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?
From the beginning, he understood that getting to the Olympics would be difficult both because of the international qualification standard and because of the Israeli committee’s unwillingness to provide support. The Israeli bobsled federation had a letter from 2002 affiliating the organization with the Israeli Olympic committee, which allowed the team to slide in international competitions, but the committee would not respond to requests for a similar affiliation for skeleton. Without it, Chalupski couldn’t participate as a member of the Israeli delegation even if he met international Olympic qualification standards.
Undeterred, he moved to Jerusalem with his girlfriend—now fiancee—to train. Like the vast majority of countries, Israel does not have a skeleton track, but skeleton is a power sport similar to sprinting. Chalupski worked on his explosive starts and added strength to his five-foot-four frame. “I could send you videos of me pushing cars to train,” he said.
Chalupski slid for Israel in the 2011 and 2012 World Championships. He won a medal—Israel’s first in skeleton—at the America’s Cup Race in December 2011. He wasn’t the best skeleton slider in the world, but he was far from the worst. At 29, he certainly had a decent chance to finish in the top 60 in the world during the 2013/2014 competition season that runs from Nov. 30, 2013 to Jan. 19, 2014, and qualify for the 2014 Olympics. With David Greaves, a former bobsled brakeman and current chairman of the Israeli Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, Chalupski raised money through a variety of methods, including an Indiegogo campaign, to underwrite his training.
But the required approval from the Israeli Olympic Committee has nevertheless not been granted. “We are strictly looking to get the kosher stamp so we can go to the international federation and say, ‘OK, if Bradley qualifies, he can compete,’ ” Greaves said. In January, Greaves flew from Winnipeg to join Chalupski for a week of meetings in Jerusalem. “We were very optimistic after that,” Greaves told me. “We were under the impression that we were going to have to come back and make a presentation. But we had no response. Letters and emails weren’t returned.”
In August, Chalupski went uninvited and unannounced to the Olympic Committee headquarters where he was, in his words, “unceremoniously thrown out on my ear.” Eventually, he was told that the skeleton federation needed to be part of a sports union. Chait, the head of the Figure Skating federation, agreed to take Greaves and Chalupski’s Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation under the umbrella of his skating union. “I tried to help,” Chait said with a resigned tone. But, he said, the pair made their appeal to the Israeli sporting bureaucracy too late. “They came in the ninth inning,” Chait told me. “They won’t change what’s done.”
The final blow came in August, when Chalupski and Greaves received a letter from Efraim Zinger (secretary general, Olympic Committee of Israel), Dudu Malka, (deputy, sports administration), Gili Lustig (chairman of the Elite Sport Department of the Israel Olympic Committee), and Yaniv Ashkenazi (Elite Sport Department). It read, in part, that the skeleton federation was not a member of a sports union, and that it didn’t have enough participants, a national championship, or facilities in Israel. Therefore, skeleton did not meet the requirements and could not be part of the Israeli delegation. The letter closed with a wish for “luck for the upcoming Olympic Games.”
The Olympic dream was over. In fact, without a national umbrella, Chalupski’s international skeleton career is kaput, he said. “I don’t think I’m even allowed to compete at all because the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation doesn’t want to end up in a lawsuit,” he told me.
Wouldn’t the best way to grow the winter program be to have athletes compete at the Olympics and potentially inspire the younger generation? I put the question to Chait. “Bravo. Bravo. Bravo. That’s what I’m trying to explain to them for the past 15 or 20 years,” he responded, when we met in Hackensack. “They are very stubborn, not only with winter sports but with the summer sports.” A small girl in a figure skating costume walked past, followed by her overwhelmed mother. Chait, who describes himself as “63 going on 62” elaborated on his theme. “[The federation thinks] that skaters are growing on trees. They think you don’t even need to plant the tree, it just grows. It doesn’t work this way. You have to build a pyramid from the bottom.”
Presently, there’s a skating rink in Holon, through which up to a thousand skaters pass daily. The ice hockey team is making progress, although it is nowhere near qualification for the Olympics. A group recently traveled to Copenhagen to get accepted into the World Curling Federation. But other athletes like Chalupski are getting shut down due to bureaucratic policies and apathy.
I asked Shklar specifically about Chalupski’s case. He said that the Olympic Committee wasn’t willing to stop him from representing Israel, which isn’t true because their unwillingness to approve him means he couldn’t compete. And then the river of bureaucratic nonsense began: “There are other technical issues in here in Israel. It needs to be a recognized, established federation here in Israel. It needs to be part of the system of sports.” And then he blamed the system. “Doing something like that six months before the Olympics is complicated,” Shklar concluded. “The bureaucracy and things that need to be done half a year before the Olympics. It’s difficult to do those things.”
But Chalupski has spent the past four years cobbling together a living waiting tables and doing freelance writing jobs while training. “I don’t regret it. It really, really sucks to not get to where you ultimately want to be but it’s been a huge enriching experience for myself in terms of what it takes to compete at that level but also in terms of being able to be a part of the Jewish community,” he told me. “It kind of has worked out already. It’s been a great experience.”
I asked him whether he was angry. “What makes me mad is that we were never treated with respect, we were never treated as a serious Israeli athletic federation,” Chalupski said. “We’ve never asked for money. We just want to be treated with the respect and the dignity that comes with becoming an Israeli sports team federation. That makes me mad. In my eye and in David’s eye, that says, ‘All of this work that you are doing, we couldn’t care less,’ in a really profound way.” Skeleton might be less popular than skating, but it nevertheless remains an Olympic sport, he reminded me. “To not even get the recognition from the [Israeli] Olympic committee that we are a serious federation, that we are not out there joyriding and yelling yippee ki yay as we careen down because we want to go to the Olympics, that makes me angry.”
Greaves agrees. “He’s a law graduate who has put his life on hold for three or four years now to focus on this in the hope that he would be able to represent Israel. Why not celebrate this kid, right? Why not celebrate this amazing story of aliyah, of sports, of Zionism?” he said. “Other than the 10 or 15 people that sit around the table of the Israeli Olympic Committee, every single person I have talked to in my 10 years on this journey for bobsled and skeleton, every single person says the same thing: Why the frig not? Why not try to let this kid qualify? What would be the worst thing that could happen? He doesn’t qualify, in which case it goes away quietly. If he does qualify, Israel has a wonderful thing they can celebrate.”
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