Peres with Special Olympics team 311.
(photo credit: Greer Fay Cashman)
Stars in the daylight were visible when Hagit Yassu, the surprise winner of the current season’s A Star is Born, got together with Israel’s Special Olympics team on Monday to serenade them with the winning song Someone Always Walks With Me.
Yasssu was the surprise treat given to the team at a reception at Beit Hanassi, where President Shimon Peres told the 84 athletes who came home from Athens with 86 medals – 25 of which were gold – that he hadn’t seen so much gold, or so many medals, in a long time.
“We invited you to Beit Hanassi to thank each and every one of you for the great honor and glory that you brought to the State of Israel,” he said. “You proved that you can do more than is expected of you both in terms of Olympics and in terms of ‘special.’” Peres urged the youngsters to continue working hard, and to continue to bring pride to the nation and the state.
Social Affairs Minister Moshe Kahlon spoke in a similar vein, and said he knew how difficult it had been for some of the athletes to keep up a rigorous training schedule – but nonetheless, in four years time, he expected them to come home with 132 medals, including 50 gold.
“We know you can do it, because you have the ability and determination,” he said.
Still, for all the praise they receive, some of the youngsters said they don’t always feel accepted by mainstream Israel.
“We might be special, but we have a lot of difficulties,” said Matan. “Sport helps us to overcome some of those difficulties, but not all, because society sometimes rejects us.”
The Special Olympics, founded in 1962 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, within the framework of a summer camp for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, now provides year-round training and competition to more than three million athletes in 175 countries. By encouraging their athletic abilities, the program empowers its many participants to gain confidence in the face of the hardships they endure daily.
Israel’s Special Olympics and Para Olympics teams always do considerably
better than the regular Olympic teams, winning many medals.
Whatever the intellectual disabilities of the Israeli Special Olympics team, with few exceptions, they were not obvious.
There was a sense of camaraderie more in the nature of extended family
than just members of a team. Most of the athletes were vibrant, talking
to each other quickly, smiling and taking each other’s photos.
They were particularly pleased when their goodwill ambassador, singer
Lior Narkiss, came on stage. They greeted him with loud cheers and
waving arms, and sang along with him.
When Yassu came on stage, cameras were instantly poised in her direction
and she received thunderous applause before and after her song.
One indication of what it means to be special was evident in the case of Elad, who was given a front-row seat to watch Peres.
The seat, reserved for him, had an official “shamur” (“reserved”) card placed on it.
Elad was well aware that such cards are only for important people.
Holding the card to his chest, he called to his father at the back of
the hall to photograph him.
With tears in his eyes, and a proud smile, his father captured the moment for posterity.