When you think about Israel, many things come to mind—the IDF, Knesset and the struggle for peace in the Middle East, to name a few. One thing that doesn’t immediately come to mind is sports.

However, the Maccabi Tel Aviv Basketball Club recently established itself as one of the best teams in Europe and Israel’s soccer team has achieved impressive results.

An important factor in the success and development of Israeli sports is the Wingate Institute of Physical Education, based 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. The Council for Sporting Excellence, which determines which talented athletes will receive stipends to train full time, is also based at Wingate. Numerous Israeli sportsmen and women who have gone on to find success began their careers at Wingate, including tennis players Shahar Pe’er, Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich.

The Sports Authority of the Ministry of Science, Culture, and Sport sponsors the training of instructors and coaches at Wingate and oversees all sporting activity in Israel, coordinating the activities of the various sports federations and organizations and assisting in the development of programs.

Sports are of course not only for the outstandingly gifted. A sporting culture developed from the early years of the State, with youngsters encouraged to become involved in sports from a young age to promote both fitness and healthy competitiveness. Each week hundreds of thousands of young Israelis play soccer and basketball, as well as participating in kayaking, sailing, running and rock climbing.

A number of major sports organizations run a network of clubs around the country and are affiliated with the major sports teams. Schools and community centers also run local leagues and competitions with the  national school basketball and soccer finals broadcast on national television.

Israel has the highest per capita number of qualified scuba divers in the world. Windsurfing, water skiing and long-distance running are also high on the list of popular sports. Thousands of Israelis participate in the annual marathon around Lake Kinneret. Cycling is also very popular and in the winter, Mount Hermon has become a beacon for local skiers. Other popular sports include table tennis, boxing, wrestling, weight lifting, judo, karate, and a form of self-defense called Krav Maga, developed by the IDF. Popular team sports include volleyball and handball, which both have their own professional leagues.

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 in first in his competition. Arik Zeevi also won a medal that year, taking a bronze in the judo competition. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics Shahar Zubari won a bronze in men’s sailboard.

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. Many top Jewish athletes have made their names at the Maccabiah Games, including American swimmer Mark Spitz.

Soccer is the most popular sport in Israel, with basketball a close second. The professional soccer league, with 12 teams in the top Premier League division, attracts crowds of up to 20,000 people at games. After half a decade at the top, Maccabi Haifa’s era of unrivaled success appears to be waning, with Betar Jerusalem taking over.

Israeli soccer players are having an increasing impact on the world stage, with 20 players currently playing in top European clubs.

In basketball, Maccabi Tel Aviv has won nearly every league championship. Hapoel Jerusalem has also had success in the European arena. Omri Casspi made history as the first Israeli to play in the NBA, after he was drafted by the Sacramento Kings.

There are two women’s basketball teams in Israel—Elitzur Ramle and Anda Ramat Hasharon, which regularly battle for the league title. The two also compete in European competition. Player Shay Doron was the first Israeli to play professional basketball in America, for the New York Liberty in the WNBA.

In recent years, Israeli tennis players have become a fixture at the world’s biggest tournaments. Teenager Shahar Pe’er performs well at WTA-ranked tournaments around the world, including reaching the finals of the Australian Open in 2008. Doubles pair Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich have also established themselves as one of the best teams in the world, winning the 2008 Australian Open and staying in the world’s top 10 for years. Ram has also excelled in the mixed doubles competitions, twice winning Grand Slam events at the French Open with Frenchwoman Nathalie Dechy and at Wimbledon with Russian Vera Zvonerava.

Israelis have also won medals at the Paralympic games. Israel took 42 athletes to the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, competing in archery, athletics, basketball, cycling, equestrian, rowing, sailing, shooting, swimming, table tennis and tennis. The team came home with five silver medals and one bronze. Keren Leibowitz is Israel’s most celebrated Paralympic athlete, having won three gold medals in swimming competitions, three World Championships, and five European Championships.

Perhaps the next time you think about Israel, the country’s proficiency in sports will come to mind.

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