The International Olympic Committee Says These Athletes Can Go to Sochi. Israel Says No.
Are the government’s tight standards in pursuit of medals deferring qualified Jewish athletes’ sporting dreams?
Boris Chait spent a hot and muggy afternoon last August the same way he passed most of his days this summer: indoors, wearing a winter coat. In this case it was a blue parka with the words “2010 Olympic Team Vancouver” on the right sleeve and, on the left, an insignia of the Israeli Ice Skating Federation, of which Chait is president. From behind almost rectangular wire frames, his knowing eyes followed two youngsters as they skated around Rink 3 of the Ice House, in Hackensack, N.J., drawing sporadic applause from the two dozen or so people in the bleachers as they performed jumps, throws, spins, and lifts in the rink’s annual Moran Memorial Championship.
It was only the second official program the duo, Andrea (Anya) Davidovich and Evgeni Krasnopolsky, had entered since pairing up earlier this year, but they won easily—hardly a surprise, since Krasnopolsky is a three-time Israeli junior national champion who finished 17th at the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships in Nice. But the outing in New Jersey was less about winning another title than about having a successful practice run for the real showdown: the annual Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany.
Since 2009, the Nebelhorn Trophy has been designated by the International Skating Union as a final qualifying event for skaters hoping to go to the Winter Games. This year, the top six male and female skaters, along with the top four pairs and top six ice-dancing couples, are guaranteed entry to the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia—except for the Israelis. As in previous years, the Olympic Committee of Israel has stipulated that only a place in the top three at Oberstdorf is good enough to go to the Olympics for men, women, and pairs, while the ice dancers must finish first or second.
In 2010, a simliar policy kept skater Tamar Katz home from Vancouver. This year, Davidovich and Krasnopolsky were victims. At the Nebelhorn last weekend, they finished fourth among pairs who hadn’t already qualified for the Olympics, good enough for the International Olympic Committee but not for the Israeli one. Solo skater Alexei Bychenko also fell into the trap, finishing fifth in the men’s group.
Israel is one of the only countries that maintains qualification standards that are more restrictive than the IOC’s. The OCI adopted the policy in 1994 when officials decided to send a team to the Lillehammer Olympics. They have altered the rules over the last two decades, but they remain more stringent than the IOC’s. “We are interested in our athletes reaching the top,” Efraim Zinger, the secretary general for the Israeli Olympic Committee, told the New York Times in a 2010 piece about Katz.
Of course, Israel’s Olympic Committee has every authority under International Olympic Committee rules to hold its athletes to higher qualification standards in pursuit of medals. As Vladimir Shklar, a vice president of the Israeli committee and the head of the delegation that will travel to Sochi, explained, “The philosophy was that if someone was going to qualify for the Winter Olympics for Israel, they better be very close to getting up on the podium and in a position to get a medal.”
But only allowing athletes with a chance to medal to participate runs counter to the spirit of the Olympic movement, whose motto is “Faster, Higher, Stronger”—a statement that’s more about personal achievement and pushing one’s own limits than nationalistic displays of sporting prowess. Moreover, it’s not clear the policy is even effective: Israel left the 2012 Summer Games in London without any medals at all.
“We fought that international qualification should be Israel qualification, but they don’t think that way,” Chait told me. “They say say ‘we have our qualifier. We have to be tougher.’ To me it’s a joke, and to half the world it’s a joke. What are we trying to prove?”
The OCI is the umbrella organization for Olympic sports in Israel and is responsible for giving out the state funds allocated to Olympic sport federations and associations. The programs are chronically underfunded. In 2011, roughly 10 percent of the $21 million sporting budget went to these federations. The $21 million represented just 0.03 percent of the country’s $61 billion budget, which is one of the lowest rates in the Western world. As a result, the athletes and their coaches have to raise money through other means to pay for much of their training themselves. While many athletes across the world have some additional costs, the lack of governmental funding and support in Israel is more dramatic.
The actions of the Israeli federation run counter to statements about re-committing to funding summer and winter sports after failure at the 2012 Games in London. Shklar claims he is trying to eliminate the more difficult standards. “I wanted to cancel these stricter criterion altogether, and I only was able to decrease them slightly,” he wrote in an email. But even if the policy is changing, it’s happening too slowly to help the athletes whose window of opportunity will come at the 2014 Games.
