THE MACCABIAH GAMES

The Maccabiah Games are quadrennial Jewish Olympics, held in Israel the year following the Olympic Games. Every four years, the best Jewish athletes from throughout the world compete in Open, Masters, Juniors, and Disabled competitions.

The Maccabiah is staged under the auspices of the Maccabi World Union (MWU), a worldwide youth and sports organization devoted to furthering Jewish identity and traditions through cultural, social, and educational activities. The MWU is headquartered in Israel.

The concept of the Maccabiah Games was the brainchild of 15-year old Russian-born Yosef Yekutieli. The Eretz Yisroel teenager so energized by news of the 1912 Olympic Games that he conceived the fanciful notion of a worldwide Olympics for Jewish athletes in Palestine. With little encouragement, and not a small amount of ridicule, Yekutieli spent the next ten years developing details of his unique idea.

In 1928, Yekutieli presented his far-fetched proposal to the Jewish National Fund, with the notion that the Maccabiah Games be organized to commemorate the 1800th anniversary of the Bar Kochba Rebellion (Jewish revolt against the Romans). Coincidentally, the Maccabi organization was, at the same time, formulating ideas to provide a means of participation by athletes living in the British Mandate of Palestine in important international sporting events; one that would also act as a form of international recognition of Palestine as the Jewish National Home.

Yekutieli’s Maccabiada. as the Games were originally called, was the right idea at the right time. With the hechture of the Eretz Israel Soccer Association, other Holy Land sports groups fell in line to give the proposed Games their blessings. But approval of the ruling British Palestine High Commissioner was the final hurdle to realization.

In the Fall of 1931, Great Britain appointed Sir Arthur “Andy” Wauchope High Commissioner of Palestine. Contrary to previous High Commissioners, Sir Arthur admired the achievements of Zionist Palestine, including the burgeoning Jewish sports movement. The new High Commissioner gladly extended his patronage to the Maccabiada, on condition that it host Arab and official British Mandate athletes, as well as Jewish sportsmen. The Maccabiada was scheduled for March 1932.

With approval came the next conundrum: reaching the world Jewish community with news of this unique sports extravaganza. So, in a world absent television, the internet, significant radio, and common language print media, two delegations of Jewish motor-bikers set off from Tel Aviv on an epic promotional tour to the Jewish communities of Europe, where most Jews lived.

The first troupe of promoters hit the road in 1930, biking from Tel Aviv to Antwerp (Belgium). The second set of riders left Tel Aviv a year later for London. Yekutieli, himself, rode with one of the delegations.

On the second tour, May 10 to July 16 1931, the intrepid Maccabiah bikers covered 5,825 miles (9,375 kilometers). From Tel Aviv, they traveled across the Sinai desert through Cairo and Alexandria (Egypt); hopped a ship to Salonika (Greece); then on to Gorna, Sofia, (Bulgaria); Belgrade, Novy, Sad (Serbia), Osijek and Zagreb (Croatia)*; through Vienna and Linz (Austria) to Nuremburg and Frankfurt (Germany); through Metz to Paris (France); and by ferry to Brighton and the English cities of London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds; to Glasgow (Scotland); and then home via Beirut (Lebanon). Wherever they went, they announced the “Jewish Olympics”, the Maccabiah, taking place the following spring in Eretz Israel (the land of Israel). (*Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia merged as Yugoslavia in 1929.)

The original Maccabiah was held March 28 to April 6, 1932. Its overwhelming success guaranteed its permanent future. Originally conceived as a quadrennial event, Maccabiah II was moved up a year to 1935 because of the rising tide of Nazism in Europe. The rumblings of World War II forced postponement of the third Maccabiah. The delay was 15 years. The Games were reborn in 1950 in the new State of Israel, and Maccabiah #4 was held in 1953. Thereafter, the Maccabiah established its current quadrennial formula, held the year following the Summer Olympic Games.

The Games today are organized by an International Maccabiah Committee and are sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee and World Federation of Sports. The Maccabiah Games, ranking among the five largest sports gatherings in the world (in number of participants), are considered Regional Games by the International Olympic Committee.

For each participant, the Maccabiah Games are “two weeks to experience and a lifetime to remember.” For many, the Maccabiah is the athlete’s most significant connection to the State of Israel and for some, Judaism itself. For the young Open athlete, generally 16 to 23 years old and immersed in the machinations of high-level competition, connection with Jewish contemporaries from the far reaches of the world, in the land of Jewish roots, inspires an awakening of heritage.

