all, they were apparently more concerned about setting up curtains in a gym so that the Lebanese athletes need not look upon the Israeli athletes while practicing than they were about dedicating a minute of silence during the opening ceremonies to the memory if the Israeli Olympians who were slaughtered during the Munich Olympics 40 years ago. What does that tell you?

Aside from this, Israel has far more important matters on its priority list – like maintaining security for its citizens against terrorist attacks and continuing to build a modern state while the lion’s share of its budget and manpower needs to be directed toward national defense.

arturous says:

I would say that Israel has more important priorities.

    NepotismIsDomesticTerrorism says:

    Expanding Judea and Samaria.

    Making Jerusalem the capital city.

    Finding some way to bomb Iran.

    Finding some way to get the United States to bomb Iran.

    Padding the offshore accounts of Sheldon Adelson and the oligarchs.

    Prohibiting the sale or rental of property to Gentiles.

    Prohibiting Jewish female citizens from dating or marrying Gentile men.

    Keeping Avigdor Lieberman, the World’s Most Dangerous Man, from going Yitzhak Rabin on Bibi.

    A busy slate, indeed.

    50ftqueenie18 says:

    Like what, conning Gentiles such as American Christians, into doing Israel’s dirty work?

Michael Michaelson says:

I see: spend a fortune supporting athletes but withhold support from religious people who wish to spend their time praying and studying – while also cutting back on welfare for needy people in general. And that would be a Jewish State?

hsaper says:

You say that sports are an indication of a civic society’s health, meaning that greater success in sports is a sign that you have a healthy civic society. This is beyond absurd. That would mean that a society like China’s, that takes children away from their parents at an early age in order to train them 24/7, where they see their parents once a year for the next 20 years, is a healthy civic society. It would mean that back in my younger days, the healthiest civic societies were the Soviet Union and East Germany, countries with no civic societies at all. And is sport, as you contend, brings about a reduction in crime as well as economic growth, that is what we presumably would have seen with East Germany and the Soviet Union. But to assert that would be simply utter nonsense. Israel is right to not spend its money on sports as propaganda.

bobschwalbaum says:

If i were an Israeli athlete.. i would think twice.. nay.. three times before i would expose myself to the dangers inherent for any Israeli in these useless exhibitions.

herbcaen says:

Im just happy that the Israeli athletes werent murdered. After all, murder of Israeli athletes is an official Olympic event. Safely landing in Israel is worth more than gold medals

It is unJewish to take sport seriously. It is goyishe naches
I am deeply ashamed of my own country, Britain’s obsession with the Olympics and absurd success

    bobschwalbaum says:

    Which reminds of an old joke.
    Little boy runs to his zayde and says.. ‘Grandpa.. Grandpa.. the Yankees won the World series.
    and Zayde replies.. “Das is gut fur da yiddin?

      Mike Shapiro says:

      If the Yankees do win, no, it won’t be gut fur da yidden. If, on the other hand the Nationals win, yes, it will be gut fur da yidden.

JeffreyME says:

Having just returned from my first visit to Israel in many years, I can tall you that all it would take is a few American Jewish multi-millionaires diverting some of the funds they funnel into the ulta-orthodox movements’ yeshivas into sports. I was astonished to witness the huge number of buildings in Jerusalem bearing highly visible signage feature the names of individual American Jews and/or their foundations. Between government subsidies and foreign benefactors, no wonder Israel haredi are thriving and sports is ignored.

    jonitin says:

    Best post here.

    Still don’t understand why all the Israeli startup money the nation has produced that it seems as if it hasn’t led to any funding for some of Israel’s many world class athletes – from wind surfing to judo. Weird.

    Also weird to me are the posts jere which diss the Olympics or sports or defend Israel with a self-righteousness that’s headache inducing. Sound like most of them live in boxes or depending on Depends. It’s as they genuinely believe that Jews – in general – don’t have any attachment to sports, which is downright silly. Because a lot of us do. That said, truth is – from an athletic standpoint, Israel’s Olympians did not come to the game with their cleats. But as the article points out, that’s not their fault – they have no comparative infrastructure to provide those cleats. Namely the years of hard training it takes to get to that level. Good piece.

BofTudela says:

Surely the comparisons here are misleading – Spain’s GDP is $1.4 trillion. Israel’s is $238 Billion. So Israel is actually spending a higher percentage of its GDP on sports than Spain is..

ginzy1 says:

If Israel had won a few medals, Dr. VideoGames here would have pontificated that Israel should not be wasting its limited resources pursuing gold medals but should instead be spending its money into health care, welfare, and education (of the secular variety only).

