Heavy medals

Itzik Mamistvalov’s motion through the water is not so much graceful as it is miraculous. His legs practically paralyzed, his crippled left arm held against his belly, Mamistvalov somehow manages to propel himself through the pool at Beit Halohem in Tel Aviv – with just one good arm, and the heart of a champion.

While his unusual form and soft, pudgy build will never be mistaken for the silky stroke or chiseled physique of the elite athletes who will gather in Beijing this August for the 29th Olympiad, Mamistvalov has something most of them will never have: a world record.

The 29-year-old has overcome the cerebral palsy that confines him to a wheelchair to become a European champion, a world champion, a Paralympic champion. He drives a car. He has a serious girlfriend. He holds a degree in accounting and two coaching certificates from the Wingate Institute. He is one of several Israelis with a good chance of bringing home a medal from this summer’s Paralympic Games, following the Olympic festival that billions around the world will be watching. But none of that makes him equal in the eyes of the state.

When windsurfer Gal Fridman won Olympic gold at the Athens games in 2004, then-sports minister Limor Livnat flew to Greece to congratulate him, awarding him NIS 250,000 for his achievement. Dror Cohen, who was paralyzed in an injury suffered during his service as an IAF fighter pilot, received half that amount for winning Paralympic gold in sailing. No explanation for the discrepancy has been offered in public, but Mamistvalov’s coach Noah Ram says he got one in private.

“When I asked why there was a difference in the prize money that Gal was awarded and that Itzik was awarded for winning gold in Athens,” says Ram, “Livnat said, ‘Itzik swims with one arm. Gal surfs with two arms and two legs.'”

Israeli handicapped athletes have overwhelmingly exceeded the accomplishments of their able-bodied counterparts, winning nearly 300 medals in Paralympics competition, compared to just six Olympic medals. Yet these athletes have received only a fraction of the funding that “regular” athletes receive. Of the NIS 10 million in the Israel Olympic Committee’s budget for Beijing preparations, some NIS 900,000 goes to supporting handicapped athletes’ training.

This month, the Union for Handicapped Sport in Israel and the Israel Paralympics Committee petitioned the High Court of Justice to order the Israel Olympic Committee and the Science, Culture and Sports Ministry to apportion them an equal share of the pie. Justice Edmund Levy ordered the sides to work things out, saying that if they couldn’t come to an agreement in four months, he’d be forced to rule on a new arrangement.

“They complain that we get too much, that we’re discriminating against them, that we’re in the wrong. But we are not the financing body. The state is supposed to finance them, not us,” says Israel Olympic Committee spokeswoman Michal Shahaf. “Still, we decided to give them NIS 900,000 from our budget. But, look, as far as we’re concerned, they should get NIS 20 million. It just shouldn’t come at our expense.”

Ram, who was present at the hearing and is one of the more outspoken representatives of the community, appreciates the implied support the court gave to the handicapped athletes, but notes that Levy’s ultimatum “won’t help us in time for Beijing.” That means Ram will have to continue to seek out donors to help pay for equipment, because he is embarrassed to outfit his athletes in out-of-date swimsuits. But for others, it could mean the difference between a gold medal and no medal at all.

The Science, Culture and Sports Ministry says it “is working hard to significanly increase the budgets for sports for those with special needs, including a reevaluation of the criteria for the distribution of funds. Minister Galeb Majadle has ordered his staff to increase the Paralympics budget to NIS 2 million.”

DORON SHAZIRI has already proven that he is one of the best shooters in the world. He has been competing since shortly after losing his left leg in Lebanon in 1987 when, during the course of his military service, he stepped on a land mine. Now he is heading to his fifth Paralympics, having already collected silver and bronze medals in the 1996, 2000 and 2004 games. But the bull’s-eye in his free rifle competition is only 10 millimeters across – smaller than a one shekel coin – so the margin of error is minuscule. And since his training is hampered by financial constraints, he isn’t taking anything for granted.

“I would prefer to train more often, and to travel to more competitions,” he says. “If I did, I would be better, without a doubt. Yes, I am good, and I have won medals. But you can’t rely on talent alone.”