While all Maccabiah matches, games, and races are keenly competitive, some events measure up to world-class competition. Numerous Olympic and national champions have sought Maccabiah gold, silver, and bronze medals. Among the Olympic gold medallists, world champions, and world record holders who have competed in the Maccabiah Games are Mark Spitz and Marilyn Ramenofsky (swimming); Debbie Lipman (diving); Mitch Gaylord, Abie Grossfeld, and Agnes Keleti (gymnastics); Larry Brown, Ernie Grun­feld, Danny Schayes, (coaches) Nat Holman and Dolph Schayes (basketball); Carina Benninga (field hockey); Lillian Copeland, Gerald Ashworth, and Gary Gubner (track and field); Angela Buxton, Julie Heldman, Allen Fox, and Dick Savitt (tennis); Angelica Rosenau (table tennis); Isaac Berger and Frank Spellman (weightlifting); and Fred Oberlander and Henry Wittenberg (wrestling).

The Maccabiah Games by Year


Maccabiah I, 1932
The first Maccabiah is held in the spring of 1932, in Tel Aviv, a city of 50,000 residents. Israel’s first sport stadium is completed there, barely in time for the Games. The Maccabiah is opened by a colorful parade through the streets of Tel Aviv led by Mayor Meir Dizengoff riding a white horse. Three hundred ninety athletes from 18 countries attend, including 69 participants from Egypt and Syria. The U.S. delegation is the smallest–only ten participants. Poland, Austria and the United States finish 1-2-3 in team medals won.

The Maccabiah stirs an athletic spirit throughout Palestine and inspires the development of sports in the Holy Land.

Maccabiah II, 1935
Despite opposition of British Mandatory Police, Maccabiah participants parade through Tel Aviv streets to open the Games. Twenty-one sports are on the competition menu, and the number of participants is 1,350, representing 28 countries, including a large contingent from Germany.

These Games are being held during a period of strict restrictions on Jewish immigration, but many athletes seize the opportunity to remain in the country. The entire Bulgarian team remains
in Palestine, sending only their musical instruments back to Sofia.

Maccabiah III, 1938/1950
Scheduled to be staged in 1938, political events in Europe, Arab violence in Palestine, and Mandate authorities’ concern that a Maccabiah Games would create huge illegal immigration result in cancellation of the Games.

In 1950, the Games resume, this time in the independent State of Israel. Nineteen countries send a total of 800 athletes. The opening parade and track and field events are held in the new
50,000-spectator stadium in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Israeli President Chaim Weitzman opens the Games, and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion tells the competitors: “Existence in our ancestral
home requires physical might no less than intellectual excellence.”

Argentina, Canada, India, Libya, and Sweden are first-time entries.

Maccabiah IV, 1953
Eight hundred ninety athletes representing 21 countries attend. Israeli President Itzchak Ben-Zvi opens the Games. First-time entries include Australia, Brazil, and Chile.

Maccabiah V, 1957

Twenty countries send 980 athletes to the Fifth Maccabiah. The presence of a large number of world-class Jewish athletes elevates the quality of competition.
Plans are set to build a Maccabiah Village to house athletes for Games of the future. Mexico sends its first contingent of athletes.

Maccabiah VI, 1961

The Sixth Maccabiah Games attracts 1,000 athletes from 27 countries. First time countries include Guatemala and Congo. The new Kfar Ha’Maccabiah Village serves as home to the competing
athletes.

Because the Maccabi World Union has been designated an “Organization of Olympic Standing” by the 1960 Olympic Congress, the Maccabiah Games are now recognized as a Regional Sport Event under the auspices and supervision of the International Olympic Committee and International Sports Federations.

The International Maccabiah Games Committee is established and includes non-Maccabi–affiliated organizations such as Hapoel, the Canadian Maccabiah Committee, and the United States Committee Sports for Israel.

Maccabiah VII, 1965

Twenty-five nations send 1,200 athletes to compete in 21 sports. First-time Maccabiah
Games flags belong to Iran, Jamaica, Peru, and Venezuela. The City of Tel Aviv premiers Yad Eliyahu, a new indoor stadium for basketball, boxing, and judo events. The first international shooting range and championship lawn bowling greens debut in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, while golf makes its Maccabiah bow at a new course in Caesarea.

Fifteen-year-old American swimmer Mark Spitz wins three gold medals in his first international competition.

