PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and then-president Shimon Peres welcome home gold medalist in tennis Noam Gershoni after the 2012 London Summer Paralympics..
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
For two weeks, Israel cheered its Olympic team in Rio, as judokas Or Sasson and Yarden Gerbi won bronze medals and brought Israel’s total Olympic medal count up from seven to nine.
But another set of games, the Paralympics, the international sporting event for physically disabled athletes, set to begin September 7, will get almost no attention, even though Israel is ranked 19th in the world and has taken home 380 medals to date.
“Israel has had a long tradition of success in the Paralympic games because we were one of the first countries to introduce a Paralympic program,” Boaz Kramer, a former wheelchair tennis Paralympian medalist and director of the Israel Sport Center for the Disabled, told The Media Line. “To this day, relative to size, Israel is one of the most successful in the field of disabled sports.”
Israel’s delegation of 80 people – 30 athletes, 30 coaches, and 20 medical staff and assistants – are expected to do well, despite stiffening competition from countries such as China.
“We expect this team to win anywhere between three and five medals and we hope that they will. All of the athletes that we are sending have high chances of winning because of our professional program and the strict criteria which ensures that only athletes with good chances and high performances go to the games,” Kramer said.
The athletes will compete in 11 different sports – table tennis, boccia, swimming, rowing, shooting, goalball, sailing (SKUD and sonar), cycling, canoeing, wheelchair tennis, and one blind marathoner, who will be led by two or three other runners.
Over the years, attendance, viewership and tolerance for the Paralympics have increased.
“1992 was a benchmark and it was the first time we had over a million spectators in Barcelona,” Craig Spence, director of media and communications at the International Paralympic Committee, told The Media Line. “Beijing was another step forward for the Paralympic Games. London 2012 was really the standout because we had 2.76 million paying spectators and a cumulative audience of 3.8 billion. With the ticket sales, it was the third largest sporting event and the games led to seismic shifts in Great Britain.”
After the games in London, one in three people – roughly 20 million in Great Britain – had changed their attitudes towards disability, Spence added.
“We think the Paralympic games are the world’s number one sporting event for driving social inclusion,” Spence said.
Despite clear disparity between medal counts, Israel, like most countries, focuses more on its Olympians rather than its Paralympians.
“It’s sad that people don’t really care,” Dori Riskin, director of the Center for Research on Disabilities at the Meyers JDC Brookdale Institute, told The Media Line.
“People don’t like seeing people with disabilities because they find it distasteful or unaesthetic and they don’t reach the same achievements [as their able-bodied counterparts].”
Conversely, perpetuating the stereotype of the disabled athlete as “the other” furthers the stigmas surrounding Paralympians.
“We have to find a way to find the Paralympics not inspiring,” Beth Steinberg, executive director and co-founder of Shutaf inclusion programs in Jerusalem, told The Media Line. “Is being inspired bad? No, but we decide to build that kind of language into how we see people with disabilities.”
We need to get past “inspireporn” and seeing people with disabilities as different from us, Steinberg added.