Robin Hood on wheels

Disabled archer Amit Dror is taking aim at a medal in the upcoming Paralympic Games in Beijing.

Amit Dror 224.88 (photo credit: Yehuda Efrati)
Amit Dror 224.88
(photo credit: Yehuda Efrati)
Amit Dror is ready to go: His bow is cocked and so are his arms, tense and taut, veins about to burst, elbow vibrating with violent energy. If archery, like all forms of sport and art, is an expression of self, the bow is an extension of self. The bow "becomes a part of you," Dror's coach Yehuda Efrati explains, and Dror says, "You are the gunpowder." It is an intensely personal sport, and not only because Dror, who arrived in Beijing this week with the Israeli delegation to compete in the Paralympic Games, is the only high-level archer in the country, but because a bow is rigorously tailored to the measurements and mannerisms of its owner, interlocked in a mutually exclusive relationship. He's only warming up, but stick an arrow in that bow and it will let loose a bullet. Some 70 meters away, Efrati is setting up targets at the other end of a dirt alley at Tel Aviv's Bet Halohem, trapped between a metal fence, a graffiti-sprayed concrete wall and a merciless sun. They not-so-fondly dub their feces-strewn training grounds "the path of dogs' dung," but dogs are not the only trespassers. Suddenly a car comes out of nowhere, roaring around the corner, kicking up clouds of dust. By the time it has settled, the imposing coach, portly and perspiring profusely, has sent the car on its way - in reverse. "This isn't a road, we're shooting!" his voice booms. This isn't the first time that cars, canines or their best friends have stepped into the line of Dror's fire, but then he's used to having his fierce concentration interrupted. When a fan has the temerity to take a picture while Tiger Woods swings his golf club, the golfing genius dispatches his thuggish caddy to confiscate the offending camera, and tennis umpires are only slightly less bellicose. There was a time when an archer could hear a fly go by, but noise has long been legalized in archery. "You have to detach yourself from everything," Dror, who lives on Moshav Nir Akiva, not far from Netivot, says. But archery is not detached from its environment. Unlike many other organized sports, Efrati explains, archery is contested come hell or pouring rain or high water (although shifting clouds are the worst, wreaking havoc on an archer's pupils). Efrati once saw a picture of archers shooting while submerged knee-high in water. For a second, he was sure they were crippled. Which, incidentally, Dror is. If his bow is merely a continuation of his arms, his legs extend into a wheelchair. But that's just another distraction to his athletic ambitions. In 1948, at the eponymous hospital, Sir Ludwig Guttman founded the Stoke Mandeville Games, in which war veterans who had suffered spinal cord injuries competed as part of their healing process. Twelve years later, this gave birth to the Paralympic Games, which today are an integral part of the Olympic Games. Only three weeks separate the two events, but obviously a world divides them. Recently, a double-amputee South African runner named Oscar Pistorius, known as "Blade Runner," attempted to breach that boundary by competing against able-bodied runners in a bid to qualify for the Olympics. In January, the International Association of Athletic Federations ruled his prostheses ineligible, a decision that was later reversed on appeal and has created much controversy. Dror mentions Pistorius, who, despite his publicity, is not running on terra incognita. Disabled archers, Dror among them, have been competing side by side against their able-bodied peers for years. The international rules of archery mandate that all competitions be open to the disabled, and require sites to be fully accessible to them. There is only one competition from which they are barred - the Olympics. "Wait, you can come to any of our events, but we can't come to yours and that's not fair," Dror quotes the ironic line of reasoning used by the able-bodied. But he's not complaining. Speaking of his experience in Athens, he says, emphatically, "It was amazing." One might expect the host city, only three weeks after the Olympics, to find the Paralympics to be an anticlimax, even a letdown, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Together, Efrati and Dror marvel at the way Paralympians are treated abroad. One Israeli Paralympic referee was accorded an ovation by enthusiastic passengers of a plane en route to Sydney. In England, the BBC broadcasts all of the Paralympic Games, from start to finish. "An athlete is an athlete, no matter if he's disabled or not, he's a celebrity just the same," Dror says. And so when that car careens around the bend, they complain of the lack of awareness that Paralympic sports suffer here. "Why does my wife have to watch the opening ceremonies on Jordanian television?" Efrati fumes. "It's frustrating," Dror admits. "Fifty percent of the population doesn't even know that the disabled play sports." But they're interested in talking only about sports. Archery not only preaches patience and teaches balance, it requires compartmentalization, perhaps more so than other sports. Dror is, above all, an athlete. Focused on the next arrow, he's not interested in discussing the past. Not the distant past, in which he was born 54 years ago in Kibbutz Revivim, served in the Golani Brigade during the Yom Kippur War and was wounded during a training accident ("34 years ago? Who's counting?!" he laughs with no bitterness). Nor the recent past, in which he studied and received bachelor's and master's degrees and worked in a lab. He's most interested in discussing his athletic career: He arrived at the newly-opened Beit Halohem in 1974 and immediately took up swimming, then track and field and badminton and finally, in 1982, archery. It was at Stoke Mandeville, where he competed as a swimmer in 1975 and 1978, that archery caught his eye ("Watching archery, if you don't know what's going on, is terribly boring - it's not like Robin Hood - but I was hooked."). He picked it up in 1982 as no more than a hobby, but 10 years later he participated in the Barcelona Olympics, and by 1998 he had increased the intensity of his training, pushing the number of sessions a week to five. He qualified for the 2004 Olympics, where he made it to the round of 16, and in 2006 won the bronze medal at the European Championships. Today, he's ranked approximately 15th in the world. To be sure, a medal is not out of the range of possibility in Beijing. He spends two nights a week at Beit Halohem and goes home only every other weekend, happy to spend his life immersed in sports and happier still to discuss them at length with energy and enthusiasm that belie his age. When the conversation veers to the past or peripheral personal matters, his voice deepens and his countenance sags. He considers himself fortunate. "I'm lucky to be an IDF cripple. If I were dependent on National Insurance, I wouldn't have a chance to participate in archery." Dror knows he's not representative of the difficulties faced by the disabled, or of the plight of Paralympians, who have received less than one-10th of the Olympians' budget. He's the country's lone archer, but he's part of a proud - if snubbed - tradition. In Athens, Israeli Paralympians won 13 medals, 11 more than their Olympic counterparts. Yet while Pistorius is breaking down barriers and Dror holds his own among the able-bodied, are the Paralympians making progress? In 1968, Tel Aviv hosted the Third Paralympic Games, as part of Israel's 20th anniversary celebration. Deputy prime minister Yigal Allon opened the Games in front of 10,000 people, and by the closing ceremonies Israel had garnered 62 medals, third overall. Forty years later, on the occasion of Israel's 60th anniversary, funds earmarked for the celebration were spent, well, differently. "At least give us half," Dror says, "but one-10th?!"