So far, we have surveyed in some detail the major developments in the field in the pre-State era. It is in this period that the major interest lies for those who wish to see the subject in its widest terms.
From the foundation of the state, begins a new period which brings the Israeli version of a universal picture, with different sporting branches emerging and athletes and sportsmen and women competing, with greater or lesser success, both internally and on the international stage. Israel’s story from this point of view can boast few great achievements and no great surprises. For this reason, the survey will not address the sports world branch by branch, detailing the development of each and every branch and giving praise to all those who have brought credit on themselves and on their country. Rather, it will focus on some of the central aspects and developments that need to be emphasised in a brief and general survey.
A: The Major Branches: Soccer and Basketball
The two dominant and most popular branches of sport have proved to be soccer (which, as we have indicated, developed from the time of, and under the influence of, the British mandate) and basketball, which first appears in organised form somewhere in the early 1930’s. Let us first talk of basketball.
It is interesting to note in this regard that whereas the first Maccabiah did not feature basketball, two small tournaments between four teams of men (Egypt, Turkey, Syria and Eretz Yisrael) and three teams of women (Poland, France and Eretz Yisrael), was part of the second Maccabiah in 1935. In the immediate post-State period, an enormous push to the sport came with the arrival of an American professional Jewish coach, Nat Holman, for a few weeks to train Israeli coaches. This was a turning point on the way to a far higher standard of play, and in the following years Israel started to participate in international competition both for men and women’s teams. Another turning point came with the Aliyah of a number of prominent Jewish athletes from the U.S. in the mid to late 1960’s and the early 1970’s. These players gave a serious boost to the state of Israeli basketball and club and national sides started to improve both their basketball techniques and their results.
The early 1970’s saw another major development when Israeli teams, starting with Maccabi Tel Aviv, who felt the need to improve its team in order to compete more successfully in Europe, began to bring over foreign non-Jewish players to Israel on a professional basis. Since then, these players have become an increasingly dominant feature of the Israeli scene, enabling Israeli teams to do much better in European competitions, although many would claim that this is at the expense of the national team, because the presence of so many “imports” on the team level has inhibited the development of home-grown talent. The major team that dominates the local scene in a way that no other club does in any other branch of sport is Maccabi Tel Aviv, which has competed successfully for European championship titles and has almost always won the local Israeli league.
Soccer may well be a sport that is older and more established, but it has fewer achievements to its record. Israel’s soccer has generated great interest at the local level, but has seldom produced a standard of play which really justifies the local enthusiasm. A number of very talented players have emerged over the years, and especially in recent years, several of them have gone onto successful careers outside of the country, something that is rarer in the field of basketball, perhaps because of the dominance of the foreign players. In soccer too, the last twenty years have seen the presence of many foreign players, including a few of very high quality, but the fact that there are eleven players in a team, has meant that the import of foreign players has not had quite the same effect in limiting the emergence of local talent.
The local league has not been dominated over the years by one team, as is the case with basketball, but rather has seen good competition between three or four consistent teams (Maccabi Tel Aviv, HaPoel Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa and for a time in the mid fifties to early sixties HaPoel Petah Tikvah, and in the seventies and early eighties, Maccabi Netanyah).
Israeli soccer suffered for many years from the fact that it was categorized as a part of Asia, a relatively backward part of the soccer world, and when Asia basically boycotted Israeli teams after the 1973 war, Israel was forced to travel to Australasia for its competitive international games. Only in 1994 was Israel finally admitted into the pantheon of world football, the European area. This was excellent both from the point of view of public interest and from the perspective of gaining a chance to play regularly at the highest level, something which is likely in the long run to improve the level of Israel’s own soccer, as well as giving Israeli players a better arena to display their individual talents.
However, the obvious flipside to this is the fact that trying to get through to the major tournaments, the World Cup, the European championships and the Olympics, is now more difficult because of the standard of competition that has to be overcome in order to advance to the final stages of the respective tournaments. Prior to 1994, it was unquestionably easier for Israel to advance, and indeed in that earlier period, Israel got through to the final Olympic stages a couple of times. In 1970, Israel made it through to the final stages of the World Cup Tournament. At the moment, that success seems unlikely to repeat itself in the near future.
