On November 4, 1968, the third Paralympic Games kicked off in Israel,
constituting part of a wide range of celebrations to mark 20 years of Israel’s
independence. Just one year after the Six Day War, 10,000 spectators gathered at
the Hebrew University Stadium in Jerusalem to watch the opening ceremony, where
then-deputy prime minister Yigal Allon declared the Games open.
Paralympics were originally scheduled to be held in Mexico City, conventionally
alongside the Olympic Games, however, the Mexican government pulled out two
years earlier citing technical difficulties. The Israeli government and ILAN
(Israel's Foundation for the Handicapped) subsequently offered to host the
event, and Paralympic Games founder Sir Ludwig Guttmann accepted the
“Back then Israel was one of the most powerful countries on
the international Paralympic committee,” Israel Sports Center for the Disabled
(ISCD) chief executive Boaz Kramer told The Jewish Chronicle 34 years on.
“Israel was one of the first countries to establish a full program for disabled
athletes in the 1950s, and Israel and the UK are the two countries with the
longest tradition of wheelchair sports.”
“We announced we were accepting
athletes from Arab countries, but nobody appeared,” ISDC head coach Reuven
Heller told the Chronicle.
Guttman gave the opening speech; also known as
"Poppa," Guttman was a German Jewish refugee and neurologist, considered to be
one of the founding fathers of organized physical activities for the disabled.
The Paralympics were born out of the Stoke Mandeville Games, which began in 1948
as an archery and javelin competition that Guttman organized for his spinal
patients. This evolved into what became officially known, by the 1988 Seoul
Games, as the "Paralympics," derived from the Greek preposition pará (beside)
since it is held alongside the Olympics. The Stoke Mandeville Games continue to
be held yearly, in between the four-year Paralympics cycle, however the former
is solely for wheelchair athletes while the latter encompasses athletes from all
Guttman, knighted in 1966, went down in history as the man
who connected rehabilitation to competitive sport. "If I ever did one good thing
in my medical career it was to introduce sport into the treatment and
rehabilitation of disabled people," he wrote in The Reader's Digest in
1967. Altogether, 750 athletes from 29 countries participated in the 1968
Games in Ramat Gan. The program was significantly larger than the previous
Paralympics in Tokyo four years earlier, including new events such as Lawn
Bowls, Women's Basketball and the 100 meter wheelchair race for men.
event was a great achievement for Israel, not only because it successfully
hosted the Games, but also because it came in third, while the United States and
the United Kingdom took first and second place, respectively. Altogether, Israel
bagged 62 medals: 18 gold, 21 silver and 23 bronze. Prominent Israeli athletes
included Malcha Halfon who won the javelin throw and shot put, breaking the
world record. Italy's Roberto Marson was named the Games' outstanding
competitor, winning a total of nine gold medals.
In those days, most Israeli
competitors were war-disabled or terror victims, however, this is no longer the
case. Israel Paralympic Committee secretary general Ron Bolotin told Israel21C
ahead of this year's Paralympics in London: "Our success was much higher in 1968
to 1988, when Israel was one of the pioneer nations in Paralympic
“Back then, it was not very professional and not many countries
invested in it. Since the 1990s, and for sure for the last 10 years, it’s
professional and elite and so it’s getting much more difficult,” he explained.
Indeed, the issue of government investment into sport in general, as well as
disabled sport, became a central topic of discussion as the defeated Israeli
Olympics delegation returned medal-less from London.
Paralympics delegation fared better, with a total of eight medals: one gold; two
silvers; and five bronzes, and ranked 45 overall – a far cry from their
victorious third place in 1968. Nevertheless, the team returned home with their
heads held high to a heroes' welcome. Wheelchair tennis player Noam Gershony
particularly brought pride to his homeland, becoming the first Israeli to claim
a gold medal
at the Paralympics since 2004. The 29-year-old also won a bronze
medal in the Quad wheelchair doubles tournament with Shraga Weinberg.
Moshe Matalon (Yisrael Beytenu) - previously a Paralympics competitor - wrote in
a Jerusalem Post Op-Ed in August
, "Sadly, government institutions do not invest
enough money in advancing disabled athletes, causing many to cope with what I
see as unnecessary disadvantages."
"There is no more poignant moment than
hearing our national anthem being played and seeing the Israeli flag waving at
full mast," Matalon added.
It remains to be seen whether the results of
the 2012 Games will spur the government to invest more in sports, and whether
the Israeli Paralympics team will ever return to its former glory.