In March 2002, Israeli ice dancers Sergei Sakhnovsky and Galit Chait won a bronze medal at the World Figure Skating Championships in Nagano, Japan, edging out a Lithuanian pair who finished in fourth place. Within days, a petition was circulating among skaters and judges saying that the Israelis’ medal was “not justified.”
“How much did it cost you to buy that medal?” another skater reportedly asked Sakhnovsky.
“There is big money involved with the Israeli couple, and you cannot fight against that,” Povilas Vanagas, one of the Lithuanian skaters, told the press.
“The stereotype of ‘buying’ a medal,” New York-based skating expert Alina Sivorinovsky told the Forward, is classic antisemitism. And it’s particularly ironic considering that the Israel Ice Skating Foundation is struggling financially.
Sivorinovsky — author of “Inside Figure Skating” and “Sarah Hughes: Skating to the Stars” — is doing her part to help, by speaking out against antisemitism in the sport and donating proceeds from her forthcoming mystery novel, “Murder on Ice,” to the foundation, which began its new skating season two weeks ago.
Sivorinovsky said that those who squabbled about the Israeli team in Nagano had been emboldened by an infamous incident a month earlier at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, when a French judge claimed she had been pressured into voting for the Russian team over the Canadians in the figure skating competition. Sivorinovsky — whose novel, due later this month, was inspired by the Olympic scandal — said that while the arguments in Nagano were similarly framed around judges being unfairly swayed, in the case of the Israeli skaters there was an additional element of antisemitism involved.
Antisemitism, she said, is not uncommon in the world of figure skating. As proof, she points to the case of Michael Shmerkin, an Odessa-born figure skater who immigrated to Israel in 1991. When he entered the International Skating Union world championship in the late 1990s, he set his dances to Jewish songs. He had a prayer shawl and fabric menorah embroidered on the back of his costume. “There were comments: ‘That’s inappropriate — he’s bringing politics into it,’” Sivorinovsky said.
“When you have a huge, international cast of characters, there’s always going to be bits and drafts of antisemitism,” Sivorinovsky told the Forward. In the case of Israeli skaters, she added, this antisemitism manifests itself as animosity toward the country’s athletes.
Israel, with its desert landscapes, isn’t an obvious environment for ice skating, but interest in the sport has grown in the past decade. “Since the Russian immigrants came, it got more and more popular,” Sivorinovsky noted. With the help of the Canadian Jewish community, an ice rink opened in Metulla, near Israel’s northern border, in the 1990s. “A lot of native-born Israelis” are getting involved, she said. “It’s slowly becoming more of a sport.”