The Maccabiah Games aren’t just about brawn. This quadrennial sporting event is emphatically a showcase for strong-minded and able-bodied athletes, with a bit of Jewish pride sprinkled on top.
The 19th Maccabiah Games, set for July 18-30, are going to be a blow-your-socks-off kind of event, organizers said Tuesday at a press conference at the sprawling Maccabiah Village in Ramat Gan. At the very least, it’ll be the largest one to ever take place in Israel, with 9,000 athletes from 72 countries set to participate in one of four main categories (Youth, Open, Masters, and Paralympic). The event is the third-largest in the world, behind the Olympics and the FIFA soccer World Cup.
Gymnast Aly Raisman and swimmer Garrett Webber-Gale are two of the famous Jewish-American Olympic medalists coming for the hoopla; the former is joining as an honorary guest. Others from around the world, including Felipe Kitadai, an Olympic medalist in judo from Brazil; and Adam Kovacs, a Hungarian karate World Champion, are also joining the competition.
With an opening ceremony in Jerusalem replete with pyrotechnics (and for the young folks, Infected Mushroom, the quintessential Israeli band that reminds the world that strobe lights and trance music are still the style du jour in Israel); new sporting challenges — hockey for the first time in 16 years, open-water swimming, badminton, handball, and archery, to name a few; and a savvy social media campaign, the 2013 games are aiming to connect young Israelis and Diaspora Jews to each other and to the broader ethos of the games.
For example, when athletes from around the globe come to Israel for the matches, they don’t just compete; they tour the country, they mingle with their Jewish peers, they go to parties, and they learn about Jewish and Israeli history.
The Maccabiah Games — a worldwide athletic competition for Jewish and Israeli athletes conceived by Yosef Yekutieli, a 15-year-old Russian-Jewish immigrant living in Mandatory Palestine after the revelry and fever of the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games — were first staged in 1932. The games hark back to the days of the early Zionists, the pioneering, bold-spirited people searching for meaning and a home amid turmoil and statelessness. The competition was halted between 1938 and 1950 due to the rise of Nazism and World War II; today it’s become a symbol of the Jewish people’s strong will and survival.
“It brings out the best in us,” said David Blatt, the American-Israeli coach of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club, about the importance of the event. “It brings together the Jewish people, and their warmth and their ingenuity, and reconnects us.”
To help convince other Jewish athletes to partake this year, particularly those from the former Soviet Union, the Maccabiah Games recruited one of of Israel’s greatest athletes, Alexander Averbukh, a three-time Olympic athlete and former World Champion in pole vaulting (2002 and 2006).
Averbukh, who has a boyish face and bright-blue eyes, spoke to The Times of Israel about his recruitment initiative.
“Well, there are many Jews… But not as many Jews who do sports, at least not at this level,” he said, chuckling. It was an honor to be involved in the project, he said.
Another Israeli sweetheart, Olympic rhythmic gymnast Neta Rivkin, is helping raise the stakes of the event. Participating for the first time this year, Rivkin said she views the games as one of the main events in the Jewish world.
“I really hope all the Jewish athletes from around the world come and partake in the games,” said Rivkin, who’s bravely sashayed and leaped her way in front of thousands of fans, though she spoke in a reserved, shy manner during the interview.
“The beauty of the games lies in connecting the people and the athletes, and that they [the athletes] come to participate in the games in Israel,” Rivkin added. “I don’t think there’s anything quite like it.”