From tragedy to a golden day

By Marcus Dysch, September 13, 2012

The bunting has been packed away; the athletes have flown home and the stadiums are being dismantled - but there is a corner of the Olympic Park that is forever Israel.

The scenes as Noam Gershony won the country's only gold medal of either Games were breathtaking. When the Israeli Olympians went home without even one medal, expectation fell on the shoulders of the lesser-known Paralympians.

Noam, 29, who sheepishly wandered around an Israeli Embassy reception on the eve of the Games, could hardly have imagined he would return home a national hero.

So often in London, the simple mention of Israel sparks to life groups driven by a hatred reserved only for the Jewish state. To hear the Hatikvah playing on centre court on the penultimate day of the Games was the perfect antidote. Here, at the very heart of this sensational, sizzling summer of sport, were Israelis waving their flag, singing "chai, chai, Yisrael" and saluting their new golden boy.

As the chants rang out across Eton Manor - site of the Paralympic tennis tournament - the modest former helicopter pilot dipped his head and took repeated deep breaths in an attempt to take on board the enormity of what he had just achieved.

Hearing the Hatikvah was a perfect antidote

The Paralympics have been decorated with endless stories of utterly remarkable achievement. The sight of a Ukrainian swimmer winning a backstroke race despite having no arms, or the sound of the tough, hard men in the wheelchair rugby slamming their chairs into their opponents, affects not only your head, but your heart.

Everyone will have their own moments of unadulterated astonishment from the Games; mine was following Noam. Amid the unparalleled British sporting success, it was an Israeli who stole my heart. Everything about his story is fascinating, almost miraculous. The fact that he survived the devastating helicopter crash that killed his co-pilot during the 2006 Lebanon War; the fact he recovered from his horrific injuries; the fact that, having taken up wheelchair tennis merely as a form of rehabilitation, he went on to dominate opponent after opponent the world over, racing up the rankings to qualify for the Paralympics before ultimately winning gold with the steady nerves and classy shots that you'd expect from a Games veteran, not a rookie.

Like most people, when it comes to a success story, I want in on it. But this was more than just jumping on a bandwagon. Noam's tale gripped me completely, creating a situation where I found myself telling friends and colleagues: "We're going to win the gold". "We", Britain? No, "we" Israel. "We", Noam and us mortals, his supporters.

For a dedicated sports fan, it is a peculiar feeling to find yourself in the stands passionately cheering on competitors from a country other than your own. But this was the Paralympics - the rules were different.

My emotional attachment was not simply due to Noam being from Israel - a country I am naturally inclined to support. Partly, it was due to him being just two days younger than me. If ever there was an opportunity to think about parallel lives and what-ifs and what might-have-beens, this was it.

With the gold medal round his neck, Noam slowly passed by the line of international journalists hanging on his every word. Then, with his mother next to him beaming with pride, he took a call from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - a man familiar with personal military tragedy.

Exactly what passed between the two in that private moment we'll never know but, almost certainly, prominent in Noam's mind was the memory of that fateful night near the Lebanese border and how it brought both tragedy and triumph into his life.

There, encapsulated in one young-man-turned-reluctant-superstar, was the embodiment of the Paralympics' astonishing spirit.

Marcus Dysch is a JC reporter

Last updated: 3:33pm, September 13 2012