Not tough or dedicated enough — why we are failing at sport

No Jews figure in the British Olympic team. It’s a similar story in non-Olympic sports. What makes us unable to compete at the highest level?

By Danny Caro and Marcus Dysch, August 2, 2012
American swimmer Mark Spitz’s 11 Olympic medals throws the underperformance of British Jews into sharp relief

American swimmer Mark Spitz’s 11 Olympic medals throws the underperformance of British Jews into sharp relief

Jessica Ennis, Chris Hoy, Mo Farah and Rebecca Adlington are leading Team GB in their quest for Olympic gold.

But where, you might ask, are the young British Jewish sports stars? Among those household names competing in the Olympics, and in other sports for that matter, it is hard to identify a single Jewish performer of note.

Yet a glance around the boardrooms of football’s Premier League and the top tables of national sports authorities reveals numerous hugely successful Jewish figures.

For decades, the community’s default position has been to provide the financial and business acumen off the field, while leaving the sporting prowess to non-Jews. We own, manage and organise at the highest levels, but only very rarely reach the same heights as players.

It is not as though we are lacking in a suitable role model. The American swimmer Mark Spitz famously won nine gold medals, making him one of the most successful Olympians of all time. So why have we not been able to follow his example?

Football Association chairman David Bernstein acknowledges that solving the conundrum is “a question of talent and ability”.

“I’m certain the Jewish players are out there and they will get discovered and come through. I’m sure there’s no prejudice,” he says.

In the past, British Jews were recognised at least in some measure as pulling their weight for their country in sports, including football, boxing, rugby and cricket.

Award-winning author and sports journalist Anthony Clavane believes those who succeeded did so despite a backdrop of prejudice and bigotry.

“There have been few home-grown Jews playing professional sports due to religious and cultural differences, but also exclusion such as at golf clubs and tennis clubs,” he says.

“When the first immigrants came over from eastern Europe they were not welcomed into football and were excluded from golf and tennis clubs. There was a feeling that sport, and football in particular, wasn’t something for Jewish boys to go into. We haven’t been over-represented as we have in the theatre and the arts, but I don’t think we’ve been under-represented.

“For me, there was a golden age of Jews in sport from the inter-war years to the 1950s. You had a lot of Jewish boxers and footballers who were fighting or making their way out of the ghetto. It was more working-class then.

"Now it’s more a case of Jews in middle-class communities. It’s just not a Jewish thing today as most footballers come from the working-classes.”

Tony Bloom, owner of Brighton and Hove Albion FC, has a more simplistic view of the reasons for failure: “Perhaps we’re just not that good at sport. To succeed you need a huge amount of practice and motivation to really want it. It can be difficult to do this from a very young age and not get side-tracked.

“I don’t think it’s anything to do with keeping parents happy and them wanting their children to become accountants or lawyers. The salaries and kudos the modern-day players get mean that most parents will not stand in the way of their children trying to become professional footballers.”

Glaswegian boxer Gary Jacobs came to prominence in the 1980s and ’90s, with a career record of 46 wins. Having turned professional at 19, he held both European and Commonwealth titles at welterweight. He believes sporting success is “all to do with the individual, how much you want to be very good and compete at the top end. To be a winner, you have to put in the work”.

It is a view echoed by Clive Goodman, father of 19-year-old distance runner Richard Goodman. He believes that the sacrifices required deter many potential professional athletes.

“Richard has a lot of natural skill but you have to have the dedication to training,” he says. “That’s the difference. I don’t think most people are willing to put the effort in.”

Richard, who was runner-up in the European junior cross-country championships last year, helping Great Britain to win the team title, is being talked of as a medal-winning prospect in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

Earlier this year he won a coveted athletics scholarship at the University of Oregon, described by his father as the “Oxford and Cambridge of the sport”.

Clive Goodman points out that the demands of his son’s training and competition schedule means he has missed out on the normal social life of a teenager. Family support is important, but individual motivation is what keeps him going.

“Richard’s done it mostly himself, even sorting out sponsorship. Athletics isn’t a glamorous sport. It takes a lot of work and dedication.”

Twenty-four-year-old Michael Sacks is a former Manchester United youth player who for two years lined up alongside team-mates who have now gone on to achieve full international honours and become Premier League stars.

“My centre-back partners were Jonny Evans, now in United’s first team, and Ryan Shawcross who has become Stoke City captain,” he says.

“When I was released by Manchester United I knew I was a very good footballer but I didn’t think I was good enough to make it in the Premier League or Championship. I didn’t want to pursue a career in the lower leagues because when you retire at 35 you have no experience or qualifications and haven’t earned enough money.”

Sacks made the decision to quit football and train to become a chartered surveyor. He now runs a residential investment company and is proud of his “rational” decision.

One Jewish trainer who has made an impact in professional football is coach Michael Stone. He has worked with Tottenham’s youth academy, for a number of non-league clubs and international sides, and coached British Maccabi Games teams.

FA-qualified, he has just finished a stint working with League Two side Barnet’s first team. He says: “Parents want their kids to follow a steadier route of full-time education and going to university, followed by job and career opportunities. A career at lower league level will not earn you a lot of money and it could all be over in 10 to 15 years. Although it would be great at the time, there are pitfalls.”

He says many Jewish boys also lack the physical and mental “toughness” for a life in the “dog-eat-dog world of professional football”.

“Technically we have very good young Jewish players, but physically and mentally they need more toughness.
Israeli Jewish footballers on the other hand are much stronger physically and mentally — maybe it’s to do with their upbringing or military background.”

One man in a position to give two perspectives on the issue is Stuart Spurling, father of England under-20 rugby union player Scott Spurling.

Spurling Snr himself competed in five Maccabiah Games for Britain in badminton. Together with his brother, David, he played for England’s under-23s and was ranked fourth in the country in doubles.

He says the experience of being supported by his own parents made it easier for him to back his son when he realised Scott had “something special” at a young age. But supporting his son’s career has meant the whole family has had to make a substantial commitment.

He says: “Scott’s lucky as there are not many people who are paid to play a sport they love. The lifestyle is not very attractive though. He trains Tuesday and Thursdays, through rain and snow, and has a game every weekend.The family dedicate themselves to attending every match Scott plays.”

“It can cost a fortune,” says his father. “Against Italy in March, the weekend including flights and hotel cost £1,500. Then the match was postponed due to snow and I couldn’t make it to the rescheduled match.”

Reflecting on his own sports career, he is at pains to point out the sheer hard work needed to “climb the ladder when there’s no glitz and glamour”.

He says: “It’s damn hard work. You take a lot of knocks and the parents have to be there to put an arm around the shoulder. In a lot of sports you have to serve an apprenticeship, picking up everyone else’s dirty kit from the floor. There’s a lot more to it than people see. To put on an England shirt is the reward. That’s an achievement. And when you get an opportunity, you have to take it.”

Last updated: 2:45pm, August 2 2012