Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Special Olympics provides people with intellectual disabilities the chance to realize their potential. For some special Israelis, it is also their chance to serve the country
It's Monday lunchtime at the swimming pool complex on Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud, not far from Netanya, and swimming coach Judy Ziv is shouting instructions to her team of four athletes.
"Matti and Itai, when the blue hand hits 20 [seconds], you swim four laps in freestyle; Tali and Ella, you swim breaststroke," calls out Ziv, with the authority of someone who has been training swimmers for a very long time.
There are no arguments and no complaints, only nodding and smiles, as the swimmers pull down their goggles and kick off from the side of the pool. It's not a race, but the athletes use each other as a pace guide to measure how fast they're going and how many laps they have left to swim.
As soon as they've completed their initial assignment, Ziv wastes no time in barking out more orders and sending the four off again. There is no time for resting; this is their last training session before heading off to a major international sporting competition.
"Itai will compete in backstroke and freestyle; Ella in 400 meter freestyle and 200 meter breaststroke; Matti's strength is freestyle and so is Tali's," explains Ziv, adding that an average training session sees the young athletes - they range from 17 to 25 - swimming no less than 2.5 kilometers or 100 laps of the 25 meter pool.
Another swimmer named Oni joins the group. Ziv places him in the lane next to Matti and encourages the two to race each other with butterfly stroke.
"They love training together, they have really formed a special bond," says Ziv, as Matti and Oni kick off from the side.
As they reach the end of the first lap, Oni appears to be in the lead but when they turn around, Matti kicks off ahead of his swimming partner. Approaching the end of the pool, it seems as though Matti, the older and clearly stronger of the two, will win, but in a few short strokes Oni has caught up and both men finish together.
While the five appear to be as fast and as competent as any other competitive swimmers, in actual fact (with the exception of Oni) the four athletes are in intensive training for the International Special Olympics World Summer Games that took place in Shanghai October 2-11. Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Special Olympics, which like the regular Olympics takes place every four years, provides people with intellectual disabilities the chance to realize their potential and develop physical fitness.
According to the organization's official information, the vision of these Olympics is to "embrace the diversity of all individuals' abilities worldwide and celebrate all differences. Through these World Games, Special Olympics athletes transcend the boundaries of geography, nationality, political philosophy, gender, age, culture and religion. It is the common pursuit of achievement, the shared moment of victory, which brings even the most diverse people together."
The largest international sporting event of 2007, this year's games drew an estimated 10,000 people to China's largest city. While the number of athletes competing totaled 7,291 - competitors ranged in age from eight to 69 - delegations also included coaches, specialists, volunteers and family members from 160 countries.
For Israel, which has participated in the event since 1987, this year's delegation of 83, including 38 athletes, was the largest ever. Israeli athletes competed in eight categories - swimming, track and field, judo, soccer, tennis, table tennis, cycling and bowling.
TWENTY-three of the Special Olympics team members have been training for the games under Ziv's watchful eye at Shafririm, a special education school near Netanya, where she has been a teacher for 27 years.
"I feel as though I was born to work with these athletes," says Ziv, turning to me but keeping a watchful eye on her wards. "It is so challenging but also very gratifying."
The challenges, she explains, are in the things that most people take for granted.
"Writing a training schedule up on the board does not always help when many of the students can't read," she says. "Teaching them that 16 laps makes up 400 meters can also be tricky when some of them don't know how to count one lap or forget halfway through how many they've already done."
For others, says Ziv, it is an issue of bad coordination or simply relying too heavily on the permanency of the training schedule to anchor in their day or their week.
"If something suddenly changes, they just get completely lost," she says, adding that the four chosen from Shafririm to join the Special Olympics swimming team - Tali Hodorkovski, 17; Ella Zohar, 20; Itai Shahai, 17; and Matti Oren, 24 (he has finished school but still trains with her) - are not always compliant.
"They can get angry or frustrated very quickly if they do not understand an instruction that I have just given them. There are no gray areas in special education, everything has to be black or white."
With more than 400 pupils at Shafririm alone involved in some sporting activity and, according to figures from the Israel Special Olympics Association, roughly 4,000 individuals with intellectual disabilities participating in sports countrywide, how did the organization decide on the 38 athletes that represented the country?
