TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Of Israel’s delegation of 37 Olympic competitors in London, badminton player Misha Zilberman is one of the least known and under-funded, struggling even to find someone good enough to play in his home country.
Of the fewer than 500 registered players in Israel, Moscow-born Zilberman, who took up badminton at age 12, is without a doubt the best.
It is thanks to his parents, Svetlana and Michael, who emigrated to Israel in 1991 and are his coaches, that Zilberman has managed to become good enough to make it to the Olympics, according to Nir Sade of the Israel Badminton Association.
Misha and Svetlana were the first ever mother-and-son mixed doubles team at the world championships in 2009.
“He’s lucky that he can rely on his parents, we could never afford to pay for a coach and a manager with the paltry funding we get,” Sade said.
The sport gets around one million shekels (about $250,000) a year to support the country’s 22 league clubs and tournaments, but there is a dearth of private money, Sade said.
The other problem is that Zilberman has no real competition.
“There is no single player here that is good enough so I face two or three opponents at a time. It doesn’t cover all aspects of my training and it is difficult to get better as I would like, but I can make small improvements,” he said.
The Israeli played professionally for Danish league side Odense in 2011 but returned home to mount his Olympic qualification bid. He has spent some 35 weeks of the past year at competitions and at training camps.
He attained qualification for London by reaching the final of a tournament in Tahiti, where he lost to Chun Seang Tan of Malaysia.
“Last season I played for 5-6 months in the Danish league and I improved there. It was a good chance to work on technique and tactics and to make some money,” he said.
While players in Denmark are able to make a living in the sport, such opportunities did not exist in Israel. Zilberman said he intended to pursue a future as a professional in the sport, however.
“I have invested so much of my life in the sport that it would be silly for me to leave early. I think I can continue till age 30-35,” he said.
Standing at 1.71-metres tall, Zilberman said his strength was his speed, rather than a powerful overhead game.
“Tall players are not as agile but short players lack a powerful overhead game. I can react quickly to my opponents’ moves, and this is what I concentrate on in my play,” Zilberman said.
Zilberman, who is ranked 65 in the world, said he hoped his participation in the Olympics would raise interest in the sport at home, but Sade was not optimistic.
“You need a broad base to nurture a culture of sport and that simply does not exist here and it is not likely to change without a massive increase in funding,” Sade said.
Above Zilberman’s name on his personal website, there is a line saying “Sponsor wanted”, and while his prospects may be bright for the next 10-15 years, his appearance in the Olympics men’s singles competition is likely to be a solitary effort.
“If I get a good draw, I hope that I will reach the last 16, that will be a good result for a first Olympics ... I have taken the sport in Israel to a level that others here had never thought possible,” Zilberman said.
“Finishing in the top-nine would be a real achievement for me, gaining a medal is just a dream,” he added.
Writing by Ori Lewis; editing by Sonya Hepinstall