Israel has more Nobel prizes than Olympic medals; China is the opposite. I prefer Nobel gold over Olympic gold.


J’lem / Efrata

A nicely written and well-thought through essay. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to use the word shame, though. Embarrassment might be more appropriate.
There are numerous studies to back up your final comments–that bringing home the gold (bronze and silver, too) empowers and motivates the young and the poor. Just look at the recent surveys from the UK itself–now that they’ve brought home so many more medals than in previous years, the majority of Brits now say the expense for the Games was well worth it.
Israel is like all other countries: it likes to boast, it’s normal to boast, it spends money on boasting–but not, this time, on the Olympics, which is sad. The story of the young archer is simply heartbreaking.
As for those who wrote in suggesting the Israel boycott the Olympics, this is just plain silly. How much more of a Masada complex do you need?

evelyn solomonov says:

Shame is too strong a word. While it is definitely true that the Israeli infrastructure does not invest in its athletes as it should, using the word “shame” implies that the athletes themselves should be ashamed of their performances. And this is definitely NOT the case. The irony is that in spite of the situation here- the fact that a majority of the Israeli athletes have to find ways to support themselves while at the same time practice for the glory of the nation- the athletes themselves have achieved more than should logically be expected of them. Kol HaKavod to the Israeli athletes who represented Israel in the London Olympic games (and to those who worked for years, even if they didn’t make the Israeli team). E. Solomonov

NepotismIsDomesticTerrorism says:

Avigdor Lieberman and Bibi want gold in Judea and Samaria and plutonium in Iran.

Perhaps next time the olympics will host a Palestinian killing contest, a money stealing game , or gay art competition. Then Israel can win Gold, instead of stealing it, like usual.

    aradi says:

    We could definitely get an easy gold medal in “Attracting nutjobs on the Internet”

JehudahBenIsrael says:

No shame at all!!

Only those whose orientation is winning at all cost would consider the participation of the Israeli athletes a shame.

But, those of us who appreciate sports for sport’s sake; for the appearance in the Olympic games and for competing there against/alongside athletes from all over the world while representing the nation-state of the Jewish people, Israel, any such world sports event is a big one.

In addition, the achievement of each individual athlete should be judged not on the basis of how he/she competes against others, and who is the winner among them, but rather against the previous achievements of the athlete him/herself. In this sense, some of Israel’s athletes did very well, while others not as well.

But, Israel’s flag was carried with much pride both at the opening and closing of the games and therefore we should all be proud of it.

Iris Ailin-Pyzik says:

Is Olympic gold really a major priority? As other writers, I also prefer Nobels. However – keeping an established European winner from competing is clearly a case of the committee having its collective head up its behind.

The Israelis also showed up to compete with anyone they were assigned to compete against. And were capable of practicing regardless of who was next to them. And didn’t include female athletes just to keep their men from being kicked out. Sounds like rather a series of wins compared to some other countries.

reikihaus says:

You don’t think having a bunch of your athletes murdered and nobody does anything about it doesn’t factor in to one’s decision to represent Israel at any Olympics event? I would certainly think twice.

Israel has the finest army in the Middle East. An army worthy of Maccabeus who hammered the Hellenizers who wanted to import Greek athletics. What need has Israel of the obsolete military skills that lie at the core of the Olympics. What use are archers. javelin throwers, cavalry today. Before World War I Kipling condemned Britain’s sportsmen for their irrelevance to military preparedness —- ” The flanneled fool at the wicket. The muddied oaf at the goal” The British have once again cut their armed forces and thrown their money into the bread and circuses of the Olympics

Shame? What a loaded editorial choice of word. Disappointed, yes. Shame, no. Of the 5 teens who took part in the Barcelona junior atheletic competitions this summer, at least 2 came from Hadassah-Neurim Youth Village where kids who can’t afford expensive sneakers get a start. True, in sports we have a long way to go. Please join us in this historic endeavor .

Jeshurun says:

I’ve read quite a lot of comments in different publications saying ‘i’d rather have nobel prizes than medals’ – the 2 are not mutually exclusive. Winning at sports is not a life or death matter, but it is important nevertheless – the world is sport mad, and if tiny Israel can punch above its weight in this arena, then this is another quiver in its bow and it garners more international recognition / kudos etc. Nobel prizes AND Olympic medals should both be striven for.

Marran Young says:

Why so racist? Congrats to all their athletes for making it to the Olympics!


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Israel’s Olympic Shame

Leaving London’s games without a single medal, Israel needs to get serious about its commitment to sports