(JTA) — The Israeli Athletics Association is preparing to host almost 2,000 athletes and officials from 48 countries for the 2023 European Athletics Under-20 Championships.
The biannual track and field competition, which features 44 different events, will be hosted at Jerusalem’s Givat Ram Stadium. Putting on such a tournament is no small feat, but Israel — and, increasingly, its capital city — has become a go-to host for a number of international competitions.
In 2019, the Women’s European Lacrosse Championship took place in Netanya. In 2021, Jerusalem hosted the men’s and women’s Flag Football World Championships. The European Athletics competition begins Monday, and later this month, Israel will also co-host the Men’s European Volleyball Championship in Tel Aviv. Next year it’s water polo, and in 2025, baseball.
Ami Baran, the president of the Israeli Athletics Association, said Israel hosting so many tournaments has broken a sort of glass ceiling in terms of Israel’s standing in the world, both politically and in sports.
“It’s very, very important,” Baran told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I think us hosting these kinds of tournaments sends a message throughout Europe that Israel is on the map.”
Baran said the trend is even more pronounced when it comes to Jerusalem, which is a flashpoint in Israeli-Palestinian politics.
“People are not politically worried anymore about having it [here], especially if we’re doing it in Jerusalem,” he continued. “Jerusalem is a place where things are happening. It’s a controversial area, where a lot of Europeans in the European Union have always sort of been hesitant. But here you get full support — total support of Israel, and Jerusalem.”
Israel hosted the European Athletics Under-18 Championship last year, which Baran said was a success. The Jerusalem government supported the effort, pouring 50 million shekels (about $13.5 million) into renovations for the Givat Ram Stadium.
Then for the U20 tournament this year, Romania was set to host until concerns emerged about its stadium size. One night, Baran got a late-night phone call from the head of European Athletics.
“He asked me, Ami, can you save Europe and do the tournament again in Israel for the under 20s?” Baran recounted.
Baran quickly got in touch with Jerusalem’s deputy mayor who oversees sports, who called up the mayor. The answer was yes. Baran said the city and Israel’s ministry of sport and culture helped finance the undertaking — which included arranging hotel rooms for the visitors, plus bringing in media production teams and Olympic-quality announcers.
David Wiseman, who tracks Israeli sports for his popular Facebook page Follow Team Israel, said he’s observed a considerable uptick in Israel’s participation and hosting of European and international tournaments. For one thing, Israel’s own sense of its place in global politics and sports has changed, he said.
“First and foremost, there may have been a cringe factor previously, where to prevent making waves, Israel didn’t even nominate to host events,” Wiseman told JTA. “Now that’s not the case. They’re putting their hand up. And not only putting their hand up, they’re winning the bids.”
Wiseman added that Israel’s success in international competitions has also likely increased its status as a host, and has generated more buzz among Israeli sports fans. In the past couple months alone, Israel finished third in the FIFA U20 World Cup and seventh in the World Lacrosse Championships.
“I think they’re more successful, and because they’re more successful, there’s a greater hometown sort of vibe and interest,” Wiseman said. “They wouldn’t want to host an event here if no one turned up.”
Baran said 3,500 tickets have already been sold for next week’s track and field competition.
Israel has also recently played host to global sports stars Novak Djokovic and Lionel Messi, as the Tel Aviv Open returned last year for the first time since 1996 and the powerhouse French soccer team Paris Saint-Germain played a Champions League match against Maccabi Haifa.
Israel’s involvement in global sporting events can sometimes be rocky. The U20 World Cup this year was originally set to be hosted by Indonesia, before being moved to Argentina because of the former’s objection to Israel’s participation. And this spring, an Israeli rugby team was removed from a tournament in South Africa. This year’s democracy protests in Israel — some of which took place at the Knesset, just blocks from Givat Ram — have landed on front pages around the world, potentially undercutting the appetite to plan events in the country.
But by and large, insiders say, Israel’s status as a member and host of international tournaments remains on the rise.
“It’s really important that we realize that everything is moving forward,” Baran said. “More tournaments will bring more recognition to Israel, and I think bring more recognition to our people in Israel who can see more sports.”