February 23, 2020

Getting into the spirit of the games

As the sun began to set over a Tel Aviv sports field, six athletes wrapped up their training session and gathered near the bleachers for their final pep talk.

Glistening in the hot, humid air at Israel’s National Sport Center, the men and women of the country’s Special Olympics World Summer Games track and field team turned their attention to the warm, youthful woman who’d been training and encouraging them.

 “I saw how eager you are to win,” coach Iris Harish told the competitors, who ranged in age from 20 to 24. “All of you. You’re really determined to win. I trust that you’ll do this beautifully. You all have beautiful results.” 

The athletes broke out in proud laughter before she continued.

“Now we’ve reached the peak: Los Angeles.”

Harish doesn’t know how her athletes’ scores compare to those of the 7,000 athletes from the other 176 countries descending upon Los Angeles for the 2015 Special Olympics World Games, July 25 through Aug. 2. But, she told them, that doesn’t matter.

“What’s more important is your personal record,” said Harish, a physical education instructor specializing in children with special needs. “You all know what you’re worth. In my eyes: gold.”

A week after the pep talk, the Israeli Special Olympics delegation — consisting of 40 athletes and 19 coaches and escorts — met at Ben Gurion Airport on July 20, beginning its journey to bring home medals from L.A. in track and field, kayaking, cycling, swimming, tennis, basketball, open-water swimming, bocce and bowling. 

The 2015 Special Olympics, a competition for athletes with intellectual disabilities, will certainly be a more star-studded affair than the one held four years ago in Athens, which saw 85 Israeli athletes bring home 66 medals. First lady Michelle Obama and singers Stevie Wonder and Avril Lavigne are among the luminaries scheduled to appear at the opening ceremony July 25 at the historic L.A. Memorial Coliseum.

Once they arrive in Los Angeles, however, the Special Olympics athletes are the real stars. Before the games begin, Leo Baeck Temple in the Sepulveda Pass — which made arrangements to host the team nearby — will roll out the red carpet for the Israeli team in the form of breakfasts and dinners with community leaders and Jewish organizations. There will be a trip to an as-yet undisclosed amusement park and a daylong gala at a Bel Air home featuring former Olympians and other athletes, a personal translator for the non-English speakers and, of course, “paparazzi” in the form of local media. 

“I saw the pictures [of Los Angeles]. It looks amazing,” said track and field athlete Adi Madmon, 21, before her first trip to the city. “You have Hollywood, Disneyland. … I hope they take us there.”

Madmon is a repeat competitor in the Special Olympics World Games, having won silver in the 100-meter race in Athens.

“I saw the pictures [of Los Angeles]. It looks amazing. You have Hollywood, Disneyland. … I hope they take us there.” — Adi Madmon, Israeli track and field athlete

Israel’s six track and field athletes come with varying degrees and kinds of intellectual disability (coaches prefer not to get into the exact nature of each disability). Itai Salman, 24, of Tel Aviv is among the more high-functioning athletes, proudly working in a special-needs framework as an operations assistant at the National Sport Center, while four others live in a hostel for people with intellectual disabilities. 

“I’m not as excited for L.A. because I was there already,” Salman, wearing his blue-and-white uniform, told the Journal during a training session for his specialty, the 400-meter race. “But the fact that I’m competing internationally, that I have the experience to compete in a different country, is something really big and exciting.”

Salman is Israel’s national champion in the Special Olympics’ 100- and 400-meter races. With the body of a long-distance runner, his long legs glide gracefully on the track. 

This is the first time Harish will be heading to the Special Olympics World Summer Games. She described her feelings with the same word used by her trainees, who generally make up for their verbal brevity with an overflow of enthusiasm: “Excited.”

“[The games] give them the ability to be winners, maybe for the first time in their lives,” Harish explained. “They give them the opportunity to feel equal to other people. Wherever they go, they’re not the same. People look at them differently, but when they get here, we see them as winners.”

This is especially true for the lower- functioning athletes, who can have trouble articulating the personal stories, often of hardship, they seem so eager to communicate.

