What’s Behind The Success Of The Israeli Olympics, Paralympics Teams?

Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

Soon, these elite athletes will resume high-level training for the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad, Paris, 2024. And as usual, most of the training will take place out of sight.

We thought that Israel achieved new heights this summer at the Tokyo Olympics by bringing home its first two gold medals out of four total. But then the Israeli Paralympics team made us even prouder in Japan by nabbing an incredible nine medals in the games that ended just before Rosh Hashanah.

A delegation of 90 athletes, 55 men and 35 women, competed in 15 different sports at the Olympics – almost double the previous number of 47 athletes who represented Israel at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. This number was bolstered by the 24 baseball players representing Team Israel. The much smaller Israeli Paralympic delegation of 33 athletes –18 women and 15 men – competed in 11 sports and returned home with nine medals in two sports: swimming and rowing. These medals are triple the number of medals won at the Rio Paralympics in 2016. It is the highest medal total since 2004 in Athens, when it took home 13 medals, and the greatest number of gold medals it’s won since the 1988 Games in Seoul, Korea. Israeli Paralympic athletes have won a total of 129 gold, 125 silver and 130 bronze medals in the Paralympics to date.

Paralympic athletes differ from Olympic athletes in several key areas. For one, Paralympians are assessed and then placed into competition categories, or sport classes, according to what extent their impairment affects their performance. According to the Olympics official website, “The Paralympic Movement offers sport opportunities for athletes with physical, vision and/or intellectual impairments that have at least one of the following 10 eligible impairments: impaired muscle power, impaired passive range of movement, limb deficiency, leg length difference, short stature, muscle tension, uncoordinated movement, involuntary movements, vision impairment or intellectual impairment.” There are no such designations for Olympians.

Another key difference is in number and types of events. In the recent Paralympics, 4,400 athletes from 160 countries competed in 539 events in 22 sports. In comparison, more than 11,000 athletes from 206 nations competed in 33 Olympic sports, five of which were featured at the Olympics for the first time.

PARALYMPIAN MARK MALYAR, who has cerebral palsy, celebrates on the podium, August 27. He took home three gold medals in swimming. (credit: MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS)

How the two Israeli delegations fared

Israel Olympians won two gold and two bronze medals. Artistic gymnast Artem Dolgopyat, who also made news for his inability to marry in Israel due to his non-halachic (Jewish law) Jewish status, won the gold medal in the men’s floor exercise. Rhythmic gymnast Linoy Ashram won the gold medal at the women’s rhythmic individual all-around event. Avishag Semberg won the bronze medal in the Women’s 49 kg taekwondo category and the national judo team won another bronze medal in the mixed team event. Several Israeli athletes almost won medals but fell short, advancing to the finals of their respective events.

Israeli Paralympians won six gold, two silver and one bronze medal in Tokyo. All but two of Israel’s Paralympic medals came in swimming, where three Israeli standout swimmers — Mark Malyar, Ami Dadaon and Iyad Shalabi broke world records. Shalaba, 34, who won two gold medals – in the 100m backstroke and 50m backstroke in S1, the most severe disability category – was born deaf and became paralyzed when he fell off a roof as a child. The 34-year-old Israeli Arab from Shfaram was competing in his fourth Paralympics and medaled for the first time in Tokyo.

Malyar, 21, who has cerebral palsy, won three medals – gold in the 200m medley and the 400m freestyle in the S7 disability category, and bronze in the 100m backstroke. Ami Dadaon, competing in the S4 category, also won three medals including gold in both the 200m freestyle and the 50m freestyle and silver in the 150m medley.The Israeli delegation competed in athletics, bocce, goalball, kayaking, powerlifting, rowing, shooting, swimming, table tennis and wheelchair tennis. Co-flag bearer and rower, Moran Samuel won a silver in the single sculls competition. She was the only Israeli non-swimmer to win a medal.

Which delegation was more successful, or is this the wrong question?

