Just how Israeli is the Israeli Olympic figure skating team?

Israel is sending three figure skaters to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. They are men’s skater Alexei Bychenko, and Pairs skaters Andrea Davidovich and Evgeni Krasnopolski.

The two men were born in Kiev, Ukraine. Andrea was born in Vermont, USA.

All three train year-round in Hackensack, New Jersey.

The first figure-skater from Israel to make a solid mark on the international scene was Michael Shmerkin. He came in 2nd at Skate Canada in 1995 (the week of the Yitzhak Rabin assassination) and 11th in the World in 1995 and 1996.

After Shmerkin came ice-dancers Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhanovski. They were third at the World Championships in 2002 (to much controversy, which will be discussed in a separate post).

Shmerkin, born in Odessa, then-USSR, was training with the coach of Olympic Champions Victor Petrenko and Oksana Baiul when he represented his country at the 1984 World Junior Championship. When he immigrated to Israel, he assumed his figure-skating career was over. Israel didn’t even have a regulation sized rink at the time. (This up-close and personal profile tell his story; I’m the one interviewing him in Russian.)

Chait, on the other hand, was born in Israel, but grew up in New Jersey, competing at the US National Championship for a few years before switching to Israel. Her partner, Sakhanovski, was a 1993 World Junior Champion with a different partner for Russia. He switched nationalities specifically so that he and Chait could represent Israel in international competition.

The phenomenon is hardly unique to Israeli skaters. After the collapse of the USSR, Soviet athletes who couldn’t qualify out of their own Nationals tried on a host of new ethnicities for size, magically become Latvian, Byelorussian, Kazakh, Azerbaijani or moving to Germany, France or Poland to skate with new partners. (There was also the phenomenon known as Rent-A-Russian, where top ex-Soviet skaters were purchased for girls looking for talented partners in other countries. Perks included full room and board, a visa, and sometimes even a car.)

Nor are Americans immune. A quick dip into the genealogy charts would periodically produce newly-minted competitors for Taiwan, Japan, even Belgium, after rising through the ranks in the US proved too difficult.

But, those were aberrations. In Israel, the entire current team is made up of athletes who weren’t born in Israel, and don’t live or train there now. It’s more of a pass-through point on the way to the Olympics. In New Jersey, the skaters are trained by Galit Chait, and their living expenses subsidized by the Israeli Skating Federation, headed by Chait’s father, Boris, who was born in what is now Moldova and has lived in the US for almost forty years. (The Federation’s founder, Yossi Goldberg, mayor of Metula where Shmerkin initially trained after Goldberg was able to get a full-sized rink built, was an Israeli native.)

So how Israeli does that make the Israeli team?

And is this something that matters to Israelis? Or is it simply the way things are?

And what about athletes who choose to stay and train in Israel (for whatever reason)? Are they at a disadvantage in their own country?

About the Author
Alina Adams is the mother of three school-age kids who in her copious free time is turning her back list of traditionally published romance and mystery books into enhanced e-books, as well as collaborating with other authors to do the same.