Sports are big business in Israel, as in most of the world. The 1998 World Cup Final between France and Brazil attracted an all-time record television rating of 48.3% of viewers. But not all sports fans are couch potatoes restricting their interest to television viewing. More and more Israelis are participating in sports ranging from tennis and squash to jogging, soccer and basketball. Particularly popular are beach and water sports, including swimming, diving, surfing and sailing.
The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who enjoyed playing tennis in his spare time, once described Amos Mansdorf –– one of two Israeli tennis players to be ranked in the world’s top 20 –– as the person that he most admired.
Israel has regularly participated in the Olympic Games since 1952. It won its first Olympic medals at the 1992 Barcelona games, when judoka Yael Arad (women’s under 61 kg. category) took a silver medal and Oren Smadja (judo, men’s under 78 kg. category) won a bronze medal. In the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Eitan Friedlander and Shimshon Brockman finished fourth in the 470 sailing category and would certainly have won a medal had the duo not refrained from participating on Yom Kippur (the holiest day of the Jewish year), thus forfeiting one crucial race. Esther Roth, sixth in the 110 meter women’s hurdles in the 1972 Munich Olympics
, and Edouard Weitz, fifth in the weightlifting competition in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, also came close to winning medals for Israel. Tragically, however, Israel’s greatest impact on the Olympics was during the 1972 Munich games, when PLO terrorists brutally massacred 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.
The opportunity to compete in Europe has been most significant in basketball and soccer, Israel’s two most popular spectator sports. Israel has been most successful in basketball. Maccabi Tel Aviv won the European Cup club competition in 1977 and 1981. The first of these triumphs is generally considered to be the single greatest Israeli sporting achievement. Micky Berkovitz
, Maccabi’s leading points scorer in both the 1977 and 1981 triumphs, was recently voted Israel’s greatest sportsman in its first 50 years.
Tal Brody, who immigrated to Israel from the U.S. after the 1969 Maccabiah with the explicit purpose of putting the country on the sporting map, captained Maccabi Tel Aviv in the first of its European Cup victories. He also led the national team to the runners-up position in 1979 in the European Basketball Championships, defeated in the finals by the Soviet Union.
Israeli basketball has never returned to the glory of the 70s and 80s but the national team regularly reaches the quarter finals of the European Basketball Championships (as it did in 1997), and perennial champions Maccabi Tel Aviv usually reach the final 16. And while none of the Israeli stars from the 70s and 80s joined an NBA team in the US, the current crop of Maccabi’s stars has had more success. Two years ago Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Doron Sheffer was the first Israeli to be ranked in the NBA’s new players’ draft after three successful college seasons with the University of Connecticut. Though Sheffer was selected by the Los Angeles Clippers, he was not offered a contract. Sheffer followed in the footsteps of Nadav Henefeld, who several years earlier had played for University of Connecticut before returning to Maccabi. Maccabi Tel Aviv recently won the Israeli Championship for the 32nd time in the past 33 years, beating Hapoel Jerusalem in the play-off largely thanks to playmaker Oded Katash who is about to become the first Israeli ever to play in America’s NBA.
Israel’s most impressive soccer achievement came in 1970 when the country qualified for the World Cup finals in Mexico for the first –– and so far the only –– time. At that time only 16 teams reached the finals and the side performed honorably, forcing draws with Italy and Sweden, though going out in the first round. That team, with Mordechai Spiegler and Giora Spiegel is still considered the greatest-ever Israeli national soccer team.
Israel entered the European Championships after an unprecedented five consecutive victories, all in friendly matches, including a 3-1 win over Argentina. After the first 5 games in Euro 2000, which included a 5-0 home victory over Austria in June 99, Israel is well placed to advance to the finals in Holland and Belgium. These wins have seen the country climb to its record high of 22nd in the FIFA world rankings.
Israel’s club teams have competed in the major European competitions since 1993 and after some remarkable single victories –– Hapoel Petah Tikvah 2-1 over Feyenoord in 1993; Maccabi Haifa 1-0 away to Parma in 1994; and Betar Jerusalem 2-1 over Bruges in 1997 –– Maccabi Haifa became the first team to pull off a major shock when it beat Paris St. Germain 4-3 on aggregate in the European Cup Winners Cup in 1998 going on to reach the quarter-finals.
With access to four bodies of water –– the Mediterranean sea, the Red Sea, the Dead Sea and Lake Kinneret –– swimming is Israel’s most popular participation sport. There are hundreds of public swimming pools and almost every kibbutz and moshav have pools. An estimated 50% of the country’s residents go swimming at least several times a year. And with over 40,000 qualified divers, Israel also has the highest per capita number of divers in the world.
At the professional level, Israel has enjoyed some notable achievements in swimming in recent years. In 1997 Eitan Urbach scooped the country’s first medal in a major international competition when he won the silver medal in the 100 meters backstroke in the European Swimming Championships in Spain. In the World Swimming Championships in Australia in 1998 Urbach finished seventh in the 100 meters backstroke final –– the best performance by an Israeli swimmer in the world championships - and in the 1999 European Swimming Championships won the bronze medal. At this meet, Yoav Gat placed fourth in the 200 meters backstroke final. In the 1996 Olympics Israel reached its first swimming final when the 4x100 meters medley relay team finished eighth. The same team finished fifth in the European Championships. And Yoav Bruck, a member of that team, became the first-ever Israeli to reach a final of a major world swimming championship when he finished eighth in the 100 meters freestyle final in the World Swimming Championships in Korea in 1994. Mikki Halika finished fourth in the 400 meters medley in the world short-course swimming championships in Hong Kong in 1999, and won the silver medal in the European Swimming Championships in Istanbul in the summer of 1999.