In addition to Chait’s skaters, two skiers and one short-track speed skater are in contention for Olympic qualification. All three face standards that are higher than the IOC regulation. Israeli rules require skiers to have a maximum of 50 points instead of 80, while skaters need to be in the top 24 instead of 36.
The disconnect has prompted Chait—whose daughter Galit and her partner Sergei Sakhnovski finished sixth in the ice dancing competition at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, still the best result for an Israeli figure skating team—to devote the past 15 years to pushing Israel’s national committee to loosen qualification standards.
He cites the example of Steven Bradley, an Australian short-track speed skater who in 2002 won a gold medal in an upset victory at Salt Lake City. Bradley entered the five-man final as an underdog, but after China’s Lia Jiajun took out Apollo Ohno, Mathieu Turcotte, and Ahn Hyun-soo, Bradley crossed the line in first place. As far as Chait is concerned, it’s proof that, in the Olympics, anyone can be a winner—but winning is only possible if athletes are there in the first place. “Sport is sport,” he said. “Anything can happen on any given day.”
Chait is not alone. Windsurfer Gal Fridman captured Israel’s first gold medal, in Beijing in 2004. In the intervening years, she has added to the chorus of athletes and coaches like Chait who are critical of the country’s Olympic strategy. Before the 2010 Winter Olympics, she told the Forward that athletes “have to start somewhere,” when it comes to finding success at cold weather sports.
In the past, Israel has athletes compete at the winter Olympics in sports including slalom, giant slalom, short track speed skating, and figure skating. But that leaves a wide range of sporting events Israel has decided not to contest at all—despite the fact that it has qualified athletes ready and willing to represent the white-and-blue. One of them is Bradley Chalupski, an American who saw the skeleton race at the 2002 Olympics on television and thought it looked like fun. The sport, which is similar to luge except participants fly down the ice headfirst and the sleds have no brakes, was in its infancy, and the New Jersey native found the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation through Google. The organization was recruiting online.
Chalupski was the drum major of his high-school band and a wrestler who missed out on the captaincy by one vote—his own, because he didn’t feel like voting for himself was the noble thing to do. He decided to try out for the American skeleton squad. “You could send an athletic resume that showed you were all varsity everything or you could show them that you could, as I affectionately call it, run and jump like a monkey,” he said. “I did the second.”
Despite training with the squad, Chalupski missed the national team trials by .2 seconds in 2010. A lawyer—he graduated from Seton Hall in 2010—he was planning a move to France when a member of the Israeli bobsled team reached out and asked him if he’d like to join the team. Chalupski wrestled with the decision for a few weeks before ultimately deciding yes.
From the beginning, he understood that getting to the Olympics would be difficult both because of the international qualification standard and because of the Israeli committee’s unwillingness to provide support. The Israeli bobsled federation had a letter from 2002 affiliating the organization with the Israeli Olympic committee, which allowed the team to slide in international competitions, but the committee would not respond to requests for a similar affiliation for skeleton. Without it, Chalupski couldn’t participate as a member of the Israeli delegation even if he met international Olympic qualification standards.
Undeterred, he moved to Jerusalem with his girlfriend—now fiancee—to train. Like the vast majority of countries, Israel does not have a skeleton track, but skeleton is a power sport similar to sprinting. Chalupski worked on his explosive starts and added strength to his five-foot-four frame. “I could send you videos of me pushing cars to train,” he said.
Chalupski slid for Israel in the 2011 and 2012 World Championships. He won a medal—Israel’s first in skeleton—at the America’s Cup Race in December 2011. He wasn’t the best skeleton slider in the world, but he was far from the worst. At 29, he certainly had a decent chance to finish in the top 60 in the world during the 2013/2014 competition season that runs from Nov. 30, 2013 to Jan. 19, 2014, and qualify for the 2014 Olympics. With David Greaves, a former bobsled brakeman and current chairman of the Israeli Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, Chalupski raised money through a variety of methods, including an Indiegogo campaign, to underwrite his training.
But the required approval from the Israeli Olympic Committee has nevertheless not been granted. “We are strictly looking to get the kosher stamp so we can go to the international federation and say, ‘OK, if Bradley qualifies, he can compete,’ ” Greaves said. In January, Greaves flew from Winnipeg to join Chalupski for a week of meetings in Jerusalem. “We were very optimistic after that,” Greaves told me. “We were under the impression that we were going to have to come back and make a presentation. But we had no response. Letters and emails weren’t returned.”