Maccabiah VIII, 1969

One thousand five hundred athletes from 27 countries compete in 22 sports. Germany and Greece send teams for the first time since the 1935 Games. A new swimming pool at Yad Eliyahu is dedicated.

Deborah Turner, Israel’s sprint champion, an émigré from Great Britain, is the first woman to present
the opening ceremony’s torch and light the Maccabiah Games flame.

Maccabiah IX, 1973
The Ninth Maccabiah takes place in the shadow of the murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. An overflow crowd of 60,000 spectators, including Israeli leaders Golda Meir and Abba Eban, pay homage to the slain Israelis.

American-born Tal Brody, who had led the United States to a Maccabiah gold medal in basketball in 1969 and led Israel to the European Cup three years later, carries the Maccabiah Torch into Ramat Gan arena. With 1,500 athletes from 27 countries watching, he lights the Open Ceremony’s flame. Moments later, the stadium is cast into darkness, save the light of the Maccabiah flame, and 11 additional memorial torches are lit one by one for each Israeli who died in Munich.

Closing ceremonies take place at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, following a parade of Maccabiah athletes, coaches, staff, and officials past thousands of festive Israelis through the historic streets of the Old City.

Maccabiah X, 1977
Called the Jubilee Maccabiah, the number of competing athletes nearly doubles for the Tenth Maccabiah. From 33 countries, 2,700 athletes come to compete in 26 sports. Competition venues
are spread throughout the Holy Land, north to Haifa and among Israel’s kibbutzim. It is the largest sporting event ever held in the Middle East. Bridge and chess are debut events.

For the first time, international seminars on sports medicine and the history of Jewish sport and physical education are held within the Maccabiah framework.

Maccabiah XI, 1981
The Eleventh Maccabiah brings 3,450 athletes to Israel from 30 nations. The 30-sports menu includes sailing and softball for the first time. New facilities for squash, wrestling, karate, and judo are introduced.

Maccabiah XII, 1985
The number of participating athletes tops 4,000 for the Twelfth Games. They come to Israel from 40 countries to compete in 28 sports.

Twenty years after his first appearance in the Maccabiah, Olympic Champion Mark Spitz returns to Israel to carry the Opening Ceremony’s Torch into Ramat Gan Stadium. He is accompanied by Shirli Shapiro, Anok Spitzer, and Shlomit Romano, children of three of the Israelis slain at the 1972 Munich
Olympics.

Maccabiah XIII, 1989
It is the Bar Mitzvah Maccabiah, and 4,500 young men and women representing 45 countries participate. For the first time since World War II, athletes from Hungary, the former Soviet Union, and
former Yugoslavia take part.

The Opening Ceremony’s Maccabiah Torch is carried by 1988 Paralympics swimming gold medallist Hanoch Bodin, a disabled Israel Defense Forces veteran.

Maccabiah XIV, 1993
The Maccabiah tops 5,000 (5,061) competitors. They come to the Holy Land from 48 countries. Many Eastern European countries send delegations for the first time since World War II. They are joined by a huge contingent from South Africa, making its first official Maccabiah appearance since a 20-year
boycott by international sports federations.

Maccabiah XV, 1997

More than 5,000 athletes of the Fifteenth Maccabiah usher in celebrations marking the fiftieth anniversary of the State of Israel. Fifty-three nations send their finest Jewish sportsmen and sportswomen to compete in 36 different sports in the final Maccabiah Games of the twentieth century.

A Junior Maccabiah for youngsters age 13 to 16 and a Masters Maccabiah for athletes over 35 enjoy their largest number of entries. Many athletes— some of the world’s greatest living Jewish athletes of bygone days—honored in Israel’s International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame Museum—participate in
the opening ceremony.

The opening ceremonies, however, provide the setting for improbable tragedy at the very outset of the otherwise successful Maccabiah. A temporary bridge, in place to allow parading athletes and officials to enter Ramat Gan Stadium for the opening march-by, suddenly collapsed as the first athletes were crossing. Four Australian competitors lost their lives, and many others were injured. Competitions were
suspended. The following evening, a huge memorial service attended by all Maccabiah athletes, coaches, and officials was held at Modi’im.

Because so many athletes, coaches, staff, officials, family members, and supporters from the corners of the globe had traveled to Israel for the Maccabiah, it was decided that the competitions would continue following a day of respect and reflection for the victims.

