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Tokyo 2020

Rowing, shooting, wheelchair tennis: Israel sets its sights on the Paralympics

With 33 athletes in 11 sports, the Israel Paralympic Committee is hoping to improve on its Rio medal haul at the Tokyo Games this year

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

Israel's Paralympic delegation to Tokyo poses for a photo with then-president Reuven Rivlin on June 23, 2021, in Jerusalem. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Israel's Paralympic delegation to Tokyo poses for a photo with then-president Reuven Rivlin on June 23, 2021, in Jerusalem. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Israel brought home four medals at the Olympic Games this year, but its shot at picking up more hardware is far from over. The Paralympic Games will kick off in Tokyo soon, and with them comes the chance of hearing “Hatikvah” echo on the podium once again.

Israel is sending 33 athletes in 11 sports across the Games’ many different categories of disability to the Tokyo Paralympics, which begin August 24 and run for just under two weeks. A combination of familiar faces and fresh talent makes up the delegation, which includes some serious medal contenders. And just like at the Olympics, each and every member of the Israeli delegation fought his or her way to qualify for a spot in the Games, where more than 4,000 athletes from 135 countries will compete.

“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 in a recent phone interview. “It’s a group that I’m proud to be a part of.”

Rower Moran Samuel and boccia player Nadav Levi will serve as Israel’s flag bearers at the August 24 opening ceremony, which was delayed by a year due to the COVID pandemic. As COVID cases surge in Israel, Japan and around the world, the Paralympics, like the Olympics, will be held in the shadow of the virus. The athletes will compete largely without spectators and with constant testing and restrictions on their movement.

“The athletes understand that they have to focus on the competitions — that’s what’s important and that’s what they’ve been working on for five years,” said Bolotin. “For some of them, the year delay has been good, and for others less good.”

He 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.

Israeli Paralympic rower holds up her bronze medal at the Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016. (Keren Isaacson/ Israel Paralympic Committee)

“Our athletes are mostly young, mostly in good shape, most don’t have serious complications,” he said. “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.”

Bolotin is himself a decorated former Paralympian swimmer. After losing a leg to a landmine during his IDF service in 1975, Bolotin went on to represent Israel at six Paralympic Games and bring home 11 medals, including three gold.

This year, Bolotin said, he is confident that the delegation will add to Israel’s impressive Paralympic medal haul.

“It’s a good delegation and I hope they’ll bring good results,” he said. “The expectations are mostly from the sports that got medals in Rio as well — swimming, rowing and shooting,” where Israel picked up a bronze medal each in 2016. “Those are the sports that are most prominent for us for medals, but there are good athletes in other sports as well.”

Returning champions

Two of Israel’s Rio medalists will be returning to the games this year and aiming to add more hardware to their collection. About half of the delegation to Tokyo has competed in the Paralympic Games in the past.

Doron Shaziri, 54, will be heading to Tokyo for his eighth consecutive Paralympic Games, after winning medals in shooting at six different Games so far. Shaziri, who lost his leg when he stepped on a landmine near the Lebanon border during his IDF service, has a whopping eight Paralympic medals in his collection already.

Shooter Doron Shaziri competes at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. (Keren Isaacson/Israel Paralympic Committee)

Moran Samuel, a rower who took home a bronze medal in Rio five years ago, is also coming back this year to defend her standing — or improve upon it. Samuel, 39, who became paralyzed after suffering a spinal stroke, also took home a bronze at the 2019 World Rowing Championships in Ottensheim, Austria.

Wheelchair tennis player Shraga Weinberg, 55, competed in the last four Paralympics, taking home silver in the mixed doubles in Beijing in 2008 with Boaz Kremer, and bronze in the quad doubles in London in 2012 with Noam Gershony. Weinberg was born paralyzed, as well as with bone density abnormalities, and has used a wheelchair since birth.

“I’m thrilled, it’s a dream come true,” Weinberg told Ynet after securing his spot in the Tokyo Games in June. “All of this after five years of hard work, and two challenging years of the coronavirus. There is no sweeter news than this.”

