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The International Olympic Committee Says These Athletes Can Go to Sochi. Israel Says No.

Are the government’s tight standards in pursuit of medals deferring qualified Jewish athletes’ sporting dreams?

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Andrea Davidovich and Evgeni Krasnopolski of Israel compete in the Pairs Short Program during day one of the ISU Nebelhorn Trophy at Eissportzentrum Oberstdorf on September 26, 2013 in Oberstdorf, Germany. (Dennis Grombkowski/Bongarts/Getty Images)
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Boris Chait spent a hot and muggy afternoon last August the same way he passed most of his days this summer: indoors, wearing a winter coat. In this case it was a blue parka with the words “2010 Olympic Team Vancouver” on the right sleeve and, on the left, an insignia of the Israeli Ice Skating Federation, of which Chait is president. From behind almost rectangular wire frames, his knowing eyes followed two youngsters as they skated around Rink 3 of the Ice House, in Hackensack, N.J., drawing sporadic applause from the two dozen or so people in the bleachers as they performed jumps, throws, spins, and lifts in the rink’s annual Moran Memorial Championship.

It was only the second official program the duo, Andrea (Anya) Davidovich and Evgeni Krasnopolsky, had entered since pairing up earlier this year, but they won easily—hardly a surprise, since Krasnopolsky is a three-time Israeli junior national champion who finished 17th at the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships in Nice. But the outing in New Jersey was less about winning another title than about having a successful practice run for the real showdown: the annual Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany.

Since 2009, the Nebelhorn Trophy has been designated by the International Skating Union as a final qualifying event for skaters hoping to go to the Winter Games. This year, the top six male and female skaters, along with the top four pairs and top six ice-dancing couples, are guaranteed entry to the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia—except for the Israelis. As in previous years, the Olympic Committee of Israel has stipulated that only a place in the top three at Oberstdorf is good enough to go to the Olympics for men, women, and pairs, while the ice dancers must finish first or second.

In 2010, a simliar policy kept skater Tamar Katz home from Vancouver. This year, Davidovich and Krasnopolsky were victims. At the Nebelhorn last weekend, they finished fourth among pairs who hadn’t already qualified for the Olympics, good enough for the International Olympic Committee but not for the Israeli one. Solo skater Alexei Bychenko also fell into the trap, finishing fifth in the men’s group.

Israel is one of the only countries that maintains qualification standards that are more restrictive than the IOC’s. The OCI adopted the policy in 1994 when officials decided to send a team to the Lillehammer Olympics. They have altered the rules over the last two decades, but they remain more stringent than the IOC’s. “We are interested in our athletes reaching the top,” Efraim Zinger, the secretary general for the Israeli Olympic Committee, told the New York Times in a 2010 piece about Katz.

Of course, Israel’s Olympic Committee has every authority under International Olympic Committee rules to hold its athletes to higher qualification standards in pursuit of medals. As Vladimir Shklar, a vice president of the Israeli committee and the head of the delegation that will travel to Sochi, explained, “The philosophy was that if someone was going to qualify for the Winter Olympics for Israel, they better be very close to getting up on the podium and in a position to get a medal.”

But only allowing athletes with a chance to medal to participate runs counter to the spirit of the Olympic movement, whose motto is “Faster, Higher, Stronger”—a statement that’s more about personal achievement and pushing one’s own limits than nationalistic displays of sporting prowess. Moreover, it’s not clear the policy is even effective: Israel left the 2012 Summer Games in London without any medals at all.

“We fought that international qualification should be Israel qualification, but they don’t think that way,” Chait told me. “They say say ‘we have our qualifier. We have to be tougher.’ To me it’s a joke, and to half the world it’s a joke. What are we trying to prove?”

***

The OCI is the umbrella organization for Olympic sports in Israel and is responsible for giving out the state funds allocated to Olympic sport federations and associations. The programs are chronically underfunded. In 2011, roughly 10 percent of the $21 million sporting budget went to these federations. The $21 million represented just 0.03 percent of the country’s $61 billion budget, which is one of the lowest rates in the Western world. As a result, the athletes and their coaches have to raise money through other means to pay for much of their training themselves. While many athletes across the world have some additional costs, the lack of governmental funding and support in Israel is more dramatic.

The actions of the Israeli federation run counter to statements about re-committing to funding summer and winter sports after failure at the 2012 Games in London. Shklar claims he is trying to eliminate the more difficult standards. “I wanted to cancel these stricter criterion altogether, and I only was able to decrease them slightly,” he wrote in an email. But even if the policy is changing, it’s happening too slowly to help the athletes whose window of opportunity will come at the 2014 Games.

In addition to Chait’s skaters, two skiers and one short-track speed skater are in contention for Olympic qualification. All three face standards that are higher than the IOC regulation. Israeli rules require skiers to have a maximum of 50 points instead of 80, while skaters need to be in the top 24 instead of 36.

The disconnect has prompted Chait—whose daughter Galit and her partner Sergei Sakhnovski finished sixth in the ice dancing competition at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, still the best result for an Israeli figure skating team—to devote the past 15 years to pushing Israel’s national committee to loosen qualification standards.

He cites the example of Steven Bradley, an Australian short-track speed skater who in 2002 won a gold medal in an upset victory at Salt Lake City. Bradley entered the five-man final as an underdog, but after China’s Lia Jiajun took out Apollo Ohno, Mathieu Turcotte, and Ahn Hyun-soo, Bradley crossed the line in first place. As far as Chait is concerned, it’s proof that, in the Olympics, anyone can be a winner—but winning is only possible if athletes are there in the first place. “Sport is sport,” he said. “Anything can happen on any given day.”

***

Chait is not alone. Windsurfer Gal Fridman captured Israel’s first gold medal, in Beijing in 2004. In the intervening years, she has added to the chorus of athletes and coaches like Chait who are critical of the country’s Olympic strategy. Before the 2010 Winter Olympics, she told the Forward that athletes “have to start somewhere,” when it comes to finding success at cold weather sports.

In the past, Israel has athletes compete at the winter Olympics in sports including slalom, giant slalom, short track speed skating, and figure skating. But that leaves a wide range of sporting events Israel has decided not to contest at all—despite the fact that it has qualified athletes ready and willing to represent the white-and-blue. One of them is Bradley Chalupski, an American who saw the skeleton race at the 2002 Olympics on television and thought it looked like fun. The sport, which is similar to luge except participants fly down the ice headfirst and the sleds have no brakes, was in its infancy, and the New Jersey native found the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation through Google. The organization was recruiting online.

Chalupski was the drum major of his high-school band and a wrestler who missed out on the captaincy by one vote—his own, because he didn’t feel like voting for himself was the noble thing to do. He decided to try out for the American skeleton squad. “You could send an athletic resume that showed you were all varsity everything or you could show them that you could, as I affectionately call it, run and jump like a monkey,” he said. “I did the second.”

Despite training with the squad, Chalupski missed the national team trials by .2 seconds in 2010. A lawyer—he graduated from Seton Hall in 2010—he was planning a move to France when a member of the Israeli bobsled team reached out and asked him if he’d like to join the team. Chalupski wrestled with the decision for a few weeks before ultimately deciding yes.

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The International Olympic Committee Says These Athletes Can Go to Sochi. Israel Says No.

Are the government’s tight standards in pursuit of medals deferring qualified Jewish athletes’ sporting dreams?