Israeli basketball team marching toward gold at Abu Dhabi Special Olympics

Nine-man squad defeats USA and Canada in competition held for the first time in the Middle East; athletes from Syria and Lebanon refuse to compete against Israel

David P. Alexander is a freelance filmmaker and video journalist

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Israel’s men’s basketball team has defeated its first four opponents at the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi, and is set to face off against Australia for the gold medal on Wednesday.

The nine players on Israel’s basketball squad have so far defeated Canada, the United States, Great Britain and Slovenia.

“First of all I feel satisfied, I feel satisfied with our team, satisfied to beat Canada,” team member Nizan Shamis told The Times of Israel after the game. “It was hard, but that’s it, we did it.”

The games, which started on March 14 and end on Thursday, include a record 195 participating countries and are being held in the Middle East for the first time. Over 7,500 athletes with intellectual disabilities are competing in 24 sports.

Israel is also competing in judo, swimming and bowling, according to the Ynet news site.

Over 2,500 women are participating in the games, with Saudi Arabia sending women for the first time.

The games were not without controversy for the Israeli delegation. Female athletes from Syria and Lebanon refused to bowl against Israel and were disqualified from the tournament, Ynet reported.

Athletes from Arab countries have refused to compete against Israel in the past, including in Abu Dhabi, but last year Israel’s national anthem was played in the city for the first time when judoka Sagi Muki won a gold medal at an international competition.

This year’s Special Olympics marks the 50th anniversary of the games and is being sponsored by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

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