On the other hand, the last few years have seen some very impressive runs in major tournaments by Israeli clubs, notably Maccabi Haifa and HaPoel Tel Aviv, both of which have defeated some major European opponents. This, to a certain extent, reflects a major change that has taken place in the world of Israeli soccer, namely the penetration of commercial interests into the management of some of the Israeli teams, which have enjoyed a resultant professionalisation of the management and training structure and an injection of considerable sums of money that have enabled the building of successful teams. The old centres of politics, Maccabi, HaPoel and Betar, have tended to step aside – or have sometimes been pushed aside – allowing the potential at least for the freeing of the system from the control of political elements that have often inhibited the professional development of the teams.
B: Individual Achievements
Apart from soccer and basketball, a few of the other branches of sport have seen some individual achievements, especially in recent decades. Judo, windsurfing, kayaking and sailing, and perhaps, most especially tennis, have all produced some excellent individual performances which have brought pride and pleasure to many Israelis. Even athletics, which has tended to drag behind with very mediocre achievements, has seen an occasional outstanding performance. Several of these individual performances have come from athletes who came on Aliyah from the former Soviet Union, or through the influence of sports trainers, who came from the same countries.
It is worthwhile mentioning that this is not the first time that Israel’s sport has benefited from the contribution of Olim. In the 1930s especially, some of the athletes who came over from Europe in the escape from fascism, made great contributions to the development of sport in general, and field and track athletics in particular. Some of them brought considerable sporting histories with them from their previous life. Others developed in the Yishuv.
In terms of the modern Aliyah from the former Soviet Union, the greatest performances in this category are certainly of Anna Smashnova (now Pistolesi) in the field of tennis, Constantin Matosovich in the high jump (fifth place in the Sydney Olympics of 2000), Alexander Averbuch in pole vaulting (European champion in 2002) and Michael Kalganov in kayaking (bronze medal in the Sydney Olympics). Other achievements in the Olympic arena came from homegrown Israeli sportsmen and women, Yael Arad (Judo, silver medal, Barcelona, 1992), Oren Smadja (Judo, bronze medal, Barcelona, 1992, and Gal Friedman (windsurfing, bronze medal, Atlanta, 1996).
C: Olympic Games Incidents
Two other significant events should be mentioned in reference to Israel’s participation in the Olympics. The first is, of course, the Munich murders. A delegation of fifteen athletes and fifteen officials (six trainers, two judges, a doctor and six general officials) arrived in Munich in August 1972. On the morning of September 5th, a group of terrorists, calling themselves “Black September”, murdered eleven members of the Israeli delegation. The shock in Israel at the murder of many of its leading athletes was compounded by the seeming callousness of some of the officials of the international Olympic organising committee, who made insensitive statements and seemed to suggest in subsequent years that the whole affair was a nuisance. Israel continued to compete in the Olympics, but with the weight of memory of Munich shadowing the competitions of subsequent years.
The second event occurred in Seoul in 1988 in the sailing competition. An Israeli pair of yachtsmen, Yoel Sela and Eldad Amir, who were close to medal position, followed instructions and did not compete on Yom Kippur, something which damaged their chances considerably and left them ultimately in fourth place in the competition (the highest Israeli Olympic achievement up to then). However, another pair of yachtsmen, the brothers Ran and Dan Torten did compete on Yom Kippur and were subsequently suspended by the Israeli Sports Association (Hitachdut HaSport) for a period of five years. The brothers appealed to the Israeli High Court who backed them and cancelled the decision, even granting them damages.
The case brought into center stage for discussion the issue of how much the athletes were competing for themselves and how much they were competing for the state. The issue in general (not in relation to Yom Kippur) has become increasingly significant, the more that Israeli sport has moved away from its strictly amateur beginnings and has entered the world of professionalism and personal financial reward. There have been cases of individuals who have refused to represent the country or to take part in the national championship, preferring to stay abroad and participate in prestigious and lucrative tournaments. On the whole, such behaviour has been strongly criticized. It might be suggested, however, that such dilemma – and such outcomes – are inevitable in a new international world of professionalisation and big prize money where the gap between the individual contestant and the country that he or she represents draws steadily wider.
