Against the tide

It’s a long and hard road for any Olympic athlete, yet arguably for those taking part in the Paralympic Games, the road is harder and longer. 

But this daunting task did not deter the 33 athletes of the Israeli delegation from making the long trip to Tokyo and competing in 11 sports. Most memorable of all our athletes is Iyad Shalabi –  the first ever Israeli-Arab to win a medal in these games: And what a medal it was: Iyad came home with the gold! 

Iyad is a Muslim from the northern town of Shfaram – an Arab city which according to the Talmud was one of the cities that contained the Jewish Sanhedrin during the second century. 

Iyad was born deaf. When he was 12, he tragically fell off a roof. The accident rendered him severely disabled. In Paralympic sports there is a range of classifications depending on the disability, with S1 being the most severe. Iyad who is paralysed from the waist down falls in the category of S1.  

The 34-year old is no stranger to the Israeli public. We had already had an opportunity to learn what it actually demanded from him to set out on his remarkable road to achievement through a 2017 documentary. ‘Swimming Against the Current’ which was directed and produced by fellow Arab Assel Abu Hjoul, was screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival that year. The film followed his hopes, his dreams, his frustrations and sheer grit as he prepared for the World Championships in Glasgow. No one who saw the film could remain uninspired and indifferent, or be unaware how his participation in sports fought off depression, hopelessness, and boosted his self-esteem

The jubilation and sense of national pride that the backstroke swimmer gifted us all with, prompted President Herzog to call him and thank him for his fantastic achievement, noting that he brought great honour to the State of Israel.

For Arab and Jew, Iyad symbolises hope and tenacity. Even though this was his fourth Olympics – in which he always finished in fourth place – he never gave up.

Along with the successes of gymnasts in the able-bodied Olympics, his triumph has also sparked enthusiasm among the public and politicians to invest more money into sports. Chili Tropper, the Culture and Sport Minister encapsulated the national feeling when he said,  “Iyad is an inspiring man whose life is full of victories, and today he delivered another brilliant victory. Iyad was not frightened by the high expectations and filled us all with great pride.” 

In these frustrating months of lockdown whereby energy and activity are at an all-time low, the triumph of Iyad and his fellow athletes are not just personal victories or national achievements, but motivate us all to want to get fit. Israelis are no different than other populations who have spent too many a month glued in front of Netflix to while away Covid-19. 

Iyad has set the example. Just as sport is  beneficial for his mental and physical well-being, it is also good for ours. It is no secret that excellence and participation in any sport – no matter our age – fosters unity and brings home the reality that at the end of the day, Israeli Arab and Jew are both on the same team.