50 years ago...
It is not widely known that the continuity of the Paralympic Games had been in peril after the second Paralympic Summer Games, formerly known as the 13th International Stoke Mandeville Games, were held in Tokyo in 1964.
Mexico City, the host city of the 1968 Olympic Games, had agreed to host the Paralympic Games, but with two years to go, the Mexican government backed out of their commitment to host the Paralympic Games because of technical difficulties. That was a critical moment for the Paralympic Movement as it was uncertain whether or not the Paralympic Games can continue to exist.
Eventually, it was Israel who came to the rescue. Ramat Gan, a city in the Tel Aviv district in Israel, volunteered to host the Paralympic Games instead of Mexico City. Israel's offer was motivated by its wish to mark the 20th anniversary of its independence. It had won 62 medals, including 18 gold and 21 silver, which made them third in the medal tally only after the USA and Great Britain. It was a remarkable result for a country with a population of only 2.8 million at the time. (Japan won 10 medals in the Tokyo 1964 Games including one gold in the Paralympic Games, and 12 medals in the Ramat Gan 1968 Games including 2 gold medals in the Paralympic Games.)
How did Israel win so many medals in the Paralympic Games when it took them so much longer to win a medal in the Olympic Games at Barcelona 1992 Games?
We asked Mr. Ron Bolotin, sport manager of the Israel Paralympic Committee and a three-time Paralympic gold medalist who recently visited Japan for the second NPC Open Days event, about the secret behind its great success in the early years of the Paralympic Games.
Israel has hosted the Paralympic Games and has won a lot of medals, especially in the 60s and 70s. In that regard, Israel was no doubt one of the leading nations of the Paralympic Movement at the time. Would you tell us what was behind that achievement?
“First of all, the father of the Paralympic Movement was Dr. Ludwig Guttmann of Stoke Mandeville who was Jewish. Israel celebrated their independence in 1948. After the first Stoke Mandeville Games, he came to Israel and was involved in the initiation of many activities related to the Paralympic Movement and Para sports. At the time, there were a lot of veterans with an impairment in Israel as many had fought in the war for independence. So many of the Paralympic athletes in the beginning were military veterans. There were also many survivors of polio, a disease that widely spread at that time. During the beginning of the first year of independence, the prime minister of Israel discovered that sport could be a very good rehabilitation tool, and that is how sport for people with an impairment became widespread in the early years of Israel. In other words, Israel was one of the pioneers. We won a lot of medals. Since the Paralympic Games at the time was more of an amateur sport rather than the elite sport it is today, Israel was very successful. One of the secrets was because we were one of the first nations, and we had an advantage. That is one of the main reasons that we were able to win so many medals between the 60s and 80s. Today, as you know, Paralympic sport has become a high-level elite sport, and so many countries have embraced the idea and the values of the Paralympic Games. It is getting very tough to reach the top.”
Mr. Bolotin took part in six Paralympic Games between Arnhem 1980 Games and Sydney 2000 Games as a swimmer and won 11 medals, including 3 gold and 5 silver. After that, he continued to participate as a delegate in the next four Paralympic Games. The Tokyo 2020 Games would be his eleventh Games. He is one of the few persons who have witnessed the huge change in the Paralympic Games in the last 40 years. Though Israel hasn't won as many medals as it used to, it does not necessarily mean a negative thing for him. He rather finds more positive aspects, which is the sophistication and the growing popularity of Paralympic sports.
“I have seen many changes over the last 40 years from 1980. It has become a totally different movement and totally different sports. The coverage of the media now has become unbelievable. It is amazing what has happened. Now it is a really elite sport with a lot of public awareness. I think this is good, first of all for the athletes, then for the nations. I am sure that it will also have a wonderful impact on Japan to host the Tokyo 2020 Games because it will change the society's view toward impairments, toward people with an impairment, about accessibility and so on.”
To improve the performance of Paralympic athletes, Mr. Bolotin says it is becoming more and more important to encourage young athletes to start Paralympic sport from a younger age as it has become highly competitive.
“To be an elite athlete today, it would be difficult if you do not start playing sport as a young kid. If you were a veteran with an impairment and start a Para sport at the age of 20 or 25, it is unlikely that you would become an elite athlete. I was wounded during my military service and became an amputee, but I had been a competitive swimmer before I was wounded. For that reason, I became a competitive athlete in the Paralympic Games. However, if an adult person who wasn't an elite athlete before becoming wounded, it is very difficult to reach a higher level. Now we are looking for kids in Israel to start engaging in sport at an early age. I think it is one of the main values of the Paralympic Games that every young kid and youth with an impairment can play sports.”
His other focus for the improvement of the Israeli Paralympic team is technology, which Israel is known to be very good at and is expected to be a next big issue in Paralympic sport.
“Technology is a main part or a big part in sport, especially in Paralympic sport. I think technology will be an important aspect in the improvement of the Paralympic Movement you can't see beyond. It will be really a crucial thing for training and for competition. We, in Israel, have good experience in new technology and innovation and now we are trying to use these for our athletes because there are a lot of start-ups and high-tech companies in Israel that are willing to be involved in Paralympic sports and Olympic sports to help make the extra change for athletes to be better in training and competition. We have now a new department for technology in our Paralympic Committee. We have an excellent new centre in the University of Tel Aviv which will be specialising in Paralympic and Olympic sports. We put a lot of effort in the last few years. In the Paralympic Movement, you see that the technology was one of the main issues that everybody is talking about. But we are making a big change and it will be the next step.”
Did the successful results of 1968 Paralympic Games have a great impact on Israeli society and leave a legacy?
“If Israel hosts the Games today, it will be totally different. But I think in 1968, it didn't make such a big impact on society. A lot of people in Israel did not know that the Games were taking place in their home country in 1968. I was a young kid and it made an impact in those few years because there was something in school, a legacy for use, but it didn't make such a big impact. There was no awareness of accessibility then. But today, there is a big change in Israel about accessibility and inclusion and so on. There have been changes in the last few years in Israel. Sometimes it is through Paralympic athletes as we have some role models that won medals in the Games and they call on the media to change the attitude toward people with an impairment.”
In the Rio 2016 Games, Israel won three bronze medals which Mr. Bolotin was not satisfied with. He aims for a better result in the Tokyo 2020 Games and beyond. But what he expects the most from Tokyo 2020 Games is the atmosphere where all the athletes can enjoy.
“I am sure that Japanese people like sport so I think there will be a good atmosphere during the Games. It will be an organised Games. I hope a lot of people will come to the Games and pack the competition venues. Sometimes there is not such a big crowd in some countries, but there is no doubt that there will be a good atmosphere at the competitions during the Tokyo 2020 Games.
Rio wasn't so good for us as we only won three medals. To improve our performance in Tokyo, we would have young generations, new athletes, especially swimmers. It will be the first ever Games for these young athletes so I think this will bring a change for the team. We hope we will have more young athletes and more medals than the last Games. I also hope that the Tokyo 2020 Games will change people's attitude and awareness. It is getting better in Israel, but awareness of Paralympic sports, I hope, will be a catalyst for a greater change, so I think this is our goal for the Tokyo 2020 Games.”