Israel’s 35 Special Olympics athletes are going for gold at games in Berlin

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Thirty-five Israeli athletes in seven disciplines are heading off to represent the Jewish state at the Special Olympics in Berlin, which kicks off with the opening ceremony on Saturday.

The competitors from around the country, who have a range of cognitive disabilities, will vie for medals in athletics, judo, swimming, cycling, table tennis, soccer and bowling over the course of a week. They are joining 7,000 athletes from around the world who will be competing in the German capital in different divisions based on their abilities.

“We are beyond excited, beyond motivated, spirits are so high — we’ve received so much support from so many different partners here in Israel,” said Sharon Levy-Blanga, CEO of the Special Olympics Israel organization, days before the delegation’s departure.

While Israel has been sending a delegation to the games for 30 years, this is the first time that the Special Olympics Israel organization has been recognized as an official sports federation by the Culture and Sports Ministry – which also comes with around NIS 500,000 ($140,000) in financial backing.

“It’s the first time in their life that they are receiving a stage that acknowledges them for who they are – as athletes, and not only people with disabilities,” said Levy-Blanga.

The government recognition of Special Olympics Israel as an official sports federation alongside the Israeli Olympic Committee and the Israeli Paralympic Committee came about earlier this year after extensive lobbying, said Levy-Blanga.

Special Olympics Israel CEO Sharon Levy-Blanga speaking at an event in Yanuh-Jat, October 24, 2022. (Courtesy)

The effort to gain such recognition began under the previous culture minister, National Unity’s Chili Tropper, with the help of Yesh Atid MK Simon Davidson – former chair of the Israel Swimming Association – and was finalized earlier this year by Culture and Sport Minister Miki Zohar of Likud.

Moshe Ya’alon – a former IDF chief and ex-defense minister – has served as the chairman of the organization for the past year, and also helped push for the new designation. In a statement, Ya’alon said that the athletes in the delegation “prove that the human spirit can overcome any limitations.”

Some of Israel’s athletes this year are returning medalists, including swimmer Avital Naveh, 44, who won a gold in the 100m individual medley and a bronze in the 100m backstroke at the 2019 Games in Abu Dhabi. Gilad Kalishov, 32, who picked up two bronze medals in swimming four years ago, is back this time around – but in bowling. Judoka Levav Barkan, who won a silver medal in Abu Dhabi, will be going for gold this year.

Special Olympics swimmer Avital Naveh accepting a medal from organization chairman Moshe Ya’alon at the national games in October 2022. (Courtesy)

Fourteen members of the delegation are part of the first-ever Israeli women’s soccer team heading to the Special Olympics, which is coached by former star player Silvi Jan.

A number of Israel’s athletes are competing in “Unified” sports, where individuals with and without intellectual disabilities compete together. This year Israel is sending Unified athletes in table tennis and bowling.

“We’re trying to show the public, to educate the community, that winning is not only from the ‘strongest’ to the ‘weakest,’” said Levy-Blanga. “Our athletes — who are seen [by society] as ‘weak’ — support us in winning.”

The Special Olympics Israeli women’s soccer team poses for a photo on June 5, 2023. (Ben Melnik)

One such pairing in this year’s delegation is bowler Rivi Cohen, 38, who has been involved in the Special Olympics for years and competed in the 2011 and 2015 games, with Hana Duanis, 62, a former Israeli national bowling champion. On the younger end of the spectrum, 19-year-old Special Olympian tennis player Sonia Yanushuk is paired up with 16-year-old Lior Revach, who plays in Israel’s national teen division; the pair competed at the Special Olympics tennis tournament in Budapest last year and went undefeated, taking home the Unified gold medal.

“If we used to think all our lives that we provide a service to those with disabilities, we’re changing the game and we’re saying that those disabilities are providing a service for us – because the winning is unified,” said Levy-Blanga. “It’s not us and them anymore; it’s only about working together and winning as a unified pair.”

In 2019, Israel’s athletes racked up 19 medals at the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi, including four gold medals. Levy-Blanga is confident that the delegation will perform as well or even better this year.

“We have a very strong cycling team, a very strong swimming team, but I actually see every branch of sports bringing back a medal,” she said.

Special Olympics cyclist Avi Elbaz competes at the national games in October 2022. (Courtesy)

Though the Special Olympics are all about inclusion, the 2019 games were marred when Syrian and Lebanese athletes refused to face their Israeli counterparts – a shunning seen repeatedly at all levels of international sport.

Levy-Blanga said she hopes to not see a repeat this year: “The Special Olympics is beyond politics.”

Special Olympics Israel runs programming year-round and sends athletes to other international competitions, with about 3,500 athletes regularly involved in activities including the first national Special Olympics Games held last year in the Galilee.

Levy-Blanga said the increased funding and recognition should bring about a welcome change in attitudes.

“Without having the government saying ‘we believe you, you are athletes… you are a meaningful part of society,’ we couldn’t have done it,” she said. “Only when backed by policy and legislation, then we can change attitudes from the core.”

Past Israeli Olympians Yael Arad (left), Sagi Muki (second from right) and Hanna Minenko (right) pose for a photo with Special Olympics cyclists Tal Golani (center) and Noga Koren on June 8, 2023. (Ben Melnik)

This is the first time that the athletes are officially representing the State of Israel at the Special Olympics, but more than that, said Levy-Blanga, they are taking part in the fight for basic rights.

“The cause is that they deserve to be employed, they deserve to study, they deserve to have a choice of where to live, and they deserve to do sports near their home – that every club will be able to welcome them,” she said. “That’s the biggest message, for when they come home.”

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