British and Israeli veterans face off in fierce but friendly sporting competition

Dozens of disabled British military veterans and their families arrived in Israel this week for three days of swimming, marksmanship and CrossFit-inspired athletics against their Israeli counterparts.

The privately funded and organized Veterans Games competition was held at Tel Aviv’s Beit Halochem, or Warrior’s House, a sprawling campus in the city’s north that is run for and typically by injured veterans. of the Israel Defense Forces. Similar centers can be found in major cities across the country, and indeed Israeli participants in this year’s event have come from Jerusalem, Beersheba and elsewhere.

Although the competitors, all of whom had some form of disability related to their military service, pushed their limits during the games, the atmosphere was unmistakably and obviously warm and friendly. In swimming competitions, the person who came in last place was as likely to receive applause from the small crowd as first place.

“The atmosphere here is electric,” said Leo Docherty, the UK’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for People and Defense Veterans, who came to Israel for the games.

A total of around 200 people from the UK – including 65 participants and the rest their families – took part in the event. The Israelis had a similar number of competitors but far fewer spectators as the games were held during the working day.

For some veterans, the sports they participated in were not ones they had a lot of experience in.

Mandy Small, a veteran of Britain’s Royal Air Force and one of 65 British competitors, said she chose to compete in the swimming events on Monday because there was no more room in the shooting competition precision that day. When asked if she swam regularly, the Suffolk native simply shook her head and laughed. She nevertheless won the silver medal in the women’s 50-meter breaststroke.

“I am a runner. And I do yoga. Running is the best medicine,” said Israeli Itay Levy, who competed in the CrossFit-inspired competition. (CrossFit is a specific brand of high-intensity fitness regimen, although it has become an umbrella term for high-intensity workouts.)

A competitor lifts a bar during a CrossFit-inspired competition as part of the British-Israeli Veterans Games in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Levy, who is short, did not medal in this meet but said he still enjoys the challenge. The competition consisted of several stations set up around a basketball court, and competitors mostly performed two-part activities, such as lifting a barbell 10 times, then sprinting back and forth across the court and repeating the lift, or simpler exercises like repeatedly jumping on and off. of a 20 inch box.

“I run. I do aerobics. It’s anaerobic exercise, with muscles. I don’t do it a lot, it’s a shame. But I did my best and gave it my all,” Levy said with a shy smile.

A competitor lifts a weight during a CrossFit-inspired competition as part of the British-Israeli Veterans Games in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Ido Lazan, who organized the CrossFit-esque part of the games, noted the difficulty of choosing the format of the different stations. It aimed to make it challenging enough for competitors who have experience with this type of exercise but accessible enough for newcomers.

“We wanted it to be something for professionals to beginners, something that could be done in a short time, two to three minutes per station, something that would bring out sportsmanship. We wanted it to be competitive, but not crazy,” said Lazan, who is also a member of Beit Halochem, having been injured in a terrorist attack in January 2016.

Lazan said that due to the different disabilities of the participants, the judges had to know how to adapt a station to the person if necessary – but only if it was strictly necessary or requested.

“I told the judges that they had to push the contestants and not let them give up, but also ask – sensitively – if they needed something to adapt to their needs,” he said.

One participant in the CrossFit-inspired competition, for example, was in a wheelchair and another had lost his hand. Second place in the competition was Achiya Klein, a former combat engineering officer who was permanently blinded when he accidentally detonated a hidden explosive device while his unit worked to destroy a terror tunnel from the Gaza Strip to Israel. in 2013. Klein, who represented Israel at the Paralympic Games, needed additional touch direction to complete some stations.

Achiya Klein, center, receives a silver medal for the CrossFit-inspired competition as part of the British-Israeli Veterans Games in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

It was the second time that Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv hosted the British-Israeli Veterans Games. The first was in 2019, but the games scheduled for 2020 and 2021 did not take place due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The event was launched in part out of frustration over Israel’s exclusion from the UK’s Invictus Games, an initiative launched by the country’s Prince Harry in 2014, which brought together injured veterans from around the world to confront.

Spencer Gelding, the head of Beit Halochem: UK, which raises funds for Israeli facilities, told The Times of Israel that he had approached British officials about Israel’s participation in the Invictus Games – Israel having a long history of involvement in the Paralympic Games and similar initiatives – but it has been repeatedly albeit politely rebuffed.

In 2020, Israel was rumored to be set to participate in the Invictus Games, but this was met with fierce opposition from anti-Israel activists, and in any case the games were canceled this year. there due to COVID-19. Gelding said he would be surprised if Israel were invited to participate when the games were renewed.

Competitors practice their rifles on targets during a marksmanship competition as part of the British-Israeli Veterans Games in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Undeterred, Gelding worked to set up the British-Israeli Veterans Games, contacting various groups of British veterans to find participants.

Asked about Israel’s participation in the upcoming Invictus Games, Docherty, the British parliamentary representative, cleverly avoided giving a definitive answer, instead emphasizing the importance of the British-Israeli Veterans’ Games.

“I would love to see Israel take part in the Invictus Games. But this event is really very special. If I were another foreign country, I would want to be involved in this,” he told The Times of Israel on the sidelines. competitions.

Although Docherty attended the games, the British government was not officially involved in any part of them, merely “endorsing” them, which he and Gelding saw as a positive thing.

“We endorse it, which demonstrates the deep relationship between countries and the military. But it’s good that it’s private, that we don’t oppose the philanthropic enterprise,” Docherty said.

Gelding raised funds for the event from private donors, separate from his fundraiser for Beit Halochem. “[Israeli veterans] shouldn’t get less because of it,” he said.

Medalists pose together as part of the British-Israeli Veterans Games in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The Veteran Games event extends beyond the competitions themselves, which only take place in the morning. In the afternoon and evening, the approximately 200 British participants and their families were taken through Israel for cultural visits, which Gelding considers one of the key elements of the event. The games are not only a way to show appreciation for British and Israeli military veterans, but are also a way for Gelding to expose Britons to Israel in a more positive light.

Indeed, Small, the breaststroke silver medalist, said – off the cuff – that she had been struck by the Israeli heat and planned to return.

Small said this was especially true for Israeli participants. Even on the first day of the competition, the Israelis dressed in blue and the British dressed in red were easily seen having fun, encouraging each other and sharing their experiences.

“You only hear about bad things. But there is a kindness to people,” she said.

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