Its not based on track records or speed, explains Ziv. If it were, Matti's swimming partner Oni would most certainly have made the team. Rather, she says, each country is given a quota on how many athletes it can bring, and an intellectual criterion determines who is eligible. Once athletes qualify, they must draw lots to become part of the official team.
"Its not about the competition," says Ziv, who trained at the Wingate Sports Institute and spent a short stint working with Para-Olympic for athletes with physical disabilities. "Rather, everybody competes according to his own ability, meaning that even a slow swimmer can race against another swimmer of the same level."
Each event is divided into categories by age, sex and, most importantly, ability. In the swimming competition, for example, there are seven levels, with one category even allowing athletes to wear armbands and another in which trainers enter the water to support the swimmer.
"Pushing off from the wall is another category," adds Ziv, highlighting that for some people this is a huge achievement.
With the backbone of the games being less about actual competition and more about effort and acceptability, Ziv says that the declaration of each participant's intellectual ability and physical capability is based on a system of trust between the judges and the coaches.
"As a trainer, I obviously want all my athletes to do well, and I could put them into a lower level group so they would certainly win, but the judges are very strict and if they suspect an athlete of competing in a group that is below his level, they will disqualify him," says Ziv. "How do you explain to these kids that even though they swam their hearts out, what they did does not count and that they have to leave the games?"
While Ziv says that there are some coaches who cheat, on the whole most athletes compete according to their ability and in this way "everyone gets a chance to win."
"Four years ago, when the games were in Dublin, all of Israel's athletes returned with at least one medal," she says. "Because it is such a struggle for them to reach any level of sporting ability, every achievement is in itself a prize."
So with the competition less important in this unique sporting event, what drives the athletes dedication to train and desire to participate?
"These kids do not go to the army like their peers," she says. "For them, competing in the Special Olympics is their way of showing patriotism."
Sure enough, when questioned why they want to be part of this international event, the swimmers and the other athletes present at the pool offer a unanimous response.
"We want to bring pride to Israel and make our families proud of us," says swimmer Hodorkovski, who Ziv says started at the school bitter and angry but who found an outlet in the pool and has developed into the country's fastest Special Olympics swimmer. "I love the sports environment but I also love the friendship."
"I want to win first place for my country," says another of athletes, 21-year-old Levav Barkan, who will compete in the judo competition.
And track-and-field competitor Liran Chen, 20, adds: "I am excited that my parents will see me in the competition, but I also want to win the race for my country."
"We are proud of what we do," chimes in Ella Zohar, who Ziv mentions is currently dating fellow swimmer Matti Oren.
"See what other results sports bring?" quips the coach.
ANOTHER OF the Special Olympics athletes is softly spoken Lin Kornhauser, who states proudly that she would be celebrating her 20th birthday in Shanghai. Trained at the Wingate Institute, Lin is one of four Israelis who played in the table tennis tournament.
"I like table tennis because I get to play with other people," she smiles.
Lin's story from a slow developing child to one of the country's top special-needs athletes is the stuff of fairy tales.
"She was born hypertonic, and the doctors told me that she would never be able to walk," says her mother, Taly, who acts as the executive chairwoman of the Israel Special Olympics Association's board of directors and spearheaded fund-raising efforts to provide the athletes with financial support for the Shanghai games.
"Lin is really a miracle child," continues Kornhauser, an art therapist from Ra'anana and mother to three other children. "And although we have put in a lot of effort to help her, Lin has succeeded in showing us life from a completely different perspective. One of my steps is the equivalent of 100 steps for her. For us, we do certain things so easily, but for her those things are extremely difficult."
Her sporting talents notwithstanding, Kornhauser says that training for the Special Olympics has given Lin "a life."
"She practices six times a week and succeeding has given her loads of self-confidence and independence. She has also made friends through the sport and while she is generally not a very talkative girl, with table tennis she now has loads to talk about. In Israel, the Special Olympics is not very well known, but I would encourage anyone with special needs children to get them involved. It not only helps them develop physically but also mentally and socially."
"This such an important event," agrees Haim Rave, the head of the delegation at the games. "Every person, even those with disabilities, should be given the opportunity to participate and contribute to society."