D: Training, Resources and Facilities
Another aspect of the same issue is the fact that the support for professional or would-be professional athletes and sportsmen and women, is low in Israel (apart from remuneration for soccer players and basketball players, some of whom earn very high sums from their teams in Israel). Even the top professionals, such as the Olympic medal winners mentioned above, have had on occasion to appeal for public funds.
The responsibility for sport, up until recently, was under the auspices of the Ministry of Education. From 1991, each education minister had a deputy who had specific responsibility for sport and this continued until 1999, when for the first time a Minister with responsibility for “Science, Culture and Sport” was appointed. However, none of the arrangements have managed to secure adequate budgets for sport, and those sports that are almost totally dependent on state funding, for development – and indeed survival – are seriously under-budgeted. This affects training facilities and adequate competitive competition potential for Israeli sportspeople and athletes.
It should be mentioned that there are a number of training institutes for sports education and physical education in Israel. This includes one first-rate sports training institute, the Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sport opened in 1957. Situated to the south of Netanyah on 450 dunam of prime developed land, the Institute is the central training institute in the country. It runs countless courses for professionals and amateurs alike in all the major branches of Israeli sports, trains teachers in different aspects of physical education and sports, and in addition, hosts academic conferences and maintains a constant stream of publications on health and physical education. Interestingly, it sees its brief in the widest of terms, committed as it is to the maintenance and development of the physical health of the Israeli public and to the quality of life in the country.
Largely as a result of these limitations, it is hard to argue that Israeli sport has developed as much as it could have.Some individuals have done well, but sport as a whole has not developed in the last fifty years of statehood as well as it might have hoped to have done.
There are additional limitations connected with the character of life in Israel:
Athletes and sportspeople have to do their military service at the age of eighteen just like everyone else, and this can be extremely damaging to careers that are in the process of professional development precisely in these crucial years. The army does often make concessions and gives promising athletes jobs and positions that enable them to practice and train with their teams and frameworks (just as it does to talented musicians or people in similar circumstances). Nevertheless, it unquestionably affects negatively the progress of many young sportspeople and athletes.
There have been several cases, especially with regard to professional soccer players, where individuals have managed to obtain total exemptions or seriously shorten their army service, and in one or two of these cases, the question has arisen after several years whether the individual in question can qualify to play for the international team, if selected.
So far the tendency has been not to allow them to play, unless they do some kind of compensatory extra service. It remains to be seen whether this norm will change in the future.
E: The Decline of the Maccabiah
The move to individual professionalism and achievement has had another effect. The Maccabiah as an institution has lost a lot of its prestige in Israel.
That prestige was further hard-hit in the Jewish world as a whole by the terrible accident in the games of 1997, in which the wooden bridge that was constructed over the polluted Yarkon River for the athletes to enter into the stadium collapsed, leading to the death of four Australian representatives and the injury of many others. The tragedy itself and the complete and incomprehensible refusal of the officials of the Israeli Maccabi organization to take responsibility for their actions alienated many in the Jewish world and led to a strong reaction against the Maccabi framework.
Nevertheless, at least up to that point, the games preserved much of their existing prestige in the wider Jewish world, but less so in Israel itself.
In Israel, the Maccabiah appears to be viewed by many as a relic from the long-gone past.
Apart from the colourful opening ceremony that many are still happy to watch, the sports events themselves evince little interest beyond the circle of the participants and their families and friends.
The results are invariably mediocre and cause no excitement from a purely sporting point of view.
The quality of the competitors can provide no real incentive for an Israeli athlete whose ambition is to train and compete against the best in the world - and the best of whom have an opportunity every so often to do exactly that.
There is little prestige and no financial benefit for people for whom these are real and important considerations.
And that leaves the national question – the feeling of being part of a national Jewish sporting and cultural happening.
There might be those of amateur or semi-amateur status for whom this is still an attraction, but for serious sportsmen and women, it is inevitable that this will seldom be enough to cause any of the excitement that the first Maccabiahs caused seventy, or even fifty, years ago. In the Maccabiah of 2001, some 2,500 athletes came to Israel to take part, but it seemed to generate little excitement, partly because of the shadow of the events of the previous disastrous Maccabiah and partly for the reasons just mentioned. It remains to be seen whether the Maccabiah can regain some of its former glamour and romance. For now, the answer to that looks doubtful.