In August, Chalupski went uninvited and unannounced to the Olympic Committee headquarters where he was, in his words, “unceremoniously thrown out on my ear.” Eventually, he was told that the skeleton federation needed to be part of a sports union. Chait, the head of the Figure Skating federation, agreed to take Greaves and Chalupski’s Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation under the umbrella of his skating union. “I tried to help,” Chait said with a resigned tone. But, he said, the pair made their appeal to the Israeli sporting bureaucracy too late. “They came in the ninth inning,” Chait told me. “They won’t change what’s done.”
The final blow came in August, when Chalupski and Greaves received a letter from Efraim Zinger (secretary general, Olympic Committee of Israel), Dudu Malka, (deputy, sports administration), Gili Lustig (chairman of the Elite Sport Department of the Israel Olympic Committee), and Yaniv Ashkenazi (Elite Sport Department). It read, in part, that the skeleton federation was not a member of a sports union, and that it didn’t have enough participants, a national championship, or facilities in Israel. Therefore, skeleton did not meet the requirements and could not be part of the Israeli delegation. The letter closed with a wish for “luck for the upcoming Olympic Games.”
The Olympic dream was over. In fact, without a national umbrella, Chalupski’s international skeleton career is kaput, he said. “I don’t think I’m even allowed to compete at all because the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation doesn’t want to end up in a lawsuit,” he told me.
Wouldn’t the best way to grow the winter program be to have athletes compete at the Olympics and potentially inspire the younger generation? I put the question to Chait. “Bravo. Bravo. Bravo. That’s what I’m trying to explain to them for the past 15 or 20 years,” he responded, when we met in Hackensack. “They are very stubborn, not only with winter sports but with the summer sports.” A small girl in a figure skating costume walked past, followed by her overwhelmed mother. Chait, who describes himself as “63 going on 62” elaborated on his theme. “[The federation thinks] that skaters are growing on trees. They think you don’t even need to plant the tree, it just grows. It doesn’t work this way. You have to build a pyramid from the bottom.”
Presently, there’s a skating rink in Holon, through which up to a thousand skaters pass daily. The ice hockey team is making progress, although it is nowhere near qualification for the Olympics. A group recently traveled to Copenhagen to get accepted into the World Curling Federation. But other athletes like Chalupski are getting shut down due to bureaucratic policies and apathy.
I asked Shklar specifically about Chalupski’s case. He said that the Olympic Committee wasn’t willing to stop him from representing Israel, which isn’t true because their unwillingness to approve him means he couldn’t compete. And then the river of bureaucratic nonsense began: “There are other technical issues in here in Israel. It needs to be a recognized, established federation here in Israel. It needs to be part of the system of sports.” And then he blamed the system. “Doing something like that six months before the Olympics is complicated,” Shklar concluded. “The bureaucracy and things that need to be done half a year before the Olympics. It’s difficult to do those things.”
But Chalupski has spent the past four years cobbling together a living waiting tables and doing freelance writing jobs while training. “I don’t regret it. It really, really sucks to not get to where you ultimately want to be but it’s been a huge enriching experience for myself in terms of what it takes to compete at that level but also in terms of being able to be a part of the Jewish community,” he told me. “It kind of has worked out already. It’s been a great experience.”
I asked him whether he was angry. “What makes me mad is that we were never treated with respect, we were never treated as a serious Israeli athletic federation,” Chalupski said. “We’ve never asked for money. We just want to be treated with the respect and the dignity that comes with becoming an Israeli sports team federation. That makes me mad. In my eye and in David’s eye, that says, ‘All of this work that you are doing, we couldn’t care less,’ in a really profound way.” Skeleton might be less popular than skating, but it nevertheless remains an Olympic sport, he reminded me. “To not even get the recognition from the [Israeli] Olympic committee that we are a serious federation, that we are not out there joyriding and yelling yippee ki yay as we careen down because we want to go to the Olympics, that makes me angry.”
Greaves agrees. “He’s a law graduate who has put his life on hold for three or four years now to focus on this in the hope that he would be able to represent Israel. Why not celebrate this kid, right? Why not celebrate this amazing story of aliyah, of sports, of Zionism?” he said. “Other than the 10 or 15 people that sit around the table of the Israeli Olympic Committee, every single person I have talked to in my 10 years on this journey for bobsled and skeleton, every single person says the same thing: Why the frig not? Why not try to let this kid qualify? What would be the worst thing that could happen? He doesn’t qualify, in which case it goes away quietly. If he does qualify, Israel has a wonderful thing they can celebrate.”
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