Shaziri settles in for a four-hour training session in Herzliya, one of only two or three he is able to manage each week. That’s half as many as the members of the able-bodied shooters, he notes, but he can’t afford to do it more often. No one repays him for his time away from work, designing custom wheelchairs for handicapped athletes.

“I don’t even get the stipend that I’m supposed to receive as a top-tier competitive athlete, because there’s no budget for it,” Shaziri says. “I’m not crying and whining, that’s just the situation for handicapped sport in Israel. I mean, apparently, sport just isn’t very important to the State of Israel. If no money is budgeted for it, what other conclusion can you draw?”

Without a major boost in funding, Israel may very well see talented handicapped athletes abandon their sports entirely. Shaziri has already seen it happen in his own sport, which requires a heavy investment in a highly specialized bolt-action rifle and other sophisticated, sport-specific equipment.

And it almost happened to the wheelchair basketball team last year, says coach Arik Pinto.

“There was a very deep crisis in the national team in early 2007,” Pinto recalls from his Tel Aviv office at Bank Hapoalim, “because the players felt very frustrated over the lack of support.”

For a decade, the hoopsters watched as teams around the world got bigger budgets, allowing them to devote their time solely to their sport and leading to a sharp increase in the level of professionalism in the game.

“Our players, meanwhile, were asked for increasing amounts of investment of their time and efforts, with very little in return,” Pinto explains. “They were getting reimbursed for travel, and a minimal stipend, but nothing more. Keep in mind that these are people who need to care for families. And even the single ones have to make a living…

“So they were ready to call it quits. They said, ‘Listen, you can’t treat this like it’s a country club. We’re representing the country! And we don’t feel comfortable going around the world and representing the country when we aren’t given the resources to invest ourselves in these efforts.'”

Pinto, who had been an assistant coach for the national team after taking Ramat Gan’s squad to the Israeli wheelchair basketball league championships, was asked to take over as coach and convince the players to stay. He did – offering to volunteer his time – on the condition that the players start receiving NIS 200 per training session.

“It wasn’t a lot, but it was something,” he says. “From that point on, I could come to the athletes and ask them to put more into this, because they were going to get more out of it.”

A few months later, the team took fourth place in the European championships where host Germany beat Israel in the bronze medal match, 69-56. (“And we did it with a budget of NIS 300,000, while Germany’s budget was 1 million euros,” Pinto points out.)

Now, with the Beijing Paralympics right around the corner, Israel’s wheelchair basketball team is among the top 12 in the world, and Pinto believes it has a good chance of finishing in the top five. Partly, he says, that is because of the support from sponsors like the Aroma coffeehouse chain, which has put player profiles on place mats. That’s a level of appreciation for handicapped sport that is all too rare in Israel – and one that could be remedied with increased exposure.

“The first time people see us play, they are kind of in shock. But very quickly they get into the game,” Pinto says. “It’s very exciting – and it’s a professional, competitive sport in every way.”

MORE THAN that, what most Israelis miss out on when handicapped sports remains “under the radar” is the stories of athletes like Shaziri and Mamistvalov, and dozens of others.

Shaziri, for example, exudes the kind of positive attitude that most able-bodied people would do well to adopt.

“Right after my injury my first thought was, ‘I wonder how my prosthesis will work,'” he says, leaning nonchalantly on the metal pole and prosthetic foot that prop him up. “Look, my leg isn’t going to just grow back. So what? Why should I remain disgruntled and depressed all my life?”

Mamistvalov, despite severe physical limitations, never stops smiling. He doesn’t pity himself, and he doesn’t limit himself. There are valuable lessons in his experience that can motivate anyone who isn’t numb to the pathos of an individual’s triumph of the spirit.

“It took me eight years to become a Paralympic champion, but I stuck with it and I did it,” he says. “I have learned never to give up on myself, and that, despite everything, you can go far. Really, you can go very, very far. I tell kids all the time, whatever you want to accomplish, you can. Nothing can stand in the way of your will.”

