Why do Israelis care about the Olympics?

Why do we take the Olympic Games so seriously? And why do we perform with such mediocrity?

Jewish comic Jackie Mason says that Jews and Italians are opposites: put three Jews on a New York sidewalk and they'll be harassed. Put three Italians on the same sidewalk and nobody will mess with them. But put both groups in military uniforms and the picture is reversed: nobody will dare mess with three Israeli soldiers, whereas three Italian soldiers are slightly less menacing. After the Olympic Games it appears that Israelis may be a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, but in a sports arena? Not so much. And yet, we Israelis take our Olympic achievements (or lack thereof) as seriously as we take our military performance.

Since the first modern-era Olympic Games, the United States has won close to 2,500 medals in the summer games. Sweden, a country with one million more citizens than Israel, won almost 500 medals. Norway, with 5 million citizens, won 150. Even Jamaica, with a third of our population, has already won 67 medals (many of which belong to Usain Bolt). And where is Israel? With eight million citizens, the Jewish state has a grand total of 9 medals in 68 years, only one of which is made of gold. 

It's not even because we are Jewish. We all remember Jewish American swimmers Dara Torres with 12 medals, Mark Spitz with 11, and now Aly Raisman with 6. In fact, Jews have won over 330 medals, while wearing the national uniforms of many countries-except for Israel. 

And yet, for two weeks once every four years, Israelis are glued to their television sets, riveted by the Olympic Games and rooting for our national athletes. Baron de Coubertin, father of the modern games, saw the Olympiad as a moment to unite humanity around sports. That ideal never quite materialized-except in Israel, where the only thing that can stop us arguing and discussing anything and everything is the Olympic festival. Every four years we drop everything, hang the Israeli flag above the TV set and root for our athletes competing in such non-Jewish sports as canoeing, windsurfing, and Judo. Suddenly, for one moment, we are all mavens in martial arts. 

But there is an inverse correlation between our interest in sports and our achievements. We are not very good at it. Some countries with a similar size are doing far better than us, but they don't seem to have our level of national pride when it comes to cheering on our athletes. Every Israeli who makes it past the first round in any sport is hailed as a prodigy, a veritable Heracles. Any athlete making it to the finals is a national hero. A medal, even made of bronze, gives you celebrity status. Our Minister of Sports and Culture traveled to Rio with the delegation. She made appearances at all the matches, waving the flag and encouraging our athletes. She wept with the nation when an Israeli stepped up to the winners' podium (it happened twice at Rio) and cried with us when Israelis were beaten. Like the rest of us, she showed indignation at the snubbing of Israeli athletes by Saudi and Iranian competitors and fellow Lebanese bus passengers. "It's not sportsman-like," cried the headlines. "Anti-Semitism," said the commentators. "They all hate us," we collectively felt. 

Why do we take the Olympic Games so seriously? And why do we perform with such mediocrity? A possible explanation to the first question is that, like going to a movie, it is an escape. Summer in Israel is hot. Our enemies still hate us. Iran is still trying to get a nuclear bomb. Once every four years we get a chance to see our fellow Israeli, one of us, on a world stage, and we suddenly feel that maybe we are not so different from the other countries. Do we not share the same (green) pool water with Michael Phelps? Do we not run on the same track as Usain Bolt? If they beat us in Judo, do we not bleed? But then, why are we such poor athletes? 

One reason is that the Israeli government invests less in sports than most countries. One can almost imagine the government Ministers sitting around the cabinet table, one of them saying: "We need to invest 5 million shekels to get an athlete to gold-medal level." And another Minister, equally patriotic, would reply: "Yes, but can he defend us against an incoming Hamas rocket?" And the budget for sports is cut again. 

Another reason is that we are a nation of Jewish mothers, who raise us to be scientists and not sprinters, physicists and not pole vaulters. This year, Israel won 14 medals in the junior science Olympics. Maybe that is more important. 

And yet, it seems that our national pride is still waiting for an Israeli Bolt and our own Phelps to feel that we really made it; that we truly are a regular nation among the nations. Or maybe we will just develop an app that does it instead.  

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office. 






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