Few may recall that back in 1968, Israel hosted the international Summer Paralympics. The games were originally planned to be held alongside the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, but the Mexican government was not equipped at the time to accommodate athletes with disabilities, so Israel offered to help out.
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Those were the third Paralympic Games ever to be held, and the Israeli government considered it such a big deal that it dispatched its illustrious defense minister, Moshe Dayan, to preside over the opening ceremony.
This summer’s 19th Maccabiah Games provide Israel with another chance to host an important international event for athletes with disabilities. While various competitions for disabled athletes have been held in the past under the auspices of these so-called “Jewish Olympics,” and while disabled athletes have also participated in some of the regular competitions, these will be the first full-fledged Paralympic Games ever to be held during the Maccabiah.
“Never before has it been done on a scale like this,” says Ron Bolotin, the outgoing director of the Israeli Paralympic Committee, a Paralympic medalist himself and former coach of Israel’s Paralympic swimming team.
The Paralympic competitions include events in four different sports: swimming, wheelchair tennis, table tennis and basketball. Each event pits an Israeli team against a mixed “Diaspora” team comprised of participants from a host of other countries. That’s because – at this point, at least – not enough athletes will be participating to justify separate teams for each country. Some 30 athletes had committed to the Games by June.
The list of outstanding athletes from abroad who have confirmed their participation includes three Paralympic swimming medalists: Shireen Sapira from South Africa, Janos Becsey from Hungary and Mirjam de Koning from Holland. Also planning to attend are wheelchair tennis player Adam Kellerman from Australia, who participated in the London Paralympics, and table tennis player Tahl Leibovitz from the United States, who has already participated in several Paralympic competitions.
Noam Gershony is probably Israel’s most celebrated disabled athlete. But the wheelchair tennis player, who won a gold medal at the 2012 Paralympic Games, will not be participating in the Maccabiah. Nor will Keren Leibovitch, another Israel Paralympic star, who won three gold medals in swimming in the 2000 games. As Bolotin explains, that’s because competitions won’t be held in their specific categories, for lack of participants from abroad. For the same reason, scheduled events in hand cycling were also canceled at the last moment.
A good start
Still, Bolotin says he finds it encouraging. “It’s a start, but a good start,” he notes. “Admittedly, there aren’t that many Jewish athletes with disabilities out there, but we still haven’t reached all of them.”
Shireen Sapiro was younger than 10 when she began swimming competitively. At age 13, she survived a horrific water skiing accident, which left her paralyzed in one leg. But she refused to quit, and at the 2008 Summer Games, she won a gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke competition. “It just doesn’t get better than that,” she says. In the 2012 games, she brought home bronze.
Between training three times a day, she is also studying fulltime for her undergraduate degree in journalism at the University of Johannesburg. Ultimately, she says, she hopes to use her writing skills to promote sports for the disabled. “Around the world, disabled athletes don’t get the credit they deserve,” says the champion swimmer, who also competes against able-bodied athletes, as she did in the last Maccabiah Games. “My whole goal is to give more recognition to disabled sports because at the end of the day, we are also professional athletes.”
She’s excited to be coming back to Israel. “It was one of my best trips ever,” says the 22-year-old, whose family belongs to an Orthodox congregation in Johannesburg. “I immediately felt at home. For me, this is an opportunity to have some fun and actually enjoy being a normal athlete.”
Israel’s Inbal Pezaro, another Paralympic champion who will be competing in the games, has been paralyzed in her lower limbs since birth. She competed in the last three Paralympic Summer Games, bringing home a total of eight medals – four silver and four bronze. These will be her third Maccabiah Games.
“For me, these games have special sentimental value,” says the 26-year-old, who was born on a kibbutz. “It gives me a sense of closure because my parents were Zionists who immigrated to Israel from New Zealand. We were raised here on something that’s very obvious, but it’s not obvious to all people.”
Israel’s leading role
When Israel hosted the Paralympic Games in 1968, the international rules did not yet dictate that the country hosting the main international sporting event for able-bodied athletes also had to organize the event for those with disabilities. At the time, notes Bolotin, who lost one of his legs when he stepped on a landmine during his military service, Israel was leagues ahead of most other countries in promoting sports for the disabled, and therefore, a natural choice for hosting the event.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, we had lots of cases of polio here, and on top of that, there were many men disabled in war, so it forced Israel in a way to become a leader in Paralympic sports,” says Bolotin, who notes that in the meantime, much of the rest of the world has caught up.
“Let’s not forget that the founding father of Paralympic sports was the Jewish professor Ludwig Guttman,” he adds. Guttman was a German-born British neurologist who fled Nazi Germany just before the start of World War II.
In an effort to raise the status of Paralympic sports, all the competitions for disabled athletes taking place at the upcoming Maccabiah Games will be held alongside the equivalent events for able-bodied athletes, says Bolotin. Paralympic athletes are also expected to take front stage at some of the key ceremonies.
Noah Ram spent 40 years training Israeli Olympic swimmers before he made the transition 10 years ago to athletes with disabilities. Two of his swimmers, Yoav Valinsky and Itzhak Mamistvalov, are expected to compete in the Maccabiah games. “I get much greater satisfaction working with these athletes,” he says. “It’s a shame I didn’t start doing it earlier. Each time you watch them compete, it’s quite moving.”
While some of the Israelis have already competed in international Paralympic Games, most haven’t, and for that reason the Maccabiah Games are quite a big deal for them, says Ram. “They don’t get that many opportunities to compete internationally,” he notes.
Tahl Leibovitz, the U.S. table tennis champion, won a bronze medal at the 1997 Maccabiah Games. “I was born in Israel, but that was the first time I had ever gone back,” says the 38-year-old, who suffers from osteochondroma, a disease that produces benign, but often painful, tumors throughout his bones. “It was a very exciting and life-changing experience.”
Although he visits Israel frequently, this will be the first time that Adam Kellerman, the Australian wheelchair tennis player, will be participating in the Maccabiah Games. Diagnosed with cancer at age 13, he later developed an infection that required the removal of his right hip. “I take pride in being Australian, and I take pride in being Jewish,” he says. “Join these two aspects and add sports, my favorite thing in the world, and that should explain why I would never ever miss this opportunity.”
Discovering wheelchair tennis after he was disabled, he adds, “rekindled my lust for life and filled me with new meaning and direction.” Since he began playing wheelchair tennis, says Kellerman, “I’ve never looked back.”