(photo credit: GPO)
Judging by the reception they received at Beit Hanassi on Monday, the young men in the white polo shirts with the blue logo were very important people.
Indeed they were.
Together with their escorts and trainers, the youths were representatives of Israel's 40-member delegation to the Special Olympics, to be held in Shanghai from October 2-11.
The athletes had come to receive the blessing of President Shimon Peres before leaving for China on Thursday.
The Special Olympics was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1962. Shriver believed that intellectually disabled people had far more capabilities than was generally believed and invited 35 boys and girls to a summer camp at her home in Maryland.
Since then, the Special Olympics has become an international effort, creating purpose and ambition for more than 2.5 million intellectually challenged people in more than 165 countries.
The athletes who came to Beit Hanassi will be competing in athletics, swimming, tennis, table tennis, football, judo, cycling, and bowling.
Some were already seasoned international competitors with several triumphs, not to mention cups and medals to their credit. Others were going abroad for the first time and were extremely excited at the prospect.
Oren Evron, who was last year's Israel National Bowling Champion in the Special Olympics with a score of 294, is competing internationally for the first time, but was undaunted at the prospect. He told the president that he hoped to bring home a gold medal.
When soccer player Ron Peretz, who competed last year in Germany, where Israel won first place, introduced himself to the president, he couldn't contain himself and kissed him. He said he was very happy to be going to China, and hoped to succeed not only for his own sake but to make Peres proud as well.
Table tennis player Meir Abramov, 21, who represented Israel in Ireland and came home with a silver medal, told Peres: "It was the most thrilling experience of my life. I never thought that I would ever be chosen to represent Israel."
Since then, he's represented Israel in the European Championships. Now he's going to China, where he hopes to do at least as well as he did in Ireland, if not better.
"I'm going to do my best," he said. "I've been training for this for four years."
Swimmer Guy Vatikovsky admitted that his results had not been good enough to warrant his inclusion in the team that went to Ireland. "But I didn't sit around and feel sorry for myself," he said. "I kept training and then I represented Israel in San Francisco, and now I'm going to China. If I had felt sorry for myself I would not have got to where I am now."
"Whoever watches you on TV will be as fervent about you as I am now," said Peres. "You belong to a people which was small, weak, and oppressed - and who overcame. You are the best representatives of the Jewish people. Everyone has untapped resources. You have harnessed yours and have brought great pride to Israel. You've brought more medals than anyone else, and you're an example and an inspiration to others in your condition... It's a great privilege for the state to have people like you."
All the athletes were given Beit Hanassi caps and pins, which they will wear in Shanghai to signify for whom they intend to win the medals.