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Up To The Challenge

Up To The Challenge

Three days after the Olympic torch in the center of Turin was extinguished last week, marking the end of the XX Winter Olympics, another Olympic torch relay began in the streets of Italy.

This torch is part of the Paralympics (the "parallel Olympics" for the physically challenged) that will be held in Turin and the nearby Alps March 10-19.

The Paralympics, a 56-year-old sporting institution, at first glance are not a Jewish event; few of this year’s participating athletes are known to be Jewish.

But the Paralympics have a strong Jewish connection: they were founded by Ludwig Guttman, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.

Guttman, a prominent neurosurgeon, had served as a medical orderly in World War I and later trained in Breslau. In 1939 he left his homeland and received an invitation to serve as director of the National Spinal Injuries Center at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital, a major medical center in Buckinghamshire, England.

He stressed the use of sports as therapy for soldiers who suffered spinal injuries in World War II, and organized competitions between nearby hospitals and rehabilitation centers.

From those competitions, archery and tennis originally, grew the Paralympics. Formerly known as the International Games for the Disabled, they have taken place every Olympic year since 1960 in their current, highly competitive form, usually in the host country of the Olympics.

The Paralympics, now the second-largest sporting event in the world, have become the public face of disabled athletics, introducing such innovations as specialized wheelchairs for racing. The competitions are open to the blind, paraplegics, amputees, and those with cerebral palsy or other physical limitations.

The winter games, started in 1976, feature such events as skiing, wheelchair curling and ice-sledge hockey. About 600 athletes from 41 lands will participate at Turin.

"Let us encourage these great athletes who will inspire you," International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said during the closing ceremony at the Turin Olympics.

The summer Paralympics include such sports as track and field, lawn bowling, cycling and weightlifting. Some 3,800 athletes from 136 countries competed at Athens in 2004.

Guttman, known by friends as "Poppa," was honored for his work by England, 18 other countries and the Olympic movement. He earned the title "the de Coubertin of the Paralyzed": Pierre de Coubertin was the founder of the modern Olympics.

While working at a Jewish hospital in Breslau, Guttman ordered any male who showed up on Kristallnacht, Nov. 10, 1939, to be admitted without question, keeping them out of the Nazis’ hands. The SS showed up the next day, asking why so many people had been admitted in one night. Thinking quickly, Guttman went from bed to bed, inventing maladies for each "patient."

His action saved more than 60 men from concentration camps.

Guttman left Germany soon thereafter.

In England he became a recognized expert in rehabilitation, founding the British Sports Association of the Disabled as well as the International Stoke Mandeville Games, forerunner of the Paralympics.

He died in 1980 at 80, the day after returning to England from a visit to Egypt.

The Paralympics were hosted once in the New York City area (in 1984 at Mitchell Park Field in Uniondale, L.I.), and once in Israel (in 1968, when scheduling difficulties arose in Mexico City).

Israelis have entered the summer Paralympics since 1953, when they were still held annually in England.

While Israel’s able-bodied athletes have had limited success in the Olympics, winning just six total medals, including one gold, the country’s representatives in the Paralympics have fared much better.

Since 1960, Israelis have won 274 medals in the Paralympics, 90 of them gold.

Israel has developed an international reputation for its treatment of the disabled, many of them injured in wars or terrorist attacks.

The Israel Sports Association for the Disabled conducts a wide range of activities, in such sports as basketball, tennis, volleyball, badminton, table tennis, shooting, riding, archery, swimming and sailing.

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