In it to win it

Two tennis player, Muhammad Kunbar, Jafar Tawil, will make history when they become 1st Arab athletes to represent Israel at Special Olympics.

Muhammad Kunbar and Jafar Tawil_521 (photo credit: Lidor Goldberg / ITC)
Muhammad Kunbar and Jafar Tawil_521
(photo credit: Lidor Goldberg / ITC)
Muhammad Kunbar and Jafar Tawil look like anything but trailblazers. However, the 20-year-old tennis players will make history next month when they become the first Arab athletes to represent Israel at the Special Olympics to be held in Athens, Greece.
After years of fighting prejudice and stereotyping, Kunbar and Tawil from Beit Safafa in Jerusalem have found their calling on the sports field and are proving all their detractors wrong.
The World Summer Games in Athens, which get under way on June 25, will draw 7,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from more than 170 countries, with the Special Olympics organization, established in 1968, providing year-round training and competitions to more than 3.4 million children and adults across the globe.
The World Games are held every two years, and Kunbar and Tawil, who will be participating in their first competition abroad when they play in Athens this summer, have no intention of settling for anything less than a place on the podium.
“I’m happy to be going to the Olympics and, God willing, I will win a medal,” says Kunbar, who trains twice a week in Jerusalem in one of the Israel Tennis Center’s 14 complexes across the country in which the intellectually disabled are given free coaching, as well as equipment and other support. “I enjoy tennis, as it gives me a chance to play sports. I hope to be a top player one day.”
Kunbar and Tawil were first brought to the Jerusalem tennis center by Mahmoud Qaraeen, their phys. ed. teacher at the El Salam special education school in Beit Safafa.
“After seeing Muhammad and Jafar playing in school, I decided that they were well suited for tennis and sent them to the tennis center in Jerusalem so they could train and compete,” says Qaraeen, who still travels with the players to all local competitions.
Elad Gevandschnaider and Tamir Segal complete the four-man team picked for Athens by Shaya Azar, director of the Israel Tennis Center in Ashkelon and coordinator of Special Olympics tennis, from around 250 players who train in the ITC’s different centers.
“I hold competitions in the different centers throughout the year. That way I’m exposed to all the players, and the ones who show real progress are invited to a training camp,” Azar says. “In the training camp I can see which players are capable of taking part in events abroad,” he explains. “I had a player I hoped to take abroad, but she couldn’t handle being away from home in the training camp, so I had to replace her with another player. When you spend 24 hours a day with a player over several days, you recognize who will be able to handle a trip and who won’t. All these players have very special needs. A lot of the players are also physically disabled, and coaching them is far from simple. While with a regular athlete you tell him to do something and he does it straight away, with these players you need to repeat things and be persistent,” says Azar.
The Special Olympics events are arranged in a way that ensures a balanced competition, with athletes being split into groups of eight according to their level of play. Medals are awarded to the winners of each group, but Azar concedes that victories sometimes take a back seat to participation itself when it comes to the Special Olympics.
“Playing gives them confidence and joy. They feel that they are being given love for something they have achieved,” he says. “They need that warmth and support. This is another place in which they can tell themselves that they are just like everyone else. It is first and foremost important that they are participating in the events, but it is also very important to me that they achieve success. I think it is also important to them. I’m not measured by the results they record but by the amount of disabled people I attract to tennis.
But once a player is under my guidance, I do demand of him to win medals,” says Azar.
Ilam Maman, the director of the Jerusalem tennis center, has overseen the progress of Kunbar and Tawil in recent years and is delighted with what he has observed.
“The two were at a low level when they started playing, but they have made significant progress in the last 18 months,” he says. “They have improved even further after learning that they will be going to the Olympics, and you can see that in their recent results. They are amazing guys who appreciate every minute on the court.”
Kunbar and Tawil each won gold medals at the Israel Special Olympics tennis championships held in Jerusalem last Thursday, their last event before the World Summer Games. Azar believes that their success goes far beyond claiming victories on the tennis court.
“This shows that everyone is equal and sends a message of coexistence,” he says. “It is important that both sides understand that there is room for cooperation, especially when such athletes are involved. You can build something with them, and I’m sure that they are our best ambassadors,” he says. “Unfortunately, I don’t think there are enough Arab donors.”
Just like Kunbar, Tawil also loves playing with his Jewish teammates and has found true joy on the tennis court.
“I felt good and gave all I had. It feels good to win,” Tawil said after taking a gold medal at the Israel championships last week. “I have a great relationship with Elad and Tamir. I love playing tennis, and I hope to be a good player and to be among the world’s best. I’m excited about the Olympics, and I will give my all to win.”