"I have seen what swimming does for a special needs child," says Ziv. "In the water, a person cannot be retarded; you cannot see that they are too fat or that their legs are too small. The water treats everyone the same."
Aside from the 7,000 or so athletes who participated in this year's Special Olympics World Summer Games, it is the dedication of thousands of parents that has enabled the dreams to be kept alive for those who compete.
Whether it be volunteering to ensure the smooth running of sporting events, helping out with the planning or simply carting your child from training session to training session, these special Olympians could not move forward without their help.
"I drive roughly 3,000 km. a month to make sure that [my daughter] Lin gets to her table tennis practices," estimates Taly Kornhauser, executive chairwoman of the Israel Special Olympics Association's board of directors, who spearheaded fund-raising efforts to provide the athletes with support for the Shanghai games. "I believe that it is normal for a parent with a child like this to do all they can to improve life for their child."
Kornhauser says that the family of six - her other three children do not have special needs - moved five times to ensure that Lin had was afforded the best opportunities in life. "We now live in Ra'anana, and its much easier for her to get around on her own using public transportation," she says.
Kornhauser spearheaded efforts in recent months to raise funds and awareness to Israel's Special Olympics team. Not only did her persuasive fund-raising tactics allow her to enlist the support of the Shanghai Jewish community, which donated more than $20,000 to pay for athletes to participate in the games and provided each person with a uniform and sneakers, she also enlisted commercial giants such as McDonald's and coffee shop chain Aroma.
"We had no official sponsor for the Special Olympic games and it was really hard getting these people to help us," she confesses.
Another of the organization's dedicated parents is Vicki Oren, the association's family program coordinator, who was selected by the International Special Olympics body to participate in the Global Family Summit, which ran concurrently with the games in Shanghai.
"The Special Olympics is a volunteer organization that encourages individuals to offer their professional assistance," explains Oren, whose son Matti, a swimmer on the official team, suffers from mild brain damage.
But, she continues, it's not only about giving the children a chance to increase their physical activities and make friends; it is also about providing support to the parents of special-needs children.
"Those who are involved have become like a family to us," says Oren, who has two other sons. "When I take Matti to Wingate for training I wait around just so I could talk to other parents in a similar situation to us."
Both Oren and Kornhauser say they would like to attract more people with special-needs children. "Anyone who is reading this and feels that our activities would appeal to them either as a parent or a volunteer, I urge you to contact us," Oren says.
Special sports forging special relations
At the same time that the sporting events took place in Shanghai, the International Special Olympics Association organized what it calls a Global Family Summit, a conference that enables relatives of the athletes to brainstorm on how to improve the games, raise general awareness about athletes with special needs and allow parent volunteers from across the globe to share ideas.
"Its an amazing opportunity for an Israeli delegate," says Vicki Oren, family program coordinator for the Special Olympics Association, who was selected to represent the country and the entire Europe/Asia region at the summit. "I have no idea why I was selected, but it [was] a chance to network and develop my skills to encourage parents to get involved."
Oren, who is mother to one of the athletes on the national team, also believes that Israel's representation at the conference would offer her a chance to improve cooperation with other countries in the region.
Although Israel is not part of the Middle East region, Oren believes that having relations with nearby countries, such as Jordan, Egypt and even Palestine, would allow special-needs athletes to compete in local international tournaments rather than having to travel long distances across Europe.
"The Olympic Games is held every four years, the backbone of this association is the regional events but, for us, traveling to Europe gets very expensive," she says. "I have a dream that Israeli athletes will be able to hold a peace games with Arab nations, and together we can share our knowledge in this subject."
Oren says that plans had been under way in 2000, before the second intifada broke out, to hold such an event in Bethlehem.
"We were forced to cancel it, and eventually we lost touch with the Arab families that were planning it with us," she says. "The Special Olympics is meant to be apolitical but politics eventually gets into everything."
But, she continues, the Global Family Summit is about parents sharing the same experiences with their special needs children.
"Its about meeting families from all over the world; it does not matter where they are from, we all have something in common," she says. "I am hopeful that the conference will allow us the opportunity to discuss such cooperation." -