Charly Wegman, AFP
Last updated: 26 August, 2012

Israel looks to burnish glittering record at the London Paralympics

With a glittering record of more than 300 Paralympic medals, 113 of them gold, Israel is hoping that the upcoming London Games will help erase the memory of a lacklustre performance in the Olympics.

Forty-year-old Reuven Magnagey is up every day at the crack of dawn to say his prayers and eat a light breakfast before heading off to the nearby Yarkon River to train.

At the London Games, Magnagey will compete in the mixed double sculls, in the newly-added rowing category which was introduced for the first time at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.

For Magnagey, his career as a Paralympic athlete began several years after he was shot during a deadly clash with Palestinian militants during the second intifada, or uprising (2000-2005).

“Ten years ago, I was an engineer in industrial management, comfortably installed in my own office and somewhat overweight, when the army called me for emergency reserve duty,” he says, a wry smile on his face.

“At the time, there was a wave of suicide attacks hitting cafes, buses and hotels across Israel, and I found myself involved in a massive operation in Jenin refugee camp,” he said.

The 10-day operation which saw pitched battles between troops and militants in the northern West Bank city, ended with the deaths of 53 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers.

Although 13 of his colleagues died, Magnagey escaped with his life, although a bullet shattered his ankle.

After several complex operations and a long process of rehabilitation, he managed to pull through — thanks to his growing involvement in sports and the help of experts and psychologists at Beit HaLochem, a national network of rehabilitation centres where the disabled can participate in sports.

With major centres in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, Beit HaLochem serves tens of thousands of disabled army veterans with a focus on sports as a tool for rehabilitation and social reintegration.

This year, Magnagey is one of 25 Israelis who will represent the Jewish state in London in nine categories including cycling, skiff, wheelchair tennis, table tennis, marathon, shooting, equestrian, sailing and swimming.

“He is one of the great hopes of the Israeli delegation in London,” says Roni Bolotin, head of Israel’s Paralympic Committee.

“Half of them come from the army, including two former air force pilots and several of them are from elite combat units,” says Bolotin, a former Paralympic medalist, who lost a leg when a landmine exploded near him in the Sinai, and who also temporarily lost his eyesight.

For Bolotin, 56, who won 11 medals for swimming over a career spanning 20 years, Israel could play “the role of pioneer” in the field of Paralympic sports due to its widespread experience of rehabilitating veterans of the many wars it has experienced since its creation in 1948.

“This explains our success at the Paralympics, above all during the 1970s and 1980s,” he said, recalling that in 1968, the Games were held in Tel Aviv.

“Since then, there has been a huge increase in global awareness about the benefit of sport for therapy and re-education. And the competition has become much tougher in terms of professionalism,” he adds.

Despite growing interest in the games, government investment in training athletes remains low.

If Magnagey is able to make ends meet thanks to his disabled veterans pension, his rowing partner, Olga Sokolov, a 32-year-old single mother, is forced to support herself by working as a supermarket cashier.

Official figures show that some 750,000 Israelis are registered as having some form of disability, which represents around 10 percent of the population of 7.8 million.

Courage, endurance and determination are just some of the qualities which the Israeli team will need to exhibit in order to compete among the 4,200 athletes taking part in the Games from 166 countries.