They have been likened to the Jamaican bobsled team of the 1988 Calgary Games – essentially the underdogs in a world of heavy hitters, but Israel are ready to take on the world next year
When Peter Kurz spoke with the Israel Olympic Committee in 2018, the former President of the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) presented his idea for how the nation would qualify for baseball at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“I said, ‘we need to do these tournaments…I'm trying to bring a few people to Israel to help strengthen the team’,” Kurz, who is currently the General Manager of the national team explained, “They were looking at me and nodding their heads and saying, ‘yeah, sure, you’re a dreamer’.”
“A lot of people thought I was dreaming.”
Actually, two years prior after a successful performance at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Kurz pulled together a roadmap of exactly how Israel were going to qualify for the Olympics.
“I sat with our manager at the time and went through the whole scenario with him. He looked at me and said, ‘you're crazy but I'm with you’,” he recalled.
Fast forward to September 2019 and they found themselves as the first nation behind hosts Japan to qualify for Tokyo 2020.
It will be the first time since the Montréal 1976 Games – where Israel sent a football team - that a team ball sport has represented the nation at an Olympics. This also means that the Israeli delegation going to Tokyo will be the largest ever.
And they aren’t just coming to Tokyo to make up the numbers. Israel, a country of 8.7 million people with only 1,000 baseball players, are coming to win a medal.
When reading the story of the Israel Olympic Baseball team, it’s one about defying the odds.
Israel’s journey to Olympic qualification saw them start from the bottom. First, they won their European Baseball B-Pool Group 2 matches without a single loss.
From there they faced B-Pool Group 1 winners Lithuania, whose only baseball field was in the middle of a racetrack, in a best-of-three playoff series. Again they won, qualifying for the 2019 European Baseball Championships in Germany six weeks later.
“It wasn't an easy thing to be there...it was very meaningful for us,” Kurz explained as some players have grandparents who were Holocaust survivors. “But we did have a great tournament.”
Finishing fourth at the event earned them a spot at the Africa/Europe 2020 Olympic Qualification tournament. A few days later, they flew to Italy for a spot at Tokyo 2020.
They knocked off the top three European teams including favourites and Beijing 2008 Olympians the Netherlands, edging closer to an Olympic berth. And it came down to the last two games, although they needed to win just one of the final two games to secure their ticket to Tokyo.
However, they suffered a loss to the Czech Republic which could have unravelled everything the team have worked so hard for. However, in the last games, Israel saw off the Republic of South Africa 11-1 and became the first team to qualify for baseball at Tokyo 2020.
“I had tears in my eyes, and it was just incredible to be able to be the European team and qualify for the Olympics,” Kurz said.
“The first team to actually qualify for the Olympics, was an incredible accomplishment from where we had come and where we are today.”
Fundraising for an Olympic dream
While the Israel Olympic Committee have provided the national baseball team some financial support, the IAB had to raise the rest of the funds.
“We don't get any help from the government up until we became Olympians,” Kurz explained. “So, whatever we did we had to finance on our own.”
“If we couldn't get the money, I don't want to think of what would have happened.”
With the Olympic Games in sight, fundraising efforts have continued. While the Israel Olympic Committee are helping with stipends to get the players to Tokyo, the team want to participate in a few camps in both the United States and Japan before the Olympics, which they will have to financially support themselves.
From auctioning off signed jerseys to fundraising dinners, everything is being done to ensure that not only Israel have the best preparation ahead of a history-making moment but also to secure a future for baseball in the nation.
Israel ready to surprise
Japan’s national team manager INABA Atsunori was “wary” of the Israel side saying they were “a team with a fairly high level” after observing them during the Africa/Europe 2020 Olympic Qualification tournament in September last year.
“It's incredible to hear that a Japanese coach is wary of Israel. This is an incredible compliment, very honoured about that. The feeling is mutual obviously,” Kurz said.
Unlike Israel, baseball is a sport that dominates in Japan. The team is ranked no.1 in the world and the nation has over 7.3 million baseball players and have only missed out on medalling once at an Olympic Games.
“The Japanese team will be the biggest challenge for us, there's no doubt about it. I hope that we're not going to face them until the finals," Kurz said.
“Israel is also very nervous about Japan, we're nervous about all the teams. I think we're the underdogs with the chance to do anything in the Olympics and we like it that way.”
Theoretically speaking, Israel have a 50 per cent chance of winning a medal.
There will be just six teams vying for a podium finish when baseball returns to the Olympic programme after being dropped from both London 2012 and Rio 2016. However, for Israel who are no.18 in the world, being able to win a medal could help with the growth of baseball.
In Israel, football (soccer) and basketball reign supreme but there are hopes that the appearance at Tokyo 2020 next year will garner more exposure for the sport.
“We feel that we can definitely get a medal. That’s our goal to be able to challenge for medal,” Kurz said.
"It's very important for us to be able to win a medal, to develop the game of baseball."
With construction on a field in Biet Shemesh underway and another in Ra’anana to follow, there are hopes that after the Olympics 2,000 children and adults will be playing the game.
“The old saying is that when you build it, they will come,” Kurz said.
“It's very true. When you have fields available, kids come out more and with the publicity from the Olympics, where our goal is to win a medal…when we do it will be incredible because Israel love all these things that had to do with the Olympics.”
Israel have never won an Olympic medal in a team sport, but sky is the limit when play begins in July next year.