Tokyo 2020

Israel celebrates trove of 9 Paralympic medals as Tokyo Games wrap up

Israeli athletes head home ahead of closing ceremony to arrive before Rosh Hashanah; ‘It’s great to see all of our hard work led us to success,’ says gold medalist Mark Malyar

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Members of the Israeli Paralympic swimming team arrive from the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at Ben-Gurion International Airport on September 5, 2021. (Flash90)
Members of the Israeli Paralympic swimming team arrive from the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at Ben-Gurion International Airport on September 5, 2021. (Flash90)

As the Tokyo Paralympics draw to a close, Israel is bringing home an impressive nine medals, six of them gold, triple its medal haul from the Rio Paralympics in 2016 and the most gold medals it’s won since the 1988 Games.

After 12 days of competitions, the Paralympics came to an end on Sunday with a colorful, circus-like closing ceremony. But none of the Israeli delegation stuck around to take part in the ceremony, opting instead to return home before the start of Rosh Hashanah, which begins Monday evening.

Israel, which sent 33 athletes to compete across 11 sports, won nine medals at the Games, its highest total since 2004 in Athens, when it took home 13 medals. Six of Israel’s medals this year were gold, which is the highest figure since the 1988 Paralympic Games in Seoul.

All but one of Israel’s Tokyo Paralympic medals came in swimming, where three Israeli swimmers — Mark Malyar, Ami Dadaon and Iyad Shalabi — dominated the waters and the podium, each shattering world records along the way. The trio landed at Ben Gurion Airport on Sunday afternoon, where they were greeted by cheers, balloons, posters and plenty of singing and dancing.

Shalabi, 34, a native of Shfaram who was born deaf and became paralyzed after falling off a roof as a child, brought home two gold medals — in the 100m backstroke and 50m backstroke in S1, the most severe disability category. The Tokyo Games were Shalabi’s fourth time appearing at the Paralympics, but his first time winning a medal. His achievement also marked the first time that an Arab Israeli took home a medal at either the Olympics or the Paralympics.

“For many years he didn’t win any medals,” Yusef Shalabi, his father, told Kan last week. “Now, thank God, he won a medal — even two medals. We’ve been waiting for this for many years. [Iyad] is very happy.”

Israeli Paralympic swimmer Iyad Shalabi receives his second gold medal in Tokyo on September 2, 2021. (Keren Isaacson/IPC)

Malyar, 21, was competing at his first-ever Games in Tokyo, and brought home three medals — gold in both the 200m medley and the 400m freestyle in the S7 disability category, and bronze in the 100m backstroke. Both Malyar and his twin brother, Ariel, were born with cerebral palsy, and both competed in the pool in Tokyo, although only Mark returned home with hardware.

“It’s great to see all of our hard work led us to success,” said Malyar on Sunday after landing at Ben Gurion Airport. “There is nothing better than that. I think that we did excellent preparation even amid COVID.”

Israeli Paralympic swimmer Mark Malyar receives the gold medal in the men’s 200-meter individual medley in the Tokyo Games, August 27, 2021. (Lilach Weiss/Israel Paralympic Committee)

Rounding out Israel’s medal-laden swimming trio is Ami Dadaon, who also won three medals at Tokyo: gold in both the 200m freestyle and the 50m freestyle and silver in the 150m medley in the S4 category.

“I’ve always felt connected to the pool, and I came to prove my abilities without fear,” Dadaon said after landing at Ben-Gurion on Sunday. He noted that while he was disqualified in the 100m freestyle for starting too early, “I had to keep moving after that. I spoke to my coach and he really helped me… we brought home medals and pride and I’m happy.”

Israeli swimmer Ami Dadaon is seen with his gold medal, at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games on August 30, 2021. (Keren Isaacson/IPC)

Israel’s only non-swimming medal at this year’s Paralympics came from rower Moran Samuel, who won silver in the single sculls competition and returned home to Israel last week. Samuel, who took home bronze in Rio in 2016, said she was thrilled to improve on her performance five years ago.

“I’m so happy I could improve it,” she told 103FM radio after her win. “I promised my children that mom is coming home with a medal.”

Rower Moran Samuel after winning a silver medal at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, August 29, 2021. (Lilach Weiss/Israel Paralympic Committee)

Elsewhere, Israel’s athletes marked achievements even when they fell short of the podium. Its goalball team won two of its qualifying games but fell in the quarterfinals to Japan. Israel’s mixed four-person rowing team advanced to the finals and finished sixth overall out of 12 teams. Para-canoer Pascale Bercovitch, competing at her fourth Paralympics at age 54, finished 10th overall in the kayaking final. And while swimmer Bashar Halabi didn’t bring home a medal, he became the first-ever Druze to compete for Israel at the Olympics or Paralympics.

At the closing ceremony in Tokyo on Sunday, International Paralympic Committee chief Andrew Parsons declared that the Games had “not just been historic, they’ve been fantastic.”

Fireworks explode at the conclusion of the closing ceremony for the 2020 Paralympics at the National Stadium in Tokyo, September 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

“During our carnival of sport, we have celebrated difference, exhibited the best of humanity and shown unity in diversity,” said Parsons, kicking off the closing ceremony which had a theme of “harmonious cacophony.”

“I don’t want to do this, but the time has come for me to declare the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games closed.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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