By Tal Ben Ezra
While expectations are high for Israel’s sailors to compete for a medal in London, the first medal winners in the 1990s seemed to rise out of nowhere. In fact, the sport developed over several decades before that big breakout.
The first race in the country dates back to 1939. The city sailing race had a simple route – from Haifa to Tel Aviv and back. Some of the boats in the race were also used for unloading illegal immigrants. The race soon became a tradition.
Many in Israel credit the late Shimshon Buber as one of the founders of the sport. A German refugee who was brought to Palestine in 1935 at the age of three, he later helped unload illegal immigrants onto the beaches and in 1955 moved from Nahariya to Kibbutz Sdot Yam. He once said things got underway when he spent July and August on the beach, and started with others to teach the children of Sdot Yam to sail. Buber founded the Sdot Yam sailing club with a major emphasis on maritime education and later competitiveness.
In 1956 Yitzhak Ofek – another pioneer of Israeli sailing – asked Haim Glovinsky, who was the head of the Israeli delegation to the Melbourne Games, to collect as much material on international sailing as possible so that Israelis could catch a glimpse of this new phenomenon.
The first Snipe dinghy arrived in Israel in 1962 as the first race model alongside the Flying Dutchman. Israelis, however, stuck to the non-Olympic 420 model for economic reasons.
Israel’s first international achievements came in 1968, when Yair Michaeli and the national team won third place at a prestigious competition in England. A year later Zefania Carmel and Lydia Lazarov won the 420 world championship. “We surprised the whole world. Everyone was shocked by these so-called Palestinians, who came out of nowhere to win,” recalls Michaeli.
With continuing success in the 1970s, sports officials in Israel decided to start competing for the Olympics. Michaeli and the late Yitzhak Nir represented Israel at Munich 1972. Michaeli recalls that until then the team at most trained on weekends. He says they went to Munich with the explicit, modest goal of vying for first place. “Afterward the tragic event of course occurred on the third day of our competition,” he says. “No one knew what to do. No one answered our phone call. We said we’d continue competing. The moment we learned we lost people, there was no more point in competing and the Olympics ended for us.”
Importing talent and knowhow
Israelis made slow, methodical progress throughout the 1970s and 1980s. They brought in professionals from abroad to teach them how to make higher quality, efficient sails and to coach. They hired the first fitness coach, Itzik Ben Melech – now director of the Elite Sports Unit at Wingate Institute, in the 1980s.
“I learned some good methods in Germany and brought them to Israel,” explains Ben Melech. “Until that point we trained just six months a year on weekends.”
He says they introduced more intensive training and performance incentives, and that they decided to make sailing a top priority because they analyzed what was going on worldwide and concluded there was great potential in Israel. Winning a medal was a dream, he says, and in order to do that they needed to sail 12 months a year.
In 1993 Yehuda Maayan decided to take things a step further by setting up a women’s team. “They recommended Shani Kedmi to me, and then I met her with Anat Fabrikant,” recalls Maayan. “I approached them and said, ‘Hi, do you want to participate in the Olympics?’ Later I took them to the sea.”
Kedmi and Fabrikant went on to finish 12th at the 1996 Atlanta Games and fourth at the 2000 Sydney Games.
“They pulled me out of a seafaring lesson. It was crazy,” recalls Kedmi. “We were full of motivation. Our coaches’ knowledge was enormous.”
Kedmi says all the conditions were in their favor. Some periods were amazing and others were tough “inside this pressure cooker,” she adds.
Israel won its first Olympic medal – a bronze – during that period, thanks to the machinations of Gal Fridman in Atlanta. “Before the Games a television crew came and I told them that if all goes well, we would return with a medal,” recalls his coach, Gur Steinberg. “I’ll never forget how they looked at me, like I was some kind of clown. We had tremendous motivation as a result of our history of sailing. There were too many cases of almost, and we put an end to that.”
Eight years later, Steinberg led Fridman to a historic gold medal. Steinberg adds that no one raised an eyebrow when they said the goal in Athens was gold.
Shahar Zubari, who is competing in London, added another Israeli sailing bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games. Add to those medals all the near misses and you have the premier Olympic sport in Israel. There are numerous reasons for this: the calm weather, the beaches which offer different sailing conditions, the fact that one can train in Israel 12 months a year. Another element is perhaps the most important one: love for the sea, which literally lies in Israel’s backyard.
Look at the kids
A visit to the prestigious Sdot Yam club one afternoon provides a tangible example. While hundreds of thousands of youth around the country are on their computers, we found a huge number of children in the sea. Some were swimming, while others chose to practice windsurfing and rowing. If one looks to the side toward the offices, one sees pictures of outstanding athletes who grew up there and instill competitive motivation. The children of Sdot Yam, as in other similar places, do their best not to miss the daily routine.
“It’s the view of their childhood. They live, breathe and eat the sea,” says Eli Zukerman, manager of Sdot Yam, who competed at the 2000 Sydney Games in the 470 and is married to Shani Kedmi. He says they get over 200 sailors from all over the country, some of whom go on to competitive sailing.
Zukerman says Israel is not really a sailing powerhouse because it depends on specific talents. He says his athletes need more institutional support so there should be two or three at the highest levels for each category. That way there would be more competition, like there is between Zubari and Nimrod Mashiah.
“I’ve always said sailing is not a profession,” he says. “You can’t build on it. There’s no security – and not just regarding salaries.”
Zukerman says there are not enough coaches for Israel to keep up with the rest of the world.
“Nothing deters us,” says sailor Vered Buskila, who is competing in London. “We have a long history, and we know how to work. We’re already in the game.”
Buskila says whatever Israelis lack, their character comes out in the competitions. She says it takes a little nerve and stubbornness, combined with thinking out of the box, and the Israelis will be fine.
“The sea is an inseparable part of all our lives,” she adds. “Love for the sea leads to love the sport.”
Zubari notes that his father taught him to sail so he wouldn’t roam the streets. “As a boy who grew up in Eilat, the connection to the sea is natural. I took it from there in a competitive direction. We have a winning tradition. Nothing can beat that.”