„The philosophy of Jewish Paralympics founder Ludwig Guttmann strongly influences Israel“

Athletes injured by war and terror and a Jewish Paralympics founder: Katharina Kunert spoke to the head of the “Israel Sports Center for the Disabled.”Israel is currently ranked 21st in the Tokyo2020 Paralympics medal table: Not exactly a leading Paralympic nation, is it? Wrong: In fact, it is impossible to imagine the history of the Paralympics without this small country in the Middle East. 

The founder of the Paralympic Games and their predecessors, the Stoke Mandeville Games, was the German-Jewish neurologist Ludwig Guttmann, who maintained a close relationship with the Jewish state throughout his life. It was Guttmann who, in 1968, brought the Paralympic Games to Israel: After the first Paralympics were held in Rome in 1960 and the second games took place in Tokyo in 1964, four years later, Israel became the third nation to host the Paralympics.

This makes Israel the only country in the world to have hosted the Paralympic Games, but not the Olympics.

As one of the fifteen countries that participated in the first Paralympics and continued to place a strong focus on Para sports in the years and decades that followed, Para sports still play an important role in Israel today. The 1968 venue, in the city of Ramat Gan near Tel-Aviv, was the “Israeli Sports Center for the Disabled” (ISCD). In 2007, about 80 per cent of disabled people in Israel used the Center, which trains the highest percentage of children with physical disabilities worldwide. The Center was established in 1960 on the initiative of Ludwig Guttmann, whose daughter even sits on its board of directors. Today, it is the central facility in Israel that brings out successful Paralympic athletes.

Athletes such as Boaz Kramer, director of the facility and former Paralympian, who won a silver medal in wheelchair tennis in Beijing in 2008. The 43-year-old has been training at the ISCD since he was a child and now helps coordinate the training there.

Boas Kramer leitet das „Israeli Sports Center for the Disabled“.Foto: Promo

Tagesspiegel: Mr Kramer, how could a small nation such as Israel become a leader in Para sports so early on?

Boaz Kramer: It is precisely the country’s small size that is an advantage: a centrally located facility like our sports centre can be easily reached from almost all over the country. So if you are a child of five or six and have a disability, you almost certainly have access to a suitable sports program. That’s why I also started doing sports when I was a child. In addition, it also has to do with the special attention that Para sports receives from war veterans in Israel. And last but not least, it has to do with history: the volunteers who founded the centre in 1960 were pioneers in their field.

What impact did Paralympics founder Ludwig Guttmann being Jewish have on Israel’s relationship with Para sport? 

It had a direct impact because he planted the seed for this sports centre when he visited Israel. His philosophy that sport is an important tool for rehabilitation and that not only competitive sport, but also recreational sport is an engine for inclusion, strongly influences Israel. Of course, it was no coincidence that he visited Israel as a Jew: He had to emigrate to England during the Nazi era and probably felt a strong connection to the state of Israel, which was founded by Jews, for that reason as well.  

Israel is the only nation that has hosted the Paralympic Games but not the Olympics. Why do you think this is the case?

When the Paralympic Games were held in Israel in 1968, they were a lot smaller: 29 countries and 750 athletes participated then. So Israel’s limited capacity was sufficient for the Paralympic Games, unlike the Olympic Games, which are many times larger and were so even then. At this year’s Paralympics, however, 160 countries and 4,531 athletes are participating, so today, Israel would not have room for that either. But the reason is not just capacity: Because of Israel’s very special relationship with the Paralympics, it simply made sense in 1968 to host them in our country.

What role do terrorist attacks and war injuries play in the role of Para sports in Israel?

Unfortunately, war and terrorism are part of our life here, and it is not uncommon for those affected to sustain serious injuries with subsequent disabilities: War veterans and those injured in terror attacks play a major role in the development of Para sports in Israel. Not only for the development of the sport, but also for its recognition. Numerically, however, they are not the main source for Para sports. Most Para athletes in Israel have congenital disabilities. But Para athletes who are also war veterans or victims of terror simply attract more public attention.