‘Doomed to Glory’

The inspirational success story of disabled sports in Israel.

disabled sports 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
disabled sports 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Paralympic swimmer Inbal Pezaro was voted The Jerusalem Post’s Israeli Sports Personality of the Year for 2008 by readers of this newspaper it was somewhat of an unlikely choice, but by no means revolutionary.
The fact is, disabled sports have become an acceptable feature of modern society. They may not get anywhere near the media coverage of regular sports, but there is little, if any, resistance to them.
Pezaro’s performance in capturing three silver medals at the Beijing Paralympics was judged to be by far the most impressive achievement by an Israeli sportsperson that year, so she easily beat off the challenge from much more famous names including then-Chelsea coach Avraham Grant and Liverpool midfielder Yossi Benayoun.
The award was just another step in the right direction for the world of Israeli sports, which has become a multi-million dollar industry in recent decades.
However, the general understanding that the disabled have every right to participate in sports, and should be encouraged to do so, is actually a relatively new concept.
Until the final years of the Second World War disabled sports simply didn’t exist. Those suffering from conditions that left them paralyzed had few options for physical exercise and were often left to live out their lives in hospital beds.
The sports landscape for disabled individuals changed dramatically in 1944 when former German Jewish doctor Ludwig Guttman was employed by the British health authorities to set up a national medical center for spinal injuries in Stoke Mandeville, a village close to London.
After observing the depression among the hundreds of war injured Guttman came to the conclusion that sports would be the best way to motivate these men to grab hold of life again.
It was there that the concept of wheelchair basketball took hold and within a few years Guttman had changed the lives of numerous people and attracted the attention of people all over the world.
At around the same time, the fledgling State of Israel was forced to deal with thousands of injured soldiers who had fought in the War of Independence as well as thousands of disabled children who had been victims of the 1950 Polo epidemic.
The story of how these disabled Israelis were able to revitalize their lives, ultimately leading up to the establishment of the Israeli Sports Center for the Disabled, is told in Moshe Rashkes’s uplifting book Doomed to Glory, published in English for the first time this month.
Rather than being looked down on or felt sorry for, numerous Israelis have been able to achieve far more than they themselves, their friends and families could ever have expected.
From the first wheelchair basketball teams set up at the Tel Hashomer hospital which competed in the 1952 International Stoke Mandeville Games, to the modern day paralympians, this country has become a hotbed for international-level disabled sportsmen.
Israel may be a small nation compared to the US and UK, but it has contained many of the most motivated young men and women, who outshone their peers from across the globe.
The tale starts with Mishka Ben-Naftali, a wheelchair basketball player who pioneered a more versatile wheelchair than had ever previously been used in sports.
It moves through the opening of the country’s disabled sports center in Ramat Gan in 1960, to the Israeli participation in the first Paralympics in Rome that year.
One of the most stunning stories is that of the 1968 Paralympic Games. When Mexico announced it was unable to put on the third edition of the Games straight after the regular Summer Olympics as had been expected the international committee sought a new venue.
Despite the poor economic situation in Israel, the local disabledsports leaders offered Ramat Gan as the main host city. The Gamesturned out to be the most successful yet, with more than 1,000 coachesand participants involved, 24,000 people attending the opening ceremonyat the Hebrew University stadium and Israel’s 60-member team winning 66medals, including 22 golds.
The star of the Israeli team has become a legend of internationaldisabled sports. Baruch Hagai was not only the captain of thetriumphant basketball squad but also won the second of his fiveparalympic table tennis gold medals.
Israel’s contribution to international sports is becoming increasinglysignificant every year, but Israeli achievements in the regularsporting world will likely always be dwarfed by the outstandingposition it has always held in the global paralympic arena.
“Doomed to Glory” by Moshe Rashkes is published by MiloPublishing. To buy a copy for the special price of 30 NIS and for moreinformation about the Israel Sports Center for the Disabled emailAvraham Tshuva at haro662@zahav.net.il or call 050 741 1000.