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Israel has successfully used competitive sports to advance priorities such as integrating immigrants and nurturing a sense of national identification among Israelis themselves and Jews worldwide. Sport has also been highly effective in promoting coexistence between the country’s Jews and Arabs.
Plagued by war, terror and austerity, Israel failed to make any impact on international sport in its formative years. The biggest headline that the country garnered at a sporting occasion in earlier decades came at the Munich Olympics in 1972, when PLO terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.
At that same Olympics, Esther Roth put in the country’s best-ever performance to date when she finished sixth in the 110 metres hurdles. It was 20 years later in Barcelona that Yael Arad became the first-ever Israeli to stand on the Olympic medals podium when she won a judo silver medal and, 24 hours later, Oren Smadja took bronze, also in judo. Since then, Michael Kalganov won bronze in kayaking at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and Arik Zeevi a bronze in the Athens games in 2004. Also in Athens, windsurfer Gal Friedman became the first Israeli to win gold.
In Beijing this summer, pole-vaulter Alex Averbukh, a Russian immigrant, will bid to become Israel’s first-ever track-and-field Olympic medallist, having twice taken gold in the European Championships.
Israel has also had to overcome the fact that sport and Judaism did not mix historically. In biblical times, the Greek love of physical prowess conflicted with the Jewish moral code, and Greece’s attempts to impose its culture throughout the region was resented by the Israelites. Even today, strictly Orthodox Jews reject sport as “Hellenistic”.
The strictly Orthodox also do not approve of female involvement in sport, as exemplified by Shahar Peer, who looks set to become the most successful Israeli tennis player of all time. Peer has a highest world ranking of 15, equalling recently retired Russian immigrant Anna Smashnova. Peer, who turns 21 on May 1, has already won prize money of nearly $2 million.
Israel’s two most popular competitive sports are football and basketball. Both sports have benefited from Israel’s expulsion from Asian sports federations in the 1970s and subsequent acceptance into Europe. In basketball, Maccabi Tel Aviv have been European champions five times, while Israel were beaten finalists in the 1979 Euro national finals.
In football, Israel has only once ever reached the World Cup finals — in 1970 — but the national team is confident of ending 40 years in the wilderness by reaching the finals in South Africa in 2010, after narrowly missing out on goal difference in the World Cup 2006 qualifiers. For Israeli players, the ultimate ambition has always been to play in England. Currently playing in England’s top flight are Yossi Benayoun (Liverpool), Tal Ben Haim (Chelsea) and former Liverpool player Avi Cohen’s son Tamir (Bolton). And of course, former Israel national team manager Avram Grant is now the boss at Chelsea.
Football’s ability to unite the country’s Jewish majority and Arab minority was best demonstrated during the 2006 World Cup campaign, when Israeli Arab Abbas Suan became the toast of the country by scoring a last-gasp equaliser against Ireland.
Although sport today in Israel is big business, the largest single sports event in the country is an amateur affair. The Maccabiah Games, the Jewish Olympics, brings competitors to Israel from throughout the diaspora. The last Maccabiah in 2005 was the largest-ever Jewish event anywhere in the world. Although there are victors and vanquished, sport can still be a win-win affair.