Shlomi Gibli, 20, from Ma’aleh Efram in the Jordan Valley, couldn’t stop smiling at the chance to talk to a reporter, but he struggled to form a narrative, speaking in brief Hebrew sentences. Harish later fleshed out his story of overcoming hardship: Gibli’s father died while he was young and, with a mother unable to care for him, he lived his whole life in a hostel for youths with intellectual disabilities. 

Gibli described how he feeds the animals at his hostel, how he has a cat, how a security officer taught him English and Spanish, and how, as a man of faith, he puts on tefillin and says the Shema every morning, 

And although he said he was excited about Los Angeles, he later told his coach how nervous he really was — this is his first time leaving the country. Harish recalls hugging him and saying everything would be fine.

“ ‘I promise you. I won’t tell you it’s no big deal. It’s a very big thing to do,’ ” Harish said, remembering their conversation on the eve of the trip. “Later on, he came to me and said, ‘Thank you for your words [to] me because they helped me.’ ”

Special Olympics kayakers trained at the Tel Aviv rowing Club on the Yarkon River. Photo by Orit Arfa

These motivational interactions off the field, in which athletes are encouraged to cope with day-to-day life issues, are often just as crucial for their personal development as their athletic scores. 

“First of all, you need to know them very well because you need to know what is driving each of them, what’s their motivation,” Harish explained. “Almog [Tayeb] said she doesn’t want to jump in this particular spot, she wants to jump there, and nobody knows why. I know why. She wants to be far away. She doesn’t want people to see her. She’s a bit ashamed.”

A few days earlier, at the Tel Aviv Rowing Club on the banks of the Yarkon River, two Special Olympics kayakers, Dor Levit and Dalit Kamrat, beat their personal record, with their families on hand to revel in the achievement.

This will be the first time that Israel competes in kayaking at the Special Olympics World Summer Games even though water sports have always been Israel’s strength in other competitions — four out of the seven Israeli medals in the Olympic Games have been for either kayaking or sailing. (The other three were in judo.)

Meir Gross, the Israeli Special Olympics kayaking coach, hadn’t even heard about the games until four years ago, reflecting the general ignorance that Israelis have toward the organization.

“It interests more [those] who are touched by it, someone who has disabilities in the family,” Gross said.

He has been involved in special-needs education for more than 30 years, developing the program to integrate people with intellectual disabilities into the Sea Scouts, the arm of the Scouting movement focused on water-based activities. This year, through television ads and billboards, the organization sought to make the Special Olympics more of the household name that it is in the United States, where it was founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Kayaking is among the “unified” sports at the games, which pairs special needs athletes with people without intellectual disabilities. Dalit’s partner, Noa Shoval, is a social worker chosen first and foremost for her ability to connect with Dalit. Unified teammates are not professional athletes, to ensure a level playing field and that their teammates emerge as the stars.

“What’s nice in the unified program is that you learn to create a different connection,” Shoval, 31, said. “In doubles, there’s an element of cooperation, teamwork, and we develop friendship.”

Shoval was so moved by her experience that she made it a personal mission to spread the word about Special Olympics via social media. In a Facebook post, she wrote about how inspired she was by Dalit’s kindness, dedicated friendship and sportsmanship. For example, her teammate always made sure Shoval wore a hat during training and that her water bottle was always filled with cold water.

Dalit’s father died years ago, and her mother, who remarried and lives in Costa Rica, will be flying in to Los Angeles to see her compete. Dalit’s brother, Ofer Kamrat, brought his two daughters to the recent record-breaking training session at the rowing club, and explained how participating in the Special Olympics changed Dalit’s outlook on life, giving her the courage to overcome fears, which extend to even riding in an elevator. 

It’s also given her a fourth chance to visit L.A. and her relatives there, something she’s quite enthused about. “Lakers!” Dalit said when asked about the trip. “Hollywood, family, the trains, buses!” 

What has given her the most strength, however, is her partnership with Shoval. “I’m more relaxed, and it’s fun together,” she said.

Dalit’s niece, 10-year-old Hagar, seemed even more excited than her aunt. “My friends say: ‘How fun for you!’ ” said the soon-to-be  fifth-grader. “They always ask me when it is and when can we watch it. It makes me very popular in my class.”

