(photo credit: )
Hundreds of Special Olympics athletes from around the country will gather in Jerusalem Tuesday to participate in Israel's Special Olympics. This marks the first time the semi-annual event will convene in the capital.
After an official opening ceremony, venues around the city will host competitions for disabled children and adults in 10 sports including swimming, soccer, track and field, tennis, bowling and judo. The 800 Israelis will be joined by a delegation of 30 Special Olympics athletes from Greece.
Both the ambassador of Greece and the mayor of Jerusalem are expected to attend the event.
"The idea of the program is to emphasize the potential and abilities of those with intellectual disabilities," said Dr. Ud Bar-Peled, the organization's chairman. He added that a primary goal was to change the public's attitude toward people with disabilities by promoting events such as the Special Olympics.
There are currently more than 4,500 Special Olympics athletes in Israel, ranging in age from eight to 55, most of whom participate in basketball, soccer or bowling.
The International Special Olympics organization serves more than 1.7 million children and adults in 162 countries. Athletes, including those here in Israel, are currently training for the next international competition, which will take place in Shanghai, in 2007.
Vicki Oren, a volunteer whose son is participating in the Jerusalem competition, explained the Special Olympics as "much more than sports."
"It's social, it's an automatic support group, and it helps with self-identity and self-esteem," she said. "It gives individuals a chance for success and fulfillment, because everyone is a winner." Oren said her son swims three to four times per week to train for competitions.
Hundreds of volunteers, many of whom are Israeli pupils, have been recruited to assist with the games. "The hope is to make [school-aged volunteers] aware of differences so that they will grow up to be more tolerant of individuals with disabilities," Oren said.
Bar-Peled, whose daughter is also a participant in the program, said that these activities represent not only sports but "a way of life." Though his daughter cannot read or write and has a limited ability to speak, Bar-Peled said she uses sport as a way to say she is the same as any other competitor.
"[These athletes] are no different than any other athletes," Bar-Peled said. "They train hard and they want to win."