When Israel hosted the Paralympics
Athletes on the track in Tel Aviv in 1968
For Israeli wheelchair basketball coach Reuven Heller, watching his team win gold at the November 1968 International Stoke Mandeville Games was special – not least because the medals were presented by Moshe Dayan, and the venue was Tel Aviv.
Nine days earlier, the Games – the forerunner of the Paralympics — had opened in Israel to great fanfare with parades and dancers, in front of 15,000 supporters.
The Opening Ceremony formed part of the country’s 20th birthday celebrations and took place at the Hebrew University Stadium in Jerusalem, a city that a little over a year before had been at the centre of the Six Day War.
That Israel ever hosted the Games was an accident of fate, due to the late decision by Mexico City, the host of that year’s Olympics, to pull out.
Facing the possibility that they would not go ahead, Mr Heller, then head coach at the Israel Sports Centre for the Disabled (ISCD), and his colleague Gershon Huberman, lobbied the Israeli government and international sporting community to hold them in Tel Aviv.
“Back then Israel was one of the most powerful countries on the international Paralympic committee,” said Boaz Kramer, ISCD chief executive and a silver medallist for wheelchair tennis at Beijing.
“Israel was one of the first countries to establish a full programme for disabled athletes in the 1950s, and Israel and the UK are the two countries with the longest tradition of wheelchair sports.”
Sir Ludwig Guttmann, the German-Jewish refugee doctor who organised the first games at Stoke Mandeville in 1948, had visited Israel in the 1950s as a guest of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.
“At the time there were two kinds of disabled people In Israel — war veterans and those who had had polio. Dr Guttmann said you have to give them the chance to play sports as part of their rehabilitation,” said Mr Heller.
“That’s what we did, and why we were more advanced than other countries.”
Dr Guttmann, who had been knighted in 1966 for his work at Stoke Mandeville, opened the Games with a speech made partly in Hebrew, and stayed for a month.
The Games, which brought together many athletes injured in Israel’s early wars, were a resounding success. Some 750 athletes came from 28 countries, including Jamaica, India, Argentina and South Korea, and as well as competing were taken to see sites in Jerusalem and the Galilee.
“We announced we were accepting athletes from Arab countries, but nobody appeared,” said Mr Heller.
“We did track and field, archery, snooker, basketball, fencing, the full schedule. It was a big rush to get everything organised, but it is the Israeli way to do something under pressure.”
“The Games were not as big as they are now,” said Dr Amichai Alperovich, an expert on Israeli sport at Haifa University.
“And already every four years Israel was hosting several thousand athletes for the Maccabiah Games, who were not disabled. So in terms of scale Israel was used to it and already had the infrastructure.”
Israel came third in the 1968 medal table, beaten only by the UK and the US. Hosting the Games had a lasting legacy for the Jewish state, which continued to dominate at the Paralympics throughout the 1970s.
“It was a very big boost,” said Mr Kramer. “In the 12 years that followed we had hundreds of new athletes coming through the gates and wanting to take part. For Israel, a very young country, to host such a big event and become very successful, was very special.”
“It gave us a big push and hundreds of new disabled [including those injured in the Six Day War] joined the sports in Israel,” added Mr Heller.
“More importantly, Israelis got to understand what we meant by sports for the disabled, because they hadn’t seen it before — then, it wasn’t on television. We had full courts of spectators; we arranged for schools to watch and gave the new generation a good sight of sport for the disabled.”
Today, few Israelis even remember the Games, said Dr Alperovich. “But in history it is written that in 1968 Israel hosted the Games,” he said.
“It’s a big achievement because even now it is rare for Israel to host any important international event.”