Former basketball player Sapir Efraimson (left) now rugby player using her football skills
Often, when I’m with athletes, I’m asked what I think about the sports culture in Israel and how it compares with that of the U.S. where I’m from. Well, first off, we can all agree that the sports culture in Israel is far behind its western counterparts.
I spoke with two young athletes who share a passion for sports. We discussed some of the difficulties Israeli athletes face trying to advance in their sport and make a career of it, and what they believe could be done to improve the situation.
The first athlete I spoke with was Nimrod Danieli (17), a talented basketball player from Ashkelon. He said that it was difficult for young athletes to advance in their sport, especially on an international level, because in order to make progress you first need to be seen and to be noticed by the right people so that they can help promote you and you can eventually get to play on a popular team.
Most young athletes in this country are treated with a “play for yourself and for your parents” attitude by their coaches, meaning that they invest their time and energy, but the only ones who bear witness to the fruits of their labor are the athletes themselves and their parents.
Most coaches in the suburban cities don't have connections outside of their zipcodes, even if they doven if they do, they don’t want you to leave the teams. Nimrod sees this especially in the peripheral cities.
“Take myself for example, I live in Ashkelon, and I’ve met quite a few basketball players from my city who have simply moved away to play for the more popular teams in the center of the country. This, of course, requires frequent commutes to and from practices outside the city.”
Nimrod said that if Israel doesn’t want its young talents to be wasted it needs to provide more opportunities in the suburban cities.
He added, “Playing for Tel Aviv or one of the other central cities shouldn’t be the only way for someone to notice me.”
Another factor that decelerates Israeli athletes from reaching the more elite levels in basketball is military service.
“Don’t misunderstand me, I’m all for the military, and I think everyone should contribute to the best of his/her ability. The problem is that during your military service you can only get excused for practices if you’re on the national team. And as you’ve probably guessed, the number of players allowed on the team is very limited, and players from all over the country try to get in.
“So no matter how good a player you are and how much you’ve dreamed of a successful athletic career, when you matriculate and you don’t make the national team for whatever reason, you can pretty much forget about your dreams because three years in the military is equivalent to three years of no practice in your sport – and in your prime – so all you leave the military with are your memories of how good a player you used to be.”
Nimrod added that the government must make some adjustments and be more lenient as far as professional athletes are concerned. The country should be able to allow committed athletes, who can and want to advance in their sport, to practice during their military service.
The only two Israelis who have made a breakthrough in the basketball world are Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel, both of whom were a part of a special program called ‘Outstanding Athlete’ via the national team, and that is how they were able to stay fit and skilled during their military service.
The other athlete I spoke with was Sapir Efraimson (26), a former basketball player and a current rugby player. She’s always loved basketball, but after facing so many setbacks in the sport, she decided to try another sport, hoping for a breakthrough.
As of this past season, she was the newest addition to Israel’s national women's rugby team and represented Israel in the European championship this past June. Sapir is one of the most talented and ambitious female athletes I've met. From her experience, many of the setbacks she's experienced were due to lack of financial support and accessible sports facilities.
She told me how, as a woman athlete, the team’s budgets and resources are very limited compared to those of the men's team – and even on a national team the players aren't provided with a salary. She has team-practice several times a week (sometimes including weekends) and personal workouts, which she has to organize independently, and all of which she has to fit in between her working hours in a full-time job.
Sapir said, “I must work in a regular job to earn my livelihood and to be able to afford to pay for a nutritionist, a physiotherapist, a personal trainer and for other basic necessities that any athlete on a professional level needs, including vitamins and supplements that can get a bit pricey.”
She added that juggling both makes her schedule very hectic and sometimes doesn’t give her body enough recovery time, especially when having to go to work right after an intense practice. If professional national team players were paid a salary, they could afford to cut back on hours at their other paying jobs and focus on their skills and athleticism, and she believes that teams would achieve even better results and perhaps put Israel “on the map” in the sports world.
She also noted that there isn’t a significant support system for athletes who aren’t involved in the major sports here (football (soccer) and basketball) and told me about the lack of competitions in women’s sports in Israel.
“There aren’t enough teams around the country to compete with, so teams are often required to go to practice tournaments abroad, which the team’s budget doesn't usually cover – and if they fall short of the amount after fundraisers, they have to pay from their own pockets.”
To improve the situation, she believes that educating youth is key, especially young girls. They should be exposed to a variety of sports at an early age, and taught that it's not a “boys’ thing”.
Sapir admits to getting discouraged some days, but she believes in her athletic abilities and will continue to pursue a career in sports. Lately, she has been considering whether she should try her luck abroad, until women’s sports and their conditions in Israel improve.
Nimrod Danieli ... difficult for young athletes to advance in sport
When my family and I made aliyah, the only sports I had to choose from were soccer or basketball, and the older I got the more the number of girls in the teams decreased. In some locations it dropped to zero.
The schools I attended in the U.S. had offered a plethora of sports and other activities. That way, if a child or teenager wasn't good at basketball or football or just didn't connect with the sports, there were other activities to choose from that would still keep him or her just as active.
Some would argue that we have bigger things on our plate as a country. Israel's unpredictable security situation results in a large amount of the national budget being allocated for security, leaving sports at the end of the list of priorities.
Sapir pushing her muscles to their limit with powerlifting
I believe it will take time, advocacy and finances to solve some of the major problems athletes face here, but I, personally, don't think that it takes millions to implement the basic things that could be done ... for starters, promoting sports and the benefits thereof, beginning at a young age.
It's been proven to improve concentration, keep the body youthful and healthy, keep children out of trouble and, as far-fetched as this may sound, remember, ceasefires and truces have been made and battles have been ended for football matches.
Hopefully, we shall continue to see advancements in sports culture in Israel, and hopefully in the next quadrennial sports event, we will continue to make history as a country as we have in so many other fields.
■Sarice Holley came to Israel in 1995. She has a BSc. in Nutritional Science, is a freelance writer, plays rugby and teaches English.