As a matter of pure athletic achievement, it’s difficult to view Mamistvalov’s painstaking results in the pool the same way as “regular” swimmers’ agile dashes through the water. But what makes sport so compelling – the reason we make heroes out of athletes – is often less about the technical skills they display than it is about the inspiring manner in which they persevere to overcome adversity.

If Olympians are heroic, then surely Paralympians are heroic, too. By discounting their achievements, though, Israel loses out on what they symbolize. It loses out on a set of heroes.

AT BEIT HALOHEM’S outdoor pool, Ram keeps a watchful eye on his athletes and cheers encouragement, but he is steaming with indignation as he talks through this situation. He joined the Paralympic squad only a few years ago, after more than four decades in the swim game. Back when he was on the other side of things, when he was coaching Olympians and turning children into champions, he saw all this much differently.

“I know that people don’t think anything of these athletes,” he says, “because, with my hand on my heart, I can tell you that I didn’t think anything of them either. But now I see how wrong I was then, and how wrong others are now.”

The establishment’s view of handicapped athletes is built on several errors, Ram says. One is the assumption that handicapped athletes don’t need as many resources to compete when, in fact, they need more.

“I can’t put Itzik on a plane by himself,” says Ram, “he needs a guide. And the ticket for that guide costs money; the hotel room for that guide costs money; the food for that guide costs money. Someone has to budget for that. And that’s just one athlete.”

Another claim is that “since the athletes compete in categories, according to the degree of their handicap, it’s easier to win medals. This ignores the fact that, even in regular competition, there are numerous sports in which the competitors are divided into weight classes, which amounts to the same thing.”

A third is that “since the handicapped only account for 10 percent of the population, they only deserve 10% of the funding. But an athlete is an athlete, and they all have to dedicate hours upon hours to training. Their proportional representation in the populace is irrelevant.”

(Additionally, the size of a country’s athletic delegation is determined by the athletes’ results in competition, not population. Israel’s Olympic and Paralympic squads will both number roughly 40 this year.)

Finally, Ram says, there is an unfair distinction between the accomplishments of able-bodied athletes and handicapped athletes.

“In England,” he says, “all athletes receive the same funding for their accomplishments, whether they are able-bodied or handicapped. In Israel, the best able-bodied athletes get a healthy stipend, while these athletes get nothing.

“Here’s a kid,” he says, pointing to a slender young man working his way through several kilometers of laps, “who volunteers in the army. The state says if he can afford to volunteer for the army, then he doesn’t need a stipend to continue his training. Can you believe the state can act like that?”

As it is, the Olympic Committee has a hard enough time keeping its own athletes in training. Several of the country’s top athletes and coaches have complained of the financial hardships they endure, while countless potential stars have given up their athletic dreams for jobs that can support them. The handicapped athletes, recognizing this, do not begrudge the able-bodied athletes their due. They just want a similar level of support.

“We deserve the same things that ‘healthy’ athletes get,” says Mamistvalov. “We are not ‘handicapped’ athletes, we are athletes. Why discriminate against us?”

“Sport is sport, no matter whether it’s handicapped, and it ought to be promoted,” adds Shaziri. “The state ought to be proud of its athletes’ accomplishments. After all, we’re proud to represent the country. Isn’t the country proud to be represented by us?”

Some of Israel’s finest

Shooting

Doron Shaziri

Leg amputated at the knee

2004 Paralympics: 2 bronze medals

2000 Paralympics: 1 silver

1996 Paralympics: 2 silvers

Swimming

Itzik Mamistvalov

Cerebral palsy

2006 World Championships: 3 golds

2004 Paralympics: 2 golds, 1 silver

Inbal Pezaro

Both legs paralyzed (birth defect)

2006 World Championships: 1 gold, 2 silvers

2004 Paralympics: 1 silver, 1 bronze

2002 World Championships: 1 gold

Keren Leibovitch (retired)

Partial paralysis in both legs

2004 Paralympics: 1 gold, 2 silvers, 1 bronze

2000 Paralympics: 3 golds

Sailing

Dror Cohen, Arnon Efrati, Benny Vexler

Paraplegic; amputed arm; amputated arm

2004 Paralympics: 1 gold

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