Article written for the Jewish Independent
VANCOUVER,BC- This year’s Winter Olympics, currently underway in PyeongChang, South Korea, feature Israel’s largest-ever representation, with 10 athletes competing – in figure skating, skeleton and alpine ski racing. In the alpine skiing events, there is only one Israeli competitor – Itamar Biran – and the Independent spoke with him prior to the Games.
Born in London, England, Biran, 19, lives in Verbier, Switzerland, but grew up in Israel. As Israel’s second-ever Olympic skier, he follows in the footsteps of Mykhaylo Renzhyn, who competed for Israel in the 2006 and 2010 Winter Games. Renzhyn was Israel’s highest-ranked skier in those years, and made his Olympic debut at 27. Virgile Vandeput was 19 when he qualified in 2014, but wasn’t able to compete due to an injury sustained weeks before the Games. Though Biran is not the first Israeli skier, he has posted better results than all of his predecessors.
Biran said the 2018 Games are different than any other past Winter Olympics for Israel.
“The Israeli Olympic Committee is supporting us a lot more, and they are starting to recognize our winter sports are as important as summer,” he said in a phone interview from France, before heading to Pyeongchang. He went on to point out how the increase in support and funding has allowed more Israeli athletes to get the top of their respective sports. For example, Israel now has figure skaters in the world’s top 10 and Biran is in the top 15 for his age.
“In Israel, the only thing people know about skiing is Club Med in Europe,” said Biran, not excluding himself. It wasn’t until age 4 that his father, Doron Biran, took him from Israel to France, where he learned to ski and instantly fell in love with the sport.
After a number of years going to Club Med in France, Biran’s dad bought a house in Verbier in 2006. It was there where Biran really started to excel at the sport. At first, he and his father would travel to Switzerland over school holidays. Soon, the holidays turned into a full season living in Switzerland, and Biran started to race.
European ski racers usually begin racing at 8 years old, but Biran started late, at 12. As a dual citizen of Israel and the United Kingdom, he had the option of racing for Britain. He joined the British Ski Academy at 13, and was with them for a year, splitting his time between London and Verbier. He chose to race for Israel because he wanted to reconnect with where he had spent most of his childhood, and with his family in Tel Aviv.
Not only is Biran the best Israeli ski racer, he would also be one of the highest ranked British technical skiers if he had continued in their program. However, after he chose to represent Israel, at age 14, he dropped out of the British Ski Academy and joined a private training group of athletes from small nations. The group S-Team is based in Gerardmer, France, and includes athletes from Spain, as well as other nations that don’t have large alpine programs.
The 2018 Winter Olympics will not be Biran’s first test against the best. He made his debut in the top level in 2015 at the FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski) Alpine World Championships in Beaver Creek, Colo., where he was the youngest competitor out of all male events, finishing 62nd in the Giant Slalom (GS). He competed at that level in the GS again in 2017 at St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Biran also represented Israel at the Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, in 2016, where he finished 38th in the Super-G. The Super-G is the second-fastest skiing event, behind the downhill, and is one of the two speed events. It is not an event he will be competing in at PyeongChang, since he has focused on the more technical disciplines in slalom and GS since the Lillehammer event.
“You have to treat the Olympics as just another race,” said Biran, for whom rubbing shoulders with the best is nothing new. “I have no idols because I want to be their rival,” he explained about the racers on the FIS Alpine World Cup series.
In the weeks leading up to the Games in PyeongChang, Biran competed in the World Junior Championships in Davos, Switzerland, and made his Europa Cup debut in Chamonix, France.
The young Israeli is among the first generation of athletes to have the opportunity to both go to school as well as continue racing on a European or World Cup level. Germany’s David Ketterer currently attends the University of Colorado and races for their college team, and Biran has similar plans – he has applied to Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, two schools that will accommodate his high level of sport. He is not in school at the moment, having graduated high school last year, but will begin his post-secondary education in the fall.
In Pyeongchang, Biran is set to compete in the GS on Feb. 17 at 5:15 p.m. Pacific time, as well as the slalom on Feb. 21, with the same start time. For the full Winter Olympics schedule, visit pyeongchang2018.com.