domingo, abril 19, 2009

Judo / European championship / A case of hara-kiri

Judo / European championship / A case of hara-kiri
By Aviad Saad and Rami Hipsh
Politics, more than the competition, is killing the sport that brought home three Olympic medals

It was a difficult moment for Arik Ze'evi. "I couldn't stop crying," declared the Israeli judoka outside the quiet locker room in Beijing. He talked about retiring and it seemed the golden age of Israeli judo, which had lasted since the 1992 Barcelona games, was coming to an end.
Ze'evi is still here, but probably not for much longer. This week he is slated to participate in the European championship in Tbilisi, Georgia, which opens Friday. He is riding on the heels of the gold medal he took in a world cup tournament in Poland two months ago. After the blow in Beijing, he vowed to reassess his career. "If things fail to take off," the 32-year old says, "I'll think about retiring. But first I want to see how I perform in the coming tournament to make up my mind."

Accompanying Ze'evi will be Yoel Razvozov, Avisar Sheinmann, Alon Sasson, Liraz Ben Melech and Alice Schlesinger. Gal Yekutiel, who finished fifth in Beijing and was the medal hope for the 2012 London Games, dropped out of competition after getting injured. Yekutiel opted to call it quits in favor of his veterinary studies. The constant headache that comes with being a judoka was also a major factor in his decision.
In order to understand Israeli judo, you need much more than a brief explanation of the scoring system. First of all, one needs to get to know Eddy Koaz, president of the Israel Judo Association, the strong man who stands at the head of the team he calls the "coalition." He asserts he is the owner of a "medal factory." His club, Judokan, is the largest in the country and regularly produces athletes for local and international competitions.
His opposition includes Olympic medalists Yael Arad and Oren Smadja, as well as coaches Moshe Ponti and Shani Hershko. They claim Koaz discriminates against players who do not come through Judokan and thereby stunts the progress of the sport. It's a bloody political battle between organizations and former friends. Both sides believe this is the most significant factor undermining the sport.
Smadja cites Sagi Muki, 18, from the Lahav organization he heads as an example. "He went to a competition in Croatia and only because of my pressure and influence did he not have to pay for the flights," explains the Barcelona bronze-medal winner.
"A new generation of coaches, and professional staff has to arise. After Yael Arad, Ze'evi and I won medals and the impression was created that we had developed a recipe for success here. Basically, it's a few athletes who managed to reach that high. The rest, despite being talented, can't do that. There are dozens who could be a Smadja, Arad or Ze'evi, but no one does anything with them. Through age 18, we're better than any other country in the world."
And then what happens? "Elsewhere, the athlete's personal coach is the one who keeps working with him, in tandem with national team coaches, but here they refuse to allow that," Smadja explains. "There's no cooperation, and the friction ruins judo. Athletes are eliminated from the mat because they didn't take part in the right club or association. Where is the young generation, where are the athletes who were supposed to take Ze'evi's medal from Athens to the next level? Anyone in the judo association is a crony of the chairman or his organization. Because of that we're trailing the rest of the world by 20 years."
Hershko warns of an "enormous vacuum" once Ze'evi, Yekutiel and Razvozov depart. "I keep the athletes in my club [Meitav, ran by Ponti] so they won't retire, but many have given up. Only a few soldiers and youths stayed, and why [is this]? They have to pay for their travel expenses to train and for flights, so they decide there's nothing more to do and leave."
Outsider to the rescue
The opposition set out against the Koaz administration two years ago, when they complained to the registrar of associations regarding a number of violations. This led to the cancellation of the judo association's certification as a properly-run organization. The association is now following a recovery plan to regain certification.
"People try to do damage to the association and the sport," asserts Koaz. "Some people are apparently bothered by judo's annual success, and they try to put a stop to it. Cronies? My brother trained the Israel national team, it's true, but this whole sport is made up of cronies. Some of my former cronies even sit in the opposition."
Recently, the team brought in an Austrian coach, who belongs to neither camp, and athletes attest that practices have become intense. Their personal coaches are pleased as well. "I can't guarantee a medal in Tbilisi, but it's possible," says one coach. "It's not easy when everyone is involved in power struggles. I hope everyone will decide to unite their forces around the national team, because that's the most important thing, not the clubs."
Everyone agrees that any of the athletes can earn a medal on any given day. The real worry is about the future. "There is a vacuum," says Ze'evi. "Razvozov and I keep managing to compete, the rest are soldiers and students, who don't have to worry about their income. There are no athletes at the ages in between, and the system is not in healthy shape. Maybe now they'll start thinking about the long term."

FONTE: Ha'aretz - Tel Aviv,Israel

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