Left field

The Reuters global sports blog

Israel opens “Jewish Olympics” but interest at home minimal

July 14, 2009

ISRAELThe 18th Maccabiah Games opened in Israel on Monday with some 7,000 competitors from 65 countries set to take part in a 12-day sporting extravaganza.

The organisers say it is the third-largest sports gathering in the world behind the Olympics and the University Games. You might have thought the world would take notice, but it barely even attracts interest among the vast majority of Israeli sports fans.

The event that was founded in 1932 was originally intended not only for pure sporting ends but as a way for Jews to circumvent immigration restrictions imposed by the British Mandatory rulers of Palestine.

For decades, mainly during times when sport was largely an amateur pursuit, the Maccabiah had merit as a gathering of top athletes and quite a few notables have taken part. The names of swimmer Mark Spitz, tennis player Brad Gilbert and gymnast Mitch Gaylord immediately come to mind as relatively recent top participants and the list of Olympic medallists and champions in big sports is not short.

But over the years, as Israel has established itself as a genuine competitor in international sport, the event has taken on much more the role of a jamboree for Jewish athletes from all over the world to express solidarity with Israel. It is also an event where young Jewish singles get the chance to meet an enormous number of potential future partners in a jovial environment.

The participants might be offended to hear that many ordinary Israelis care so little about the Maccabiah and that they ask why so much money need be spent on it. But those critics are also largely ignorant of the fact that the participants pay their own way to the tune of thousands of dollars per person. Indeed, the Jerusalem Post said on Tuesday that many potential participants could not afford to join their colleagues and were “priced out” of the games.

Some 3,500 participants came from 65 countries as far away as Palau in the Pacific Ocean — the other half of the participants are Israeli and they and those involved in the organisation will spend the next 12 days being gracious hosts to their enthusiastic visitors.

The Maccabiah is run very loosely along Olympic guidelines and includes athletics, swimming, soccer and tennis as well as lawn bowls, chess, bridge, netball, cricket, rugby and golf.

One of the few notable participants in these games was U.S. Olympic swimmer Jason Lezak who won three gold medals at the Beijing Games. He lit the flame at the opening ceremony.

Another even bigger name taking part at the opening ceremony — although not Jewish — was former England and Manchester United soccer star Bobby Charlton who led the British team as they strolled into the stadium. But the organisers, in an effort to make everybody happy, also agreed that the British team could be supplemented by a Scottish team that included a small number of male competitors clad in kilts.

Click here to read a report on the opening ceremony.

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