Photos of Iranian and Israeli athletes together, not only smiling but actually hugging each other, became the unintentional symbol of this summer’s Special Olympics, which just ended in Los Angeles.
“Modeling a heartwarming example of sports diplomacy,” Good magazine reported about the budding friendship between the two sports teams.
Iranian athletes at other competitions have been ordered to withdraw from competition if their opponent would have been Israelis. But at the Special Olympics, well, something special happened.
The Israeli and Iranian teams broke the ice even before the competition, when they found themselves on the same transatlantic flight to California from Rome.
“We were sitting next to each other and it was a 12-hour flight,” the head of the Israeli delegation, Reuven Astrachan, told Good. “So what do you do for 12 hours? You talk. You talk to your neighbor.”
The Special Olympics Israel’s Facebook page was full of blue-and-white uniformed athletes alongside red-green-and-white clothed participants.
In addition to making new friendships, the Israeli contestants at the international event showed their prowess on the sports field and in the water. Israel’s 40-member delegation brought home 62 medals — 25 gold, 18 silver, and 19 bronze. With 6,500 athletes and 2,000 coaches representing 165 countries, the 2015 Special Olympics World Games — where athletes with intellectual disabilities compete in 32 Olympic-type sports according to level of prowess — was the largest sports and humanitarian event anywhere in the world this year.
Eliyahu Somer, a basketball player on the Israeli delegation, was one of seven athletes chosen to carry the Special Olympic torch during the last leg of the opening ceremony. It was handed off by an Iranian participant.
The Israeli team was able to participate only on the condition that the families raise one-third of the nearly NIS 1 million needed to send athletes and support staff to Los Angeles, and this was accomplished in part thanks to a widely shared Israel21c article about open-water swimmer Mati Oren, who won a gold and a bronze in Los Angeles.
Mati’s mother, Vicki, noted that the event was not only a showcase for athletic talent but also for an uncommon spirit of international camaraderie. In addition to widely publicized photos of Israeli and Iranian athletes arm in arm, Vicki Oren sent a photo of herself with a Libyan coach she befriended.
“What our athletes could teach the world leaders about respect, dignity, courage, pride and yes, peace!” she exclaims. “If they can do it, we can do it!”