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Friday Feature - On the Map to Stay, the Story of Israeli Athletics

Friday Feature

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30 Aug 2019
Friday Feature - On the Map to Stay, the Story of Israeli Athletics
In 1977, just five years after the massacre of Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Tal Brody led the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team to the first of many FIBA (EuroLeague) Cup championships. In addition to the measure of healing this provided for the trauma of Munich, it was a moment of great pride for Israelis to win an international sports competition. Brody gave voice to that pride in an iconic statement to reporters following his team’s upset victory of the heavily favoured Soviet Red Army team, CSKA Moscow, that Israel was “on the map and we’re gonna stay on the map, in sports, in everything!”

In the generation since then, this phrase has become a part of Israel’s national ethos, quoted in speeches by national political leaders, diplomats, military officers and of course athletes and coaches. Israel’s rising profile in the international athletic scene has also drawn positive attention to the Jewish State in a variety of ways. This week, Israelis were proud to see Sagi Muki winning the gold medal in his weight class at the Judo World Championships in Tokyo. It was the latest triumph for Israeli athletes who have become some of the Jewish State’s most widely recognized goodwill ambassadors. But it has been a long, bumpy road to get to this point.

Israel won its first Olympic medal in 1992, when Yael Arad and Oren Smadja won bronze medals in their weight classes. Israeli athletes continued to win bronze and silver medals at successive Olympic Games and in 2004, Windsurfer Gal Fridman won Gold. As he stood on the podium while the Israeli flag was raised and the Israeli national anthem was played, nearly every citizen of the country was standing in front of their TV set singing along, with tears of pride running down their faces.

Although there have not been any more Olympic Gold Medals since then, Israeli athletes have won success in a variety of international competitions. This has made Israelis proud and provided a chance for people around the world to see the fun and positive side of a country they usually only ever hear about on the news when a war or act of terrorism occurs. It has also enhanced Israel’s diplomatic, political and even economic standing.

But because some of the victories that Israeli athletes have won were at competitions held in Arab and/or Moslem countries which don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel, the issue has come up from time to time of displaying Israel’s flag and playing its national anthem. Although there are local laws in many of these countries forbidding this, as the hosts of tournaments and competitions under the auspices of international sports federations, they are required to do so. In some cases, countries have forfeited the chance to host such competitions rather than allow Israeli athletes to compete and possibly win medals there, and individual athletes from some Arab and Moslem countries have forfeited matches rather than compete against an Israeli. In other cases, Arab athletes who lost matches against Israelis have refused to shake their hand afterwards.

These demonstrations of poor sportsmanship and discourtesy have drawn sympathetic attention to Israel and allowed many observers to gain a deeper understanding of the implacable hostility it faces. This has had some surprisingly positive results, including in the Persian Gulf’s United Arab Emirates, which changed its policies and now routinely hosts Israeli athletes and displays the Israeli flag in a respectful manner, playing the Israeli national anthem when an Israeli athlete wins a gold medal and otherwise showing respect for the Jewish State. The UAE even went so far as to host Israel’s Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev in October of 2018 amidst a Judo tournament the UAE hosted. The tour included a visit by Regev to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, one of the most prestigious in the Moslem world. She was accompanied on that visit by senior UAE officials and pictures of them were widely circulated in media outlets all over the Arab world, signalling a large crack in the iron wall of hostility that the Arab world has long shown to the Jewish State.

Within Israel itself, the growing popularity of sports have had a positive effect in many ways, including a boom in retailers setting up shop in the Jewish State. International brands including NIKE, Adidas, Foot Locker and Decathlon have opened dozens of outlet stores in Israeli cities, creating hundreds of jobs and building commercial ties.

But it is the perhaps the visitors that Israel’s sports scene has drawn which has had the largest positive impact.

In early 2018, a portion of the Giro Italia, one of the world's most popular bicycle races, was held in Israel. It was the first time a portion of the race had ever been held outside of Italy and it brought a tremendous amount of positive media coverage to the Jewish State along with visits from many of the sporting world's most popular athletes and personalities. The Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Marathons have both become annual events attracting thousands of competitors from around the world, including some of the most famous names in long distance running. Beyond that, dozens of professional athletes, including delegations from the NFL’s Hall of Fame and the NBA, have come to Israel as part of goodwill tours to visit with their local counterparts. Their millions of followers on social media were treated to pictures and videos of their heroes eating falafel, riding camels and otherwise enjoying the Holy Land. Israel’s government has acknowledged the positive impact these visits have had on the country’s image and economy, including the bump they’ve given to incoming tourism.

Finally, this week Jerusalem’s Kraft Family Sports Campus (sometimes called the “Lions Den” because it is the homefield of the Jerusalem Lions, three-time defending champions of Israel’s Semi-Pro Gridiron Football league) hosted the European championships of Flag Football. Hundreds of young men and women from European countries spent the week competing for the prize while enjoying the city and learning about its people. 

The stories these young athletes and their coaches and fans take home with them will be part of the reason Israel will stay on the map, in sports and in everything else.

Here is a video produced by Israel's Tourism Ministry giving some highlights of the vibrant and fun athletic scene in the Holy Land


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