Arab athletes join Israel’s Special Olympics team for first time

Two Israeli Arab tennis players to play alongside Jewish teammates this week in Athens as they strive for the gold.

Two Israeli Arab athletes will represent the country at the Special Olympics in Athens this year, for the first time in history.

Tennis players Muhammad Kunbar of East Jerusalem and Jafar Tawil from Beit Safafa, both 20, will strive for the gold this week alongside Elad Gevandschnaider, 22, of Be’er Sheva and Tamir Segal, 34, of Katzrin.

The Israel Tennis Center, under whose auspices Kunbar and Tawil have trained for the last five years, declared it an honor that the sport would be part of such a historical moment.

Kunbar and Tawil discovered their hidden skill with the help of physical education teacher, Mahmud Karay’in, during their studies at the al-Salam School in Beit Safafa.
Karay’in closely observed their physical progress during school sports lessons and encouraged them to play tennis.

He brought them to the Israel Tennis Center in Jerusalem to train and participate in competitions, giving them the opportunity to meet and work with many volunteers, teachers and coaches.

Kunbar and Tawil began training twice a week with a group from their school, under the guidance of coach Itamar Hen, and last February joined Segal and Gevandschnaider at a training camp at the Wingate Institute.

The athletes practiced with Shaya Azar, coordinator of tennis in the Special Olympics and director of the ITC branch in Ashkelon, and with Nadia Golbez, a coach at the ITC branch Jaffa, both of whom accompanied the players to the Olympics.

Azar lauded the center for giving the young men a chance to improve both their tennis and communication skills by playing with other athletes, both from the Special Olympics track as well as from the regular program.

“When training, they are often unified, meaning you take one player from Special Olympics, and one from the regular program and they play doubles,” said Azar. “You can see them getting better with communication on and off the court.”

Communication has been one of the main challenges for these athletes, said Azar, as their mental disabilities are at different levels.

Tawil does not speak Hebrew and he cannot read or write in Arabic, so his verbal communication is quite limited. Kunbar has a higher level of communication, according to Azar, and often serves as a translator between Tawil and the coaches.

“[Kunbar] helps me communicate with Jafar,” said Azar. “Having both of them together really helps with communication. They are both really good at tennis even though they started at a low level, and have gotten better and better.”

Making it to the Olympics

On May 12, 44 tennis players from the Israel Tennis Center’s branches across the country competed in the national championships in a bid to qualify for the Special Olympics.

Both Tawil and Kunbar finished first in their categories and were chosen to represent the country in the international competition, which is held once every four years.

“The competition was very professional, and played according to all the international rules,” said Azar. “This is the biggest competition we have organized in Israel, and I really hope we can keep on growing, and the number of participants will keep increasing.”

Gevandschnaider and Segal, the other two athletes representing Israel this week in Athens, are already national champions in their own right. Segal won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games in 2007 and the gold at the 2006 European Championships in Berlin.

Gevandschnaider, who trains at the ITC – Beer Sheva, is a volunteer soldier and won a silver medal at the European Championships in Poland this year.

The team was especially motivated by their fellow athletes’ inclusion in the Olympics, said Ilan Maman, the director of ITC-Jerusalem. Their standing in the most recent national tournaments improved following the announcement, he added.

“They are a great bunch of young men that enjoy every second they can spend on the court; they appreciate the center and they appreciate the coaches and the efforts of their school,” said Maman.

Although this is the first time Israeli Arabs have been chosen to represent the country in the Olympics, Azar said that the tennis center has always welcomed participation regardless of religious or linguistic differences.

“It’s for everyone,” he said.”I went here as a child more than 30 years ago. I would say 20 percent of the special needs athletes are Arabs.”

The Israel Tennis Center is funded both publicly and privately by Israeli citizens as well as patrons outside the country.

The Jerusalem municipality fields many of the other costs for the 84-athlete team, their 30 coaches and many volunteers, including shuttle services to practice, equipment, and flights and accommodations.

Some 7,000 will represent 165 countries at the Olympics this year. The Israeli team might be surprised to see just how big this event is, said Azar.

“I’m very proud to go with them. I hope to bring medals back to Israel, and I think that the opportunity to go with these athletes is a gift from God,” he said. “I hope to give them back what they give me. To work with these athletes makes you a different person.”