Dalit has been interviewed twice on Israeli television. “It was a big thing in our house,” her brother said. “Dalit is becoming a celebrity.”

Dor Levit, Dalit’s male counterpart (each sport is required to have both genders equally represented), and his twin brother, Nadav, were born with pervasive developmental disorders, a group of conditions that place them on the autism spectrum. Their father, a sea lover, would take his sons sailing every Shabbat near their home in Netanya, and their inherited love for the water prompted them to join the Sea Scouts.

To qualify for the Special Olympics, athletes must have a proven track record in national competitions. Dor and Nadav qualified for nomination to the lottery, which ultimately determines the delegates. Nadav wasn’t selected, so he’ll stay behind in Israel to cheer from afar for both competitors. (Dalit happens to be his girlfriend.)

“It’s a bit hard because I know I also deserve to go, but you have a lottery, and he got it,” Nadav said at the rowing club on a bench overlooking the river, as his mother, Etti, looked on proudly at his sportsmanship. “But as time went on, I’m very happy for him and very proud. I hope my turn will come.”

“What’s nice in the unified program is that you learn to create a different connection. In doubles, there’s an element of cooperation, teamwork, and we develop friendship.” — Noa Shoval

Dor, 30, works at IKEA in Netanya in a framework for people with special needs. Proud of its employee, the IKEA store donated $10,000 to the team.

“It gives me honor and pride,” Dor said of this achievement and the accolades that come with it.

Unlike at the regular Olympic Games, which tend to bring out the patriotic impulses of the spectators, you won’t see Israeli flags being waved at the fields and stadiums around L.A. The Special Olympics logo consists of faceless people holding hands around a globe, emphasizing that these games see beyond patriotism and focus instead on universal individual potential. Podiums and uniforms are flag-free; only the name of the country is allowed to appear on sportswear. The point is to keep the games strictly apolitical.

“The minute you say you don’t want to play against anyone, you go home,” said Reuven Astrachan, Israel’s national director of Special Olympics. “Without a doubt.”

The innocence with which these athletes compete seems to naturally prevent tensions that might otherwise surface between competitors from Israel and Arab countries.

“If there’s any tension, it’s between the coaches, not the athletes,” Astrachan said.

He said he has enjoyed harmonious interactions with representatives from Arab countries, and recalled an hours-long, friendly conversation he had with members of the Kuwaiti delegation, which culminated in the exchanging of gifts and flags. But the Kuwaitis couldn’t accept the flag because possession of such would raise “red flags” among their countrymen, he said.

Four years ago, two Arabs from East Jerusalem joined the Israeli delegation to Athens; this year, no Arab-Israelis happen to be in the squad, according to Astrachan.

In the past, an Israeli cyclist also stood on the podium with athletes from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, a vision Astrachan described as “the New Middle East.”

Also differing from the regular Olympics Games is the emphasis that Special Olympics delegates generally place on participation in the games over placement on the podium — a message repeated by Michael Kalganov — Israel’s bronze medalist in kayaking at the 2000 Sydney Olympics Games and today a city councilmember in Tiberias. He gave the kayakers a master class as part of their training — telling the group, according to Gross: “Just that fact that they’re participating, having the experience, that’s the most important thing.”

But back on the field at the National Sport Center, some of the athletes would have none of that sentimentality.

“I enjoy it, but I’m here to win,” said Ron Segal, 24, a sprinter from Hod Hasharon. Today, he works at McDonald’s in a framework for people with special needs, but he aspires to become a professional athlete. He had struggled in Israel’s foster system until he was adopted at age 7, attending schools with inclusion programs. While he was in 10th grade, a scout for the Special Olympics took notice of him. With his leg muscles built for a sprinter and a natural talent, Harish believes he is one to watch.

Having won gold in the long-jump competition in Athens, Segal won’t be satisfied with just another gold medal. He dreams of running down a certain Jamaican world record holder.

“My goal is to go far beyond Special Olympics,” Segal said. “It’s to outrun Usain Bolt.”