For Pascale Berkovitch, Tokyo will be her fourth Paralympics, after she competed in Beijing, London, and Rio. This time around, the 53-year-old, who lost both of her legs in a train accident, will be competing in paracanoeing, after previously representing Israel in both rowing and cycling.

Tennis player Shraga Weinberg competes for a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. (Keren Isaacson/Israel Paralympic Committee)

Inspiring journeys

Twin swimmers Mark and Ariel Malyar are both competing for Israel this year. The 21-year-old brothers were born with cerebral palsy, and started swimming at age 5 for physical therapy. At the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships — which were moved from Malaysia to London after Malaysia refused to allow Israeli athletes in — Mark took home a gold and a silver medal and set a world record, while Ariel came home empty-handed.

But Mark says that the pair — who compete in different disability classification levels — are supportive of one another. “I think it’s cool that the delegation has twin brothers,” he told the Davar news outlet in 2019. “I think when we were younger there was more competition between us, but now there’s less.”

Alexander Alekseenko, 37, a native of Ukraine, was born with cerebral palsy and then contracted polio as a young child. When he was 12, his parents were killed in an accident, and he grew up largely in an orphanage — but he never let anything hold him back from pursuing his dreams. At 17, he entered professional Paralympic sports in Ukraine and racked up a series of achievements as a shot put and javelin thrower, including multiple medals at international events.

In 2017, Alekseenko and his wife and daughter moved to Israel, in part because Ukraine Paralympic officials were not supportive of him continuing to compete at his age. Earlier this year, competing for Israel, he won a silver medal at the World Para Athletics Grand Prix in shot put. Alekseenko said he would be thrilled to bring home a medal for Israel at this year’s Paralympics.

Israeli Paralympian Alexander Alekseenko competes in shot put. (Keren Isaacson/Israel Paralympic Committee)

“If I can succeed in winning a medal for the State of Israel, I’ll be over the moon,” he said in a recent promo video for the Israel Paralympic Committee. “I love Israel and I want to represent Israel at the Olympics.”

While this will be the first Paralympics for Michal Feinblat, it will not be her first Olympic experience. In 2004, she represented Israel as a judoka in the Athens Games, Israel’s only female judoka that year. Three years later, while training for the 2008 Beijing Games, Feinblat seriously injured her shoulder, requiring multiple surgeries, causing permanent nerve damage and ending her judo career. Almost a decade later, Feinblat joined the Paralympic rowing team at the urging of fellow Paralympic rower Samuel, and she will compete as part of the mixed fours team.

“Sometimes I wonder why I’m even doing this, I was already at the Olympics,” Feinblat told Yedioth Ahronoth in 2019. “But there’s something addictive about it — the adrenaline makes it worth getting up in the morning… Paralympic sport has been like medicine for me.”

For the first time this year, badminton will make an appearance at the Paralympic Games, and Israel is sending 40-year-old Nina Gorodetsky to compete. And while it may be the Paralympic debut for the sport, Gorodetsky — who uses a wheelchair following a car accident that left her paralyzed at 17 — already has an impressive international resume. At the 2018 European Para-badminton Championships, she and Amir Levi took gold in the mixed doubles, and at the Para Badminton International 2020, she won bronze in the women’s singles.

Badminton Paralympics competitor Nina Gorodetsky trains in Israel. (Keren Isaacson/Israel Paralympic Committee)

Diverse delegation

While Israel has yet to send an Arab Israeli to compete at the Olympics, its Paralympic delegation is notably different. Three of this year’s Israeli Paralympians are Arab and one is the first Druze athlete to ever participate in the Paralympic Games.

Elham Mahamid, 31, is a native of Umm al-Fahm who now lives in Hadera. Mahamid, who was born with severe vision impairment, started playing goalball as a teenager. It was there that she met her now-husband, Michael Rozin, who is also visually impaired. Despite some hesitations among their families, Michael converted to Islam to marry Elham, and the two now have a baby, Amir.

 

Elham says she is proud to compete internationally under the Israeli flag. “I think that sport is a pure thing and that there is no need to mix politics and sport,” she told the International Paralympic Committee earlier this year. “I am very proud as an athlete to represent my country. We have one goal as a team – that is to win every competition we are in.”