So which of Israel’s two delegations was more successful and why? Both teams have reasons to celebrate – this was Israel’s most successful Olympics ever. The Olympic team even won more medals than Israel won in the three previous Olympics combined. Yet, the fact that the larger Olympic team brought home far fewer medals than the Paralympians may suggest the latter delegation was more successful and begs the question of why? Is it due to funding, levels of competition in a given sport, differences in athletic competition, or something else? Or, perhaps the comparison based solely on numbers is not a fair one. While five medals separate both delegations, both teams share many common characteristics. Athletes train mainly out of the public eye for four (in the case of the 2021 Olympics, five) years. Few Israelis pay attention to either group and don’t know much about the athletes or sports they are training for. And there are shared funding and financial support realities. A Jerusalem Post report in 2016 explored the financial reality both organizations face. The report looked at sources of funding and payout for athletes.

They reported that only a select few actually earn a respectable living while the rest compete for the funding that remains. At the time, the Olympic Committee of Israel’s (OCI) yearly budget was around NIS 20 million, with some NIS 13 million going to the athletes, coaches and their needs and another NIS 4 million toward promoting the “Olympic idea.” The OCI receives around half of its income from the Israel Sports Betting Board (TOTO) and the National Sports Council, with another NIS 6 million coming from sponsorship deals and support from abroad. Only Israel’s top Olympic athletes receive a monthly stipend from the OCI and the amount they are granted is allocated according to their success.

According to the 2016 report, athletes are split into four squads: gold, silver, bronze and senior. Those in the gold squad – which in 2016 only included five names: judokas Yarden Gerbi, Sagi Muki and Golan Pollack, triple jumper Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko and windsurfer Ma’ayan Davidovich – received NIS 8,500 a month. The athletes in the silver squad received NIS 6,000, the bronze squad received NIS 4,500 a month and the senior squad NIS 3,000. The Israeli Olympic delegation traditionally competes against similar-sized countries with far greater budgets. This may account, in part, for Israel’s nondisabled Olympic team receiving fewer medals when compared to other countries.

In order to make up for its inability to pay high salaries, the OCI has worked to connect athletes with companies and businesses in the private sector. In 2016, approximately 45 athletes had sponsorship deals with 34 different bodies. At the time, OCI president Igal Carmi explained that increased funding would allow the OCI to implement more professional programs, which Carmi felt would ultimately result in more success on the international stage. “There is no doubt that increased funding will be translated into professional plans that will improve the infrastructure of Israeli sport and will eventually raise our level of success.”

The Paralympic Committee of Israel’s (PCI) budget at the time of the report was only NIS 4 million, with almost all of it coming from the Israel Sports Betting Board (TOTO) and the National Sports Council. The PCI also has gold, silver and bronze squads. Those in the gold only received NIS 2,500 a month, with silver and bronze receiving NIS 2,000 and NIS 1,500 respectively.

The PCI turned to the High Court of Justice demanding to receive the same public funding as the OCI, but despite a ruling in its favor, a government committee ultimately decided there is no such need. Paralympians typically have a more difficult time attracting sponsors.

The Olympic Committee of Israel, founded in 1986, reportedly has a 2021 budget of NIS 48,273,701. Bruria Bigman, head of marketing and public relations for the Olympic Committee of Israel reports, “The Olympic Committee of Israel is budgeted by the State of Israel and 40% comes from sponsorships of business entities, donations in Israel and around the world.” The committee does more than simply send elite athletes to compete at the Summer Olympics every four years. Bigman adds, “The Israel Olympic Committee is responsible for sending the Olympic delegations to the Olympic Games (summer and winter for adults and youth, and the European Games for adults and youth) and is the umbrella organization for Olympic sports in Israel.”

The Paralympic Committee of Israel budget is reportedly NIS 6,982,878. Dr. Yehoshua-Shuki Dekel, chairman of the Paralympic Committee, is pleased that the Israeli government has become increasingly supportive of Israeli Paralympic athletes in the past five years. He notes that additional support also comes from the private sector.

Medalists from both Olympic and Paralympic teams receive additional financial bonuses.

PARADING the Israeli flag at the Tokyo Paralympics closing ceremony, September 5. (credit: Issei Kato/Reuters)

Olympians receive more funding, Paralympians win more medals, yet both groups remain mostly upbeat

The Israeli Olympic team may receive more funding than the Israeli Paralympic team, but a more apt comparison is how much the Israel Olympic team receives when compared to other countries it competes against. The Olympic Committee of Israel has a very small budget compared to other countries of a similar size, and certainly when compared to powerhouse countries like the US, Russia, China and the UK. This is a major reason why other countries tend to win more medals than Israel. Israel does not suffer from a lack of talent and potential – they have elite athletes in most summer sports, but harnessing the talent from a young age and maintaining strict training regimens until the athletes are ready for international competition requires large sums of money for coaching, equipment, facilities, etc. Israel is dealing with insufficient funding when compared to other countries.

