The relationship between Israel and sport has always been nuanced. It’s one of not many countries in the world where basketball and football (soccer) are the two most popular sports. It’s actually rarer than you might think, especially because these are the two most popular sports in the world by far.
The media here is focused on these two ball sports, leaving others such as gymnastics, judo, swimming, athletics, baseball, cricket, surfing, sailing, water polo, volleyball, handball and the like to be neglected.
If an athlete competes in the woods and there is no one around to report on it, does it make a sound?
The irony until recently is that on a global stage, Israel has excelled in sports such as judo, sailing and gymnastics. These three sports have combined for 11 of the 13 Olympic medals Israel has won, the other two in canoeing and taekwondo.
So it’s not that Israel doesn’t do well in sports but it does well in what would be considered non-traditional sports.
Baseball and soccer miracles
The Israeli baseball team started from scratch and made it all the way to sixth spot of the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
The team followed this up with something even more incredible — being just one of five teams in the world to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, joining Japan in the six-team tournament.
This was Israel’s first Olympic participation in a ball team sport since the 1976 men’s football team.
It’s harder for the basketball and soccer teams to excel on the big stage as Israel has to qualify for any global tournament via Europe where the competition is basically the world’s best. If Israel were still qualifying in Asia like it originally was, it wouldn’t be as difficult, but this isn’t about politics.
This changed recently with the 2023 FIFA U20 World Cup. Not only did Israel advance from an incredibly challenging group containing Senegal, Colombia and Japan, but scored an upset victory over Brazil in the quarterfinals. This was an historic achievement, and the team ended the tournament in third place.
Eyeballs = shekels
Israel truly is a melting pot with people from every corner of the world. From Australia to Austria, from South Africa to South Korea and from Mexico to New Mexico, you find them all. And they bring with them a love of the sports they are passionate about.
Then leagues spring up with people playing ice hockey, lacrosse, rugby, archery, and the like.
It’s not that Israel doesn’t do well in sports but it does well in what would be considered non-traditional sports.
But there are a number of reasons why all of these sports find it difficult to get in the fast lane of Israeli society.
They’re niche. The money in sport comes from sponsorship and TV rights and if there aren’t any eyeballs, there won’t be any shekels.
Sports lose their athletes in the peak of their career to go into the army. With the government designating so much of the budget to defense, what is left over goes to schools, hospitals, transport and the like.
There isn’t that much for sports, especially when soccer and basketball takes the lion’s share.
This trickles down into a lack of resources and infrastructure. Swimmers and water polo players need world-class swimming pools, tennis players need world-class tennis courts. You don’t see many of these around Israel.
Turning world class
But things are changing.
Israeli athletes have slowly changed perceptions by their outstanding achievements. Israeli kids realize that it’s not a binary choice between soccer and basketball and girls can participate in more organized sports than ever before.
What has also helped is Israel hosting world-class events — international tournaments in judo, swimming, water polo, gymnastics, lacrosse, tennis, athletics and volleyball have happened here recently or will happen soon, which is huge.
The life of an athlete can be difficult and solitary. You are plugging away and it can feel like the sacrifices are for nothing. People your age are getting on with their lives while you are pursuing what appears to be a pipe dream.
But then one day it changes — you’re an overnight success and it was all worth it. Kids out there are inspired by your deeds and the next generation is in motion.
If you will it, it’s no dream. That’s the mantra this country was built on and we have to do all we can to help our athletes keep their dreams alive.