104. Sports in Israel

For a nation to achieve all-round development as a society, sports play a role as important as arts. Sports, especially the outdoor games, hold unique importance in keeping the citizens of a nation healthy and ‘fit’.

Knowing of it, after achieving independence, Israel gave importance to sports equal to that given to several art forms. From the very start, Israel’s priorities have been different. Thus, in spite of the budget of Israeli Sports Ministry not as sizeable as some of the rich countries, for imprinting the importance of sports in the minds of all the Israeli citizens, the Ministry has from the beginning and always encouraged sportspersons at national, professional and other levels and the hobbyist sportspersons as well. Moreover, they have done it by overcoming innumerable odds pitted against Israel as a nation.

Early sports in Israel

Response from the Israeli citizens to it is encouraging. Rainy season in Israel is not far-stretched. On the one hand, the fact is a bane for agriculture and arranging drinking water; on the other, it is a boon for playing outdoor sports. As a result, people take an interest in outdoor sports from a very young age. Many Israeli sportspersons who have laid down the marker in international sports, pursued their game as five or six-year-old kids at the local or household levels.

In Israel, there are local clubs dedicated to particular sports. Through them, the leagues are played at various levels, from local right up to the national level. The players who perform well are promoted through the league stages as also to some good clubs while those who don’t, are demoted through the stages. Thus, the players try to give their best. The competition sharpens sporting skills which mature the national athletes into representing Israel at the international level. Many of the Israeli clubs have an affiliation with various clubs or federations in Europe and the United States. It thus provides opportunities to good Israeli sportsperson to play at the professional level for those clubs on a contract basis. Sports clubs in Israel and almost all the sports events fall under the authority of the Ministry of Culture and Sports.

A Wingate Institute ground

Two aspects are crucial for Israel to develop the competence of its players needed to play at the international level. First, the ‘Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports’, which is a training facility run by the government for sports and exercises. Second is the ‘Maccabiah Games’.

Situated in the central Israeli city of Netanya, the Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports has its own large grounds for different sporting events. Performance of all the players at the league stages is monitored closely. The most promising from the lot are selected and given an opportunity to make it to the Wingate for full-time training to further develop their skills. At the Wingate, the Israeli government bears all the expenses of the players and their coaches.

The first Maccabiah Games, 1932

Important along with it are the ‘Maccabiah Games’. Started in 1932 and based similar to the Olympic Games, the tournament is held in Israel once in every four years. It features various sporting matches and is meant only for the Jewish sportspersons. Famous as the ‘Jewish Olympics, more than 10 thousand Jewish athletes from across the world participate in these games. It is the third-largest sporting event from the point of view of extensity, next only to the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup. Maccabiah clubs which play particular sports like football, basketball, etc. are present in the big cities of Israel. They send their teams to participate in the international tournaments, and many are also considered among the best.

The commonly played sports in Israel are football, basketball and tennis. Along with these, other sports like cycling, swimming, table tennis, baseball, wrestling, judo, karate and weight-lifting are also liked and played in Israel. Recently, cricket also has started to take roots here. Besides, the sport of ‘Krav Maga’, a form of self-defense, developed by the Israeli Defense Forces (‘IDF’) is also popular.

Krav Maga

Many Israeli sportspersons have laid down the marker at the international level in the sports mentioned above. A woman tennis player like ‘Shahar Peer’ has not only won professional tennis tournaments at the international level but also represented Israel in tennis at the Olympics.

Israel has proved itself in the professional as well as competitive sports. However, there are many Israelis who play games just to nurture their hobby or liking. ‘Swimming’ is one of the favourite sports for the Israelis. Israel is blessed with a long seacoast. Thus more than half of the Israelis regularly enjoy swimming. The activity of ‘scuba diving’ is also popular. In the winter, hobbyists flock to Mount Hermon, which witnesses snowfall, for ‘skiing’.

Like in the field of arts, preparations to lay a solid foundation for sports also began much before Israel gained independence. The Jews who immigrated to Israel from various parts of the world through different Aliyahs brought with them the sports popular in their native areas and also the skills required to play them. Consequently, one can see the influence of both the Western as well as the Eastern sports on the sports played in Israel.

Some of the currently played sports in Israel did not exist in the country at all. In fact, it was impossible to have their existence. For example, few of the Jews who had emigrated from Canada and the Soviet Union were experts at ‘Ice hockey’. The winters in these countries are snowclad, and hence ice hockey is played in Canada and Russia. However, it is impossible even to imagine the sport being played here, considering the overall desert climate in Israel. Nevertheless, Israel has built climate-controlled ‘indoor’ stadiums to encourage such games. In Israel, such ice hockey stadiums are present in Ashdod, Tel Aviv, Eilat and at other places, while the largest of them, of the size of Olympic ice hockey stadium, is the ‘Canada Stadium’ in the northern town of Metula. Israel had won gold at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship held in 2005.

While developing the sporting culture, Israel made sure to keep alive its social consciousness. Israel helps, not so fortunate, sportspersons from the ‘deprived class’. Israel also supports the ‘homeless’ sportspersons. It also increasingly serves the ‘physically challenged’ athletes and gives them opportunities to play at international competitions held for them.

All this is what the world of sports in Israel is! Knowing that healthy and ‘fit’ citizens are a key to the progress of a nation, from the very start, Israel has given importance to the subject.  (To be continued…)

– Shulamith Penkar-Nigrekar

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