My Olympic withdrawal symptoms started in earnest today. Yesterday’s TV programmes and newspapers still featured reports of the final day’s highlights, so it’s only now that I’m having to contemplate life without my daily fix of any and every sport. Who would have imagined the appeal of fencing, dressage and ladies weightlifting to name but three?
And didn’t we – sorry, I mean Britain – do brilliantly, on every level? Contrary to many people’s expectations, including my own, the London Olympics were a triumph.
My perennially pessimistic, cynical personality was bred in my native Britain, and eighteen years in Israel has only cultivated it further. Accordingly, I spent the first couple of days of the Olympics hardly daring to watch, as I waited for something to go terribly wrong. And then it became clear that it was all going fantastically well.
There was a brief moment when our – I still mean Britain’s – expected medal haul wasn’t quite materializing, but then there was a sudden gold, silver and bronze rush. Forgive the jingoism, but I hadn’t anticipated just how proud I’d feel of Britain, and London, for staging such a huge event so perfectly, and how excited I’d be when Team GB won medals.
As has been well documented, our – and this time I mean Israeli - athletes haven’t given us too much to cheer about. As always in Israel, failure is an orphan. In Athens in 2004, when Gal Fridman won Israel’s first, and to date only, Olympic gold medal, then Sports Minister Limor Livnat leapt onto the podium alongside him after the medal ceremony, happy to bask in his reflected glory. Livnat is still Sports Minister all these years later, yet she is not about to fall on her sword because of the Israeli athletes’ failure to win medals at this Olympics. Instead, she has established a committee of inquiry to look into the matter.
She can save the time and expense. The reasons why we aren’t producing more champions are obvious. For a start, too much money is poured into football above all other sports. A new football complex has been built in Shefayim and there is a new stadium in Petah Tikva. A fortune must have been spent on both. Israel needs to start directing the equivalent money towards other sports, starting at grassroots. And that’s another problem: there is no grassroots to speak of. Sport forms little or no part of the Israeli school curriculum. I remember being shocked by this when my own three children started school here, and little has changed in almost two decades. Even at their Jewish elementary school in London, where each day had to include Jewish studies in addition to the national curriculum, there was still time for sport. Here, parents pay for after school activities for their kids, which can include sports – if parents are so minded.
Israel needs to introduce compulsory sport in all schools from first grade onwards and build proper sports facilities nationwide. Not only will this help to produce future Israeli champions, it will impact positively on children’s health and nuture a lifelong enthusiasm for sport.