Tokyo 2020

Israeli athletes parade in empty Tokyo stadium as Paralympic Games kick off

Rower Moran Samuel and boccia player Nadav Levi serve as flag bearers for 33-member delegation set to compete in 11 sports as Games begin under pandemic’s shadow

Athletes from Israel enter the stadium during the opening ceremony for the 2020 Paralympics at the National Stadium in Tokyo, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Athletes from Israel enter the stadium during the opening ceremony for the 2020 Paralympics at the National Stadium in Tokyo, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

The Paralympic Games kicked off on Tuesday in Tokyo with an opening ceremony in the same empty National Stadium as the recently completed Tokyo Olympics.

Israel’s 33 athletes participated in the opening ceremony, with rower Moran Samuel — who won a bronze medal at Rio in 2016 — and boccia player Nadav Levi serving as flagbearers.

“Each and every one of you in the national delegation has come a long way to reach this moment,” President Isaac Herzog told Samuel and Levi by phone on Tuesday morning ahead of the opening ceremony. “I wish you every success, and may you fulfill your dreams and reach outstanding sporting achievements. You are a symbol of power and determination and I am very proud of you.”

Herzog said that every athlete in the delegation is “proof that anything is possible with the help of determination, good will, and hard work. I trust you and am sure that you will bring the State of Israel much honor, and also medals.”

Culture and Sport Minister Chili Tropper, who was slated to attend the Paralympic Games — as he did the Olympics earlier this month — canceled his trip at the last minute due to rising COVID cases in Israel and the mandatory quarantine upon return.

This year, Israel has 33 athletes in 11 sports, including three returning medalists: Samuel, shooter Doron Shaziri, competing this year at his eighth Paralympics, and tennis player Shraga Weinberg.

“We have a very good delegation, very high quality — both in their sporting abilities and their humanity,” Ron Bolotin, general manager of the Israel Paralympic Committee, and the head of its Tokyo delegation, told The Times of Israel earlier this month. “It’s a group that I’m proud to be a part of.”

This year’s Games will include a record 4,403 Paralympic athletes from 162 countries competing across 22 sports. Israel’s first athletes will compete on Wednesday, when swimmers Iyad Shalabi and Yuliya Gordiychuk hit the water and the women’s goalball team will compete in its first match.

At the opening ceremony in Tokyo on Tuesday, Japanese Emperor Naruhito got it all started again, this time under the theme “We Have Wings.” Among the few officials on hand were Douglas Emhoff, husband of US Vice President Kamala Harris, International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons and International Olympic president Thomas Bach.

It was a circus-like opening with acrobats, clowns, vibrant music and fireworks atop the stadium to mark the the start of the long parade of athletes.

Athletes from Israel enter the stadium during the opening ceremony for the 2020 Paralympics at the National Stadium in Tokyo, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

The opening ceremony featured the national flags of the 162 delegations represented, which included a refugee team. In addition, the flag of Afghanistan was carried by a volunteer despite the delegation not being on hand in Tokyo.

Craig Spence, a spokesman for the International Paralympic Committee, said watching the Paralympics can exert a powerful effect.

“The stigma attached to disability changes when you watch the sport,” said Spence. “These games will change your attitude toward disability,” he added. “If you look around Japan, it’s very rare you see persons with disabilities on the street. We’ve got to go from protecting people to empowering people and creating opportunities for people to flourish in society.”

Tokyo and Paralympic organizers are under pressure from soaring new infections in the capital. About 40% of the Japanese population is fully vaccinated. But daily new cases in Tokyo have increased four to five times since the Olympics opened on July 23. Tokyo is under a state of emergency until September12, with the Paralympics ending September 5.

Organizers on Tuesday also announced the first positive test for an athlete living in the Paralympic Village. They gave no name or details and said the athlete had been isolated.

Fireworks illuminate over National Stadium viewed from Shibuya Sky observation deck during the Opening Ceremony for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

The Paralympics are being held without fans, although organizers are planning to let some school children attend, against the advice of much of the medical community.

Parsons and Seiko Hashimoto, the president of the Tokyo organizing committee, say the Paralympics can be held safely. Both have tried to distance the Paralympics and Olympics from Tokyo’s rising infection rate.

“For the moment we don’t see the correlation between having the Paralympics in Tokyo with the rising number of cases in Tokyo and Japan,” Parsons told The Associated Press.

Bolotin, of the Israel Paralympic Committee, acknowledged that some of the Israeli Paralympians may be at higher risk for COVID complications, but he said the delegation is overall healthy, careful, and ready to compete.

“Our athletes are mostly young, mostly in good shape, most don’t have serious complications,” he said earlier this month. “They’re very careful, they’re very supervised, they’re tested every day, and they all understand the importance of being responsible during training, and I hope we won’t have any surprises.”

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