Among the most promising crop of young female swimmers is new immigrant Anna Gostamelsky, 17, who won a gold medal in the 100 meters freestyle in a World Cup grand prix competition in Spain and Adi Bichman, 14, who won two silver and two bronze medals in the World Youth Olympics in Moscow.
In other water sports, Israel has hosted two major world championships in recent years –– the World 470 Sailing Class Championships (Tel Aviv 1997) and the World Windsurfing Championships (Haifa 1996). In the former competition, the female duo of Anat Fabrikant and Shani Kedmi finished fifth while in the men’s tournament brothers Nir and Ran Shental, bronze medallists in 1995, only mustered eighth place, and Ze’ev Kalach and David Schwartz finished ninth.
In windsurfing, Olympic bronze medalist Gal Friedman took the silver medal in the World Championships in Haifa in 1996, while his local rival Amit Inbar won gold medals in the World Championships in 1994 and the European Championships in 1998 and an additional silver medal in the 1998 World Championships. In kayaking Lior Carmi reached the semi-final of the 500 meters in the Atlanta Olympics, while new immigrant Michael Kolganov is an Olympic medal candidate after winning the gold medal in the 200 meters World Kayaking Championships in Hungary in 1998 and a silver medal in the 500 meters.
Track and Field
New immigrants from the former Soviet Union have been especially dominant in Israeli athletics. Pole vaulter Danny Krasnov (best-ever 5.75 meters) has reached the finals of the last two Olympics as well as the 1997 World Championships finals in Athens. However, vaulter Konstantin Semyonov, who has failed in the major championships, is the Israeli record holder with a leap of 5.76 meters. In the high jump Konstantin Matusevitch holds the Israeli record of 2.33 meters, one of the best jumps in the world today but he too has failed in major championships. Rogel Nachum, who recently equaled his personal best of 17.20 meters in the triple-jump, has twice reached the finals of the World Championships and in the spring of 1998 finished fourth in the World Indoor Championships. But Israel’s best-ever track and field performance remains the fifth place achieved by Esther Roth in the 110 meters hurdles final in the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Volleyball, Handball, Beach Volleyball
Volleyball is a particularly popular sport, though Israel’s teams have not been able to make an impact in Europe at club level. The national team captain Alon Greenberg plays for a leading Greek club. Israeli trainer Aryeh Zelinger has coached leading Japanese women’s teams and he has also coached the Dutch men’s volleyball team that included his son Avital, which won a silver medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Handball is also popular in Israel and leading teams like champions Hapoel Rishon Lezion are able to sign up professional stars from the former Soviet Union.
Beach volleyball has emerged as a popular sport in recent years. The sport was included in the last Maccabiah and Avital Zelinger coached the Dutch women’s doubles beach volleyball team at the Atlanta Olympics. Beach sports have always been popular in Israel, particularly a locally developed game called "matkot" rackets which is a cross between tennis and table tennis.
Judo: Israel has excelled in judo; two champions, Yael Arad and Oren Smadja, have won Olympic medals.
Boxing: Israel currently has a world champion in Johar Abu Lashin who first won the IPC World Light Heavyweight title in 1996. Abu Lashin, an Arab from Nazareth who fights under the name "Israel Kid," has successfully defended his title four times. New immigrant boxer Vaclav Neiman won a bronze medal in the 1995 European Championships (under 51 kgs).
Shooting: Boris Polack, a former colonel in the Red Army, who immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union in 1990, was world champion in the 1994 air rifle category but has since performed disappointingly. Alex Tripolsky won a silver medal in the 1995 World Championships in the pistol division, while Guy Starik took fourth place in the 1998 World Championships.
Fencing: Israel has performed well in the women’s foil division, with veteran fencer Lydia Hatoel-Zuckerman and young hopeful Ayelet Ohayon winning several medals in world cup competitions.
Wrestling: Olympic medal hopeful Gotcha Tzitziashvili only managed sixth place in the Graeco-Roman under 82 kg. category, after winning a silver medal in the World Championships the previous year. Other Olympic hopefuls include Henry Papiashvili (Tzitziashvili’s brother-in-law) who won the under 90 kilo Graeco-Roman category gold medal in the World Youth Wrestling Championships in the summer of 1998, and new immigrant Yuri Yevchachik, who won a bronze medal in the World Graeco-Roman Wrestling Championships under 130 kilogram class in Sweden in 1998.
Weightlifting: Edouard Weitz’s fifth place in the 1976 Montreal Olympics remains Israel’s greatest weightlifting achievement.
Ice Skating: Michael Schmerkin finished 13th in figure skating in the 1994 Winter Olympics and 16th in the 1998 Winter Olympics. Gilat Chyat and Sergei Saknovsky finished 14th in the doubles figure skating.
Triathlon: International meets of this sport, which involves swimming, cycling and running, are held in Eilat each winter.
Parachuting: Competition revolves around the Sky Club near Hadera.
Water Skiing: This sport is popular off the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Lake Kinneret coasts. Israel’s Moshe Ganzi was a world champion in 1979.