Iyad Shalabi, 34, was born deaf in Shefa-‘Amr. When he was 12, he fell off a roof and became paralyzed from the chest down. This will be the fourth Paralympics for Shalabi representing Israel as a swimmer. While he has yet to pick up a Paralympic medal, Shalabi made a splash at the European Para Swimming Championships earlier this year, when he took home a gold medal and broke a world record.

Bashar Halabi, 25 from Daliyat al-Karmel, will become the first Druze to compete at the Paralympics when he hits the water in Tokyo later this month. Halaby was born prematurely, and, after complications during birth, was paralyzed from the waist down. These are the first Games for Halabi, and he says he has fought a long and hard path to get here.

“People with disabilities are treated like second-class citizens, but it’s garbage,” he told Israel Hayom last year. “I work hard and succeed because I have a lot of hope — just like anyone else.”

Israeli swimmer Iyad Shalabi and his father, Yousef, at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. (Keren Isaacson/ Israel Paralympic Committee)

Tough competition

While Israeli success at the Olympic Games has steadily climbed over the years, its accomplishments at the Paralympic Games have declined. At the 1988 Paralympic Games, Israel brought home 45 medals, but in 2004 it won just 13 and in 2016 at Rio, it clinched just three. In total, Israel holds 375 Paralympic medals and 123 gold, compared to 13 total and three gold at the Olympics.

Bolotin said the reasons for the significant decline over time are multi-fold — and many are positive developments.

“In the ’60s and ’70s and even ’80s, Israel was one of the countries with a big contingent of young people who were wounded in wars — the Yom Kippur War, the Six Day War, the War of Attrition,” Bolotin told The Times of Israel. Today, he said, Israel thankfully not only has fewer wars, but greater advances in medical treatment that can lead to full recoveries. Just three members of this year’s delegation are wounded IDF veterans.

During Israel’s Paralympic heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, Bolotin added, there were also a number of polio survivors from the epidemic in the 1950s who reached their peak competitive age. Plus, he noted, Israel was an early participant in the Games, in the day when only a few dozen countries took part. In 1968, when Israel hosted the Paralympics in Tel Aviv, it took home 62 medals — competing against just 27 other nations. In 2008, in Beijing, Israel took home just six Paralympic medals as it battled 145 other countries.

“The world was in its infancy in this issue, but today the Paralympics have become very professional and many, many countries take part and invest a lot of money,” said Bolotin. “The world is running ahead, and part of the issue is today you have to work with [athletes] from a young age to prepare for the Olympics and Paralympics. Today, happily, there aren’t a huge number of those wounded in the IDF with relevant disabilities, there’s better medicine, fewer wars, there’s no polio — so we just have to find the right children and teens around the country. That’s our future.”

Bolotin said Israel’s investment in its Paralympic athletes compared to its Olympic athletes is consistently improving.

“There is a big big improvement, especially from the years that I was an athlete, in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s,” he said, including sponsorship deals for Paralympians from Telma, Keter, and Bank Hapoalim, among others. “There’s been a very dramatic improvement, though it’s still not entirely equal.” Still, he noted that the amount an athlete receives for a medal from the state at the Olympics or Paralympics “is identical, and it has been for quite a few years.”

Israeli rower Pascale Bercovitch competes in paracanoeing at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. (Keren Isaacson/ Israel Paralympic Committee)

It is undeniable that the Paralympic Games do not receive equal coverage in Israeli media. Israel’s Sports Channel did purchase the rights to air the Paralympic Games as it did the Olympics, although the coverage is expected to be far less comprehensive. And while the network sent more than a dozen members of its team to the Tokyo Olympics, not a single one of them is staying to cover the Paralympic Games.

Bolotin acknowledged the disparity of coverage in Israel, which he said does not just extend to the Paralympics.

“The other Olympic sports feel similarly,” he said, “All the time it’s soccer, soccer, soccer, basketball and then once every four years they cover the Olympic sports.”

He believes the trend in coverage in Israel “is heading in the right direction,” although he said the country’s Paralympic Committee is constantly debating “the chicken and the egg.”

“Achievements will bring coverage and coverage will bring achievements,” he said.

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