While the Israeli Paralympics team receives less funding than the Olympic team, they continue to win more medals than their nondisabled counterparts. According to some, the playing field in Paralympics is more level for Israel than in the regular Olympic sports as all countries are dealing with a similar lack of funding to allocate. While certain nations still have much more money (and sponsorship) to power their Paralympics programs and athletes and so they will still come out on top, Israel is adequately placed to compete for medals among countries of a similar size. The financial disadvantage is felt less strongly by Israel’s Paralympics team than by Israel’s Olympic team.

This is reflected in Israel’s success rate at the Paralympics, with 380 medals overall to date (including 126 golds) and No. 19 global ranking versus 13 total Olympics medals (including 3 golds) and No. 82 global ranking.

Despite these very real issues, the two organizations remain upbeat, positive and encouraged. IOC spokesperson Bigman proudly reports, “This was Israel’s largest delegation: 90 athletes, and 53% of the delegation participants were women (if the baseball team is not taken into consideration).”

Bigman is pleased that Israel won two gold medals and that both are in new disciplines – instrumental gymnastics and artistic gymnastics. And that, “For the first time in history, Israel has an Olympic gold medal for a woman. And, for the first time having a coach leading to a gold win.”

She is also proud of the relationship between the Olympic and Paralympic Committees, which she describes as an “excellent relationship” with lots of collaboration.” She adds, “The Achievement Sports Unit is in charge of the Paralympics and we, as an Olympic Committee, help them a lot in professional matters.”

Bigman and Dekel are unfazed by the overall medal count, as both feel there are obvious and understandable differences between the two sports. Bigman praises the Paralympics delegation for their accomplishments but notes. “There is a fundamental difference: about 4,800 athletes participate in the disabled games. At the Olympics 11,500 athletes compete for 999 medals. In the disabled, there are many more categories in each industry because of the types of disability and hence many more medals.”

Dekel adds, “I am proud and excited with all the people of Israel for the incredible achievements of our athletes at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. They are truly superheroes and have done above our expectations. And they deserve all the praise and thanks.” 

Dekel, who is former head of the Israel Sports Administration, feels there is a simple explanation as to why Paralympic athletes win more medals than Olympic athletes.

“It is not right to make a comparison between the Olympics and the Paralympics. Because they are not similar in many parameters. Over the years we have developed a tradition of professionalism, we have combined new research and technology, we have developed training methods and techniques, we have progressed in improving the personal equipment of the athletes. We have brought some of the best coaches from abroad to certain sports in the world. We have developed special facilities and more. So all the parameters together is the answer. “

Paralympians weigh in

In the field of disabilities inclusion, there is a well-established concept of “nothing about us without us.” It refers to involving people with disabilities in discussions and policy making when it comes to people with disabilities. Toward that end, several of Israel’s Paralympians shared their Tokyo experiences and their successes and struggles leading up to the Paralympic games.

Pascale Bercovitch, 54, is one of the oldest Paralympians and a veteran of several Paralympics in a range of sports. Bercovitch was a rower at the 2008 Paralympics; she competed in para-cycling at the 2012 Summer Paralympics then switched to paracanoe, competing in the women’s kayak single KL2 200m events in several World Championships and the 2016 Summer Paralympics.

Bercovitch is also a writer, filmmaker and motivational speaker. She made aliyah alone from France after losing both legs in a train accident as a teenager, and she served in the IDF.

Bercovitch was excited to compete in Tokyo, where she participated in the women’s KL2 canoe sprint, though the Paralympic experience during the pandemic was a different experience from previous Paralympics. 

“It was wonderful and well organized. Of course in corona times, it was not easy for us. We were tested every day and couldn’t go out of the Olympic Village. The only minus for me was not feeling the Japanese public, which we knew would be amazing, so it was sad,” she reports.

Bercovitch also feels that Paralympics have helped change attitudes toward people with disabilities.

