Sports in Israel
In the over 60 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, sports have played an increasingly important role in the development of the country both at home and on the international stage.
Despite its small population, Israel’s athletes such as tennis star Shahar Pe’er and soccer player Yossi Benayoun regularly make an impact and a name for themselves. Israeli sports teams have also found success abroad, most notably the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club, which has established itself as one of the best teams in Europe over the last decade. Israel’s national teams have also been improving, with the soccer and basketball teams achieving impressive results.
Outside of the professional arena, sports have always been a significant pastime for hundreds of thousands of Israelis. With miles of beautiful coastline on the country’s western border it’s no surprise that an estimated half of the population swim regularly. The many months of warm weather encourage Israelis to enjoy outdoor sports, and a competitive attitude ensures youngsters become involved in dozens of different sporting activities from a young age.
Soccer just edges basketball as the most popular sport in Israel. The professional soccer league, with 12 teams in the top Premier League division, is followed closely in the media and attracts crowds of up to 20,000 people at games
In basketball, Maccabi Tel Aviv is the king of Israel, winning nearly every league championship. In recent years, however, new challengers have arisen. In Europe, Maccabi scored several achievements in the Euro league Final Four, having reached the final in 2006 and 2008 and won the competition in 2004 and 2005. In 2009, former Maccabi player Omri Casspi made history as the first Israeli to play in the NBA, after he was drafted by the Sacramento Kings.
An important factor in the success and development of Israeli sports is the Wingate Institute of Physical Education, the national sports center based in its own grounds close to the city of Netanya in central Israel. The institute includes an elite school for gifted young sports students, as well as the Department of Sports Medicine, a world leader in the field
Israel has always prided itself on its Olympic success, but until 2004 had never won a gold medal. That changed when windsurfer Gal Fridman came first in his competition at the 2004 Athens games.
Every four years Israel hosts its own version of the Olympics – the Maccabiah Games, which since 1932 has brought together thousands of Jewish athletes from all over the world. It is one of only seven worldwide competitions recognized by the International Olympic Committee. Participants compete in events including soccer, basketball, table tennis, and netball and attend an impressive opening ceremony at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan. Many top Jewish athletes have made their names at the Maccabiah, including American swimmers Mark Spitz, who went on to win an unprecedented seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, and Lenny Krayzelburg, who swam at the 2004 Athens games.
Israel has had success in disabled sports, winning medals at the Paralympic games and giving disabled athletes an opportunity to excel.