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 competition was held at Tel Aviv’s Beit Halochem, or Warrior’s House, a sprawling campus in the north of the city that’s run for and typically by wounded Israel Defense Forces veterans. Similar centers can be found in major cities throughout the country, and indeed Israeli participants in this year’s event came in from Jerusalem, Beersheba and elsewhere.
Though the competitors, all of whom had some form of disability from their military service, pushed themselves to the limit during the games, the atmosphere was unquestionably and palpably warm and friendly. In swim meets, the person coming in last place was as likely to receive applause from the small crowd as the first-place finisher.
“The atmosphere here is electric,” said Leo Docherty, the UK’s parliamentary under-secretary of state for defense people and veterans, who came to Israel for the games.
In total, roughly 200 people from the UK — 65 of them 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 workday.
For some of the veterans, the sports they competed in were not ones in which they had much experience.
Mandy Small, a veteran of the UK’s Royal Air Force and one of the 65 British competitors, said she chose to take part in the swimming events on Monday because there was no more room in the marksmanship competition on that day. When asked if she swam regularly, the Suffolk native just shook her head and laughed. She nevertheless took the silver medal in the women’s 50-meter breaststroke.
“I’m a runner. And I do yoga. Running is the best medicine,” said Israeli Itay Levy, who took part in the CrossFit-inspired competition. (CrossFit is a specific brand of high-intensity fitness regimen, though it has become a generic term for high-intensity workouts.)
Levy, who is slight of stature, did not take home a medal in that competition, but said he still enjoyed the challenge. The competition consisted of multiple stations set up around a basketball court, and competitors mostly did two-part activities, like lifting a barbell 10 times then sprinting back and forth across the court and repeating the lift, or simpler exercises like jumping repeatedly onto and off of a 20-inch box.
“I run. I do aerobic exercise. This is anaerobic exercise, with muscles. I don’t do that very much, which is a shame. But I tried my best and gave it my all,” Levy said with a shy smile.
Ido Lazan, who organized the CrossFit-esque portion of the games, noted the difficulty in choosing the format of the different stations. He aimed to make it challenging enough for the competitors who have experience with this type of exercise but accessible enough for newcomers.
“We wanted it to be something for professionals to first-timers, something that could be done in a short time, two to three minutes per station, something that would make the sportsmanship stand out. We wanted it to be competitive, but not crazy,” said Lazan, who is also a member of Beit Halochem, having sustained injuries in a January 2016 terror attack.
Lazan said that due to the varying disabilities of the participants, judges had to be aware of how they could adapt a station to the person if needed — but only if it was strictly necessary or requested.
“I told the judges that they had to push the participants and not let them give up, but also to ask — sensitively — if they needed something to be adapted to their needs,” he said.
One participant in the CrossFit-inspired competition, for instance, was in a wheelchair, and another had lost his hand. The second-place finisher in the competition was Achiya Klein, a former combat engineering officer who was permanently blinded when he accidentally triggered a hidden explosive device while his unit was working to destroy a terror tunnel from the Gaza Strip into Israel in 2013. Klein, who has represented Israel in the Paralympic Games, required some additional, tactile direction in order to complete some stations.
This was the second time the Tel Aviv Beit Halochem has hosted the British-Israeli Veterans Games. The first was in 2019, but the games planned for 2020 and 2021 were not held due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The event was started in part out of frustration over Israel’s exclusion from the UK’s Invictus Games, an initiative started by the country’s Prince Harry in 2014, which brought together wounded veterans from around the world to compete against one another.
Spencer Gelding, the head of Beit Halochem: UK, which raises money for the Israeli facilities, told The Times of Israel he’d approached British officials about Israel taking part in the Invictus Games — Israel having a long history of involvement in the Paralympics and similar initiatives — but he was repeatedly though politely rebuffed.
In 2020, Israel was meant to participate in the Invictus Games but this was met with fierce opposition by anti-Israel activists and in any case, the games were canceled that year due to COVID-19. Gelding said he’d be surprised if Israel were invited to participate when the games renew.
Undeterred, Gelding worked to set up the British-Israeli Veterans Games, reaching out to various British veterans groups to find participants.
When asked about Israel competing in the next Invictus Games, Docherty, the UK parliamentary representative, deftly avoided giving a definitive answer, instead stressing the importance of the British-Israeli Veterans Games.
“I would love to see Israel competing 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 of the competitions.
Though Docherty attended the games, the British government was not formally involved in any part of it, only “endorsing them,” which both he and Gelding saw as a positive thing.
“We endorse it, which demonstrates the deep relationship between the countries and militaries. But it’s good that it is private, that we do not stand in the way of philanthropic enterprise,” Docherty said.
Gelding raised the money for the event from private donors, separately from his fundraising for Beit Halochem. “[Israeli veterans] shouldn’t be getting less because of this,” he said.
The Veterans Games event extends beyond the competitions themselves, which are only held in the mornings. In the afternoons and evenings, the 200 or so British participants and their families were taken around Israel for cultural tours, which Gelding sees as one of the key components 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 British people to Israel in a more positive light.
Indeed, Small, the breaststroke silver medalist, said — unprompted — that she was struck by the warmth of Israelis and planned to come back.
Small said this was particularly true of the Israeli participants. Even on the first day of the competition, the blue-wearing Israelis and red-wearing Brits were seen easily palling around, cheering for one another and sharing experiences.
“You only ever hear about the bad things. But there’s a kindness to the people,” she said.