“We had the feeling there is more acceptance from the outside world (toward disabilities) than ever. There was more coverage and more media investment than ever before. The message we are bringing to the world is heard more than ever.”

Rower Moran Samuel, who won a silver medal in the women’s PR single sculls rowing, had a similar experience. “The Paralympic games are always exciting. I think it was unique because of COVID 19. On one hand, there was no crowd. We were tested every day and we couldn’t leave the Paralympic Village. On the other hand, it was the biggest win over the pandemic and the organizers and the volunteers did a great job. Crossing the finish line in Tokyo felt amazing. It’s always a mix of feelings, a big relief together with happiness. It’s a moment where the whole journey is crossing in your mind.”

Samuel was in the sportai mitstayen (outstanding athlete) program while serving in the Israeli Air Force and played on the Israel women’s national basketball team. In 2006, she became paralyzed in her lower body after having a spinal stroke. She became a physical therapist and worked with the Paralympic Sports Association team and their wheelchair basketball team. Samuel competed in wheelchair basketball and in 2012 transitioned to rowing.

Both athletes had a lot to offer about the tremendous challenges they and other athletes face around funding and support. Samuel is pleased to report, “There has been a great improvement in the development and the investment in Para sport in Israel.” And it is paying off. “We could see the results of that in the swimming pool. This graph should continue upward.” But she cautions, “The competition is getting harder across all sports. If we want to repeat or even improve the results in more sports, then we need more money.”

SAMUEL ALSO notes the importance of sponsorship and has experienced this herself. 

“I think that part of an athlete’s success in the elite level depends on the support of sponsors. More and more companies understand how important it is to get involved in sport and specifically in Paralympic sport. The values are so strong – determination, overcoming obstacles, erasing the “dis” of disability. People identify with us because we all face challenges in life and we show them how you can make the most out of what you have.”

Samuel reports, “Before I had my sponsors, I was 4th, 5th place in the world. In the same year that Altshuler Shaham [an investment house] decided to join my journey, I won the silver medal in the world championship (2014). A year later I was the world champion and have been on the podium ever since.” One of her sponsors faced financial difficulties as a result of COVID, which had an impact on Samuel’s training. “

There were a few months where I had to work more and train less. Fortunately, I was able to find a new sponsor just a few months before the games [SKAI] and it makes all the difference. It means we can put all our efforts into training without any financial worries. When you sleep well at night knowing you can provide for yourself and your family, you can get the most out of your training.”

Bercovitch approaches the question of funding more broadly. “The question (really is) whether Israel invests enough in sports (in general). It is hard to make a distinction between Olympics and Paralympics. It is not a question of budget and money but of supporting athletes and bringing young people to sports. Sports is just beginning to be a priority. It is quite new and we have to include sports from a young age and offer support for youngsters. Until now, parents pay everything until one year before the Olympic Games. This is not right. It is not equal. I would like to see Israel approach sports more like Norway, New Zealand and Australia, where parents don’t have to pay. Here, the only time you get support is when you are already a high-level athlete and even then, you don’t get what you need.” 

Bercovitch continues to face major funding challenges and other obstacles. “I have to fund most of my training and expenses. I don’t get so much support and also the support is very institutional, meaning I am not free to choose my own coaches, and how I want to train. This is a big problem because when you are an experienced athlete, you need to train the way you think is right for you.” 

She notes that her funding is received only one year before the Paralympics. 

“Before that, I have to manage alone.” 

Bercovitch feels some of the issues she faces may have to do with her age. 

“Because I am one of the oldest Paralympic athletes in the world, they don’t want to fund me. I get the least among athletes since I am the oldest. They don’t want to help me go further, even if they don’t have others (who are younger) to fund. It is tiring. I have to fight and find funding by myself for everything.”

Israel’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes arrived back in Israel before Rosh Hashanah to enjoy needed rest and family. Hopefully, they were able to focus more on the excitement of representing Israel on the world stage than on the very real issue of financial support. Perhaps these incredible athletes and human beings will take some time this High Holy Day season to pray for additional funding which will somehow better level the playing field so that both delegations can continue bringing home even more medals for their country.

Soon, these elite athletes will resume high-level training for the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad, Paris, 2024. And as usual, most of the training will take place out of sight, away from the glitter and shine of the precious medals.

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