This Week in History: Israel hosts the Paralympics

In November 1968, Israel held the Paralympic Games in Ramat Gan, finishing in third place behind the US and UK.

paralympics (photo credit: Wikicommons)
(photo credit: Wikicommons)
On November 4, 1968, the third Paralympic Games kicked off in Israel, constituting part of a wide range of celebrations to mark 20 years of Israel’s independence. Just one year after the Six Day War, 10,000 spectators gathered at the Hebrew University Stadium in Jerusalem to watch the opening ceremony, where then-deputy prime minister Yigal Allon declared the Games open.
The Paralympics were originally scheduled to be held in Mexico City, conventionally alongside the Olympic Games, however, the Mexican government pulled out two years earlier citing technical difficulties. The Israeli government and ILAN (Israel's Foundation for the Handicapped) subsequently offered to host the event, and Paralympic Games founder Sir Ludwig Guttmann accepted the invitation.
“Back then Israel was one of the most powerful countries on the international Paralympic committee,” Israel Sports Center for the Disabled (ISCD) chief executive Boaz Kramer told The Jewish Chronicle 34 years on. “Israel was one of the first countries to establish a full program for disabled athletes in the 1950s, and Israel and the UK are the two countries with the longest tradition of wheelchair sports.”
“We announced we were accepting athletes from Arab countries, but nobody appeared,” ISDC head coach Reuven Heller told the Chronicle.
Guttman gave the opening speech; also known as "Poppa," Guttman was a German Jewish refugee and neurologist, considered to be one of the founding fathers of organized physical activities for the disabled. The Paralympics were born out of the Stoke Mandeville Games, which began in 1948 as an archery and javelin competition that Guttman organized for his spinal patients. This evolved into what became officially known, by the 1988 Seoul Games, as the "Paralympics," derived from the Greek preposition pará (beside) since it is held alongside the Olympics. The Stoke Mandeville Games continue to be held yearly, in between the four-year Paralympics cycle, however the former is solely for wheelchair athletes while the latter encompasses athletes from all disability groups.
Guttman, knighted in 1966, went down in history as the man who connected rehabilitation to competitive sport. "If I ever did one good thing in my medical career it was to introduce sport into the treatment and rehabilitation of disabled people," he wrote in The Reader's Digest in 1967. Altogether, 750 athletes from 29 countries participated in the 1968 Games in Ramat Gan. The program was significantly larger than the previous Paralympics in Tokyo four years earlier, including new events such as Lawn Bowls, Women's Basketball and the 100 meter wheelchair race for men.
The event was a great achievement for Israel, not only because it successfully hosted the Games, but also because it came in third, while the United States and the United Kingdom took first and second place, respectively. Altogether, Israel bagged 62 medals: 18 gold, 21 silver and 23 bronze. Prominent Israeli athletes included Malcha Halfon who won the javelin throw and shot put, breaking the world record. Italy's Roberto Marson was named the Games' outstanding competitor, winning a total of nine gold medals.
In those days, most Israeli competitors were war-disabled or terror victims, however, this is no longer the case. Israel Paralympic Committee secretary general Ron Bolotin told Israel21C ahead of this year's Paralympics in London: "Our success was much higher in 1968 to 1988, when Israel was one of the pioneer nations in Paralympic sports.
“Back then, it was not very professional and not many countries invested in it. Since the 1990s, and for sure for the last 10 years, it’s professional and elite and so it’s getting much more difficult,” he explained. Indeed, the issue of government investment into sport in general, as well as disabled sport, became a central topic of discussion as the defeated Israeli Olympics delegation returned medal-less from London.
The Israeli Paralympics delegation fared better, with a total of eight medals: one gold; two silvers; and five bronzes, and ranked 45 overall – a far cry from their victorious third place in 1968. Nevertheless, the team returned home with their heads held high to a heroes' welcome. Wheelchair tennis player Noam Gershony particularly brought pride to his homeland, becoming the first Israeli to claim a gold medal at the Paralympics since 2004. The 29-year-old also won a bronze medal in the Quad wheelchair doubles tournament with Shraga Weinberg.
MK Moshe Matalon (Yisrael Beytenu) - previously a Paralympics competitor - wrote in a Jerusalem Post Op-Ed in August, "Sadly, government institutions do not invest enough money in advancing disabled athletes, causing many to cope with what I see as unnecessary disadvantages."
"There is no more poignant moment than hearing our national anthem being played and seeing the Israeli flag waving at full mast," Matalon added.
It remains to be seen whether the results of the 2012 Games will spur the government to invest more in sports, and whether the Israeli Paralympics team will ever return to its former glory.