Maccabiah Games XVI, 2001

On the verge of cancellation because of ongoing Palestinian violence, the 16th Maccabiah nonetheless attracts more than 2,200 athletes from 46 Countries. Amidst tight security precautions, the Opening Ceremony is held for the first time ever at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. Israeli president, Moshe Katsav, opens the Games in the presence of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israeli cabinet ministers, the prime minister of Romania, and numerous other dignitaries. Israeli Olympic pole-vaulter Alex Averbuch carries the Maccabiah Torch into Teddy Stadium, and the Flame is lit by Israel's 2000 Paralympics triple gold medal swimmer Keren Leibovitch.

Women's basketball returns to the Games and women's soccer is added. United States Olympic gold medallist and world record holder Lenny Krayzelburg earns a gold medal and sets a new Maccabiah record in the 100-meter Backstroke. Russian Olympic fencing gold medalists Sergei Sharikov and Maria Mazina, coached by former Soviet Olympic fencing gold medallist Mark Rakita, win Maccabiah gold medals.

Maccabiah Games XVII, 2005
Having endured the political anxieties that set the tone for the 2001 Games, Maccabi World Union set out to plan a Maccabiah that would emulate the kind of renaissance that Los Angeles '84 gave the Olympic Movement. Every lesson learned at Maccabiot 1997 and 2001 was applied in 2005.

At just about the time Israel's three-year effort had succeeded in containing, defeating and neutralizing terrorism, Israeli sports triumphs progressively lifted expectations: at Athens '04, wind surfer Gal Fridman won Israel's first-ever Olympic gold, and gentle giant Arik Ze'evi won a heavyweight judo bronze; Maccabi Tel Aviv produced a European Basketball Final Four in Yad Eliyahu, and record-thrashing back-to-back Euro victories in 2004 and 2005.

Incredibly, 6,667 athletes from 54 countries competed at the 17th Maccabiah. At the extra-ordinary Opening Ceremonies, families of the victims of the 1997 bridge tragedy led the Parade of Delegations into Ramat Gan Stadium, and Israeli children injured in the Palestinian terrorist campaign formed the color guard for the Maccabiah banner. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon beamed and waved to the athletes, while Olympic champions Mark Spitz and Lenny Krayzelburg marched in with Team USA, Russian gold medal Olympic fencers Maria Mazina and Mark Rakita led the Russian delegation, dignified Indian cricketers namaste'd in every direction, and Hungarian gymnasts cart-wheeled past the review stand. The show was laden with Jewish tradition, a rich kaleidoscope of top Israeli artists and music styles, from classical orchestra to pulsating pop, Hasidic rock to Ethiopian, and colorful hot air balloons rising inside the stadium while fireworks exploded around it.

Maccabiah 2005 was so big that it actually strained the edges of logistic models set up to handle it, even with the world's second largest bus company, Egged, in charge of transporting athletes and teams to the myriad of competition venues. Junior Maccabiah sports, alone, had more athletes and officials than all 1970's Maccabiot.

Maccabiah Games XVIII, 2009
The Maccabiah Organizing Committee expected that Maccabiah Chai- so called because the sum of letters that form the Hebrew word for "life", chai, is 18 - would attract even more athletes than its predecessor. In fact, the 18th Maccabiah was the world's largest sports event of 2009.

Record crowds of local sports fans graced this Maccabiah. It was standing room only at the Wingate Institute pool, where seven-time U.S. Olympic medalist Jason Lezak burned through his lane to set world-class times. Spectators came from all over the country for the baseball tournament at Tel Aviv Sportek, sponsored by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The main stand at Herzliya Stadium was packed to the rafters on a sweltering finals evening as Australia took it's first-ever rugby gold. And there was a heartwarming moment as the team from India - perennial also-rans - sponsored this Maccabiah by generous donors from Los Angeles, won their country's first-ever medal (silver) in cricket. Supplies of iced beer actually ran out at these events - in its own way, another local record.

Some of the world's best chess masters fanned out for exhibition matches at various localities, notably: versus hundreds of IDF personnel in a huge hangar at Tel Nof Airbase, and a weird underwater tourney in the pool at Netanya's Blue Bay Hotel. With Israel home to more international grandmasters than any other country, and celebrated players such as Hungarian Judit Polgar, soon-to-be World Cup champion Boris Gelfand of Israel, and dozens of highly-rated young players from countries such as Azerbaijan, the 18th Maccabiah's tournament, sponsored by former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, was world-class.

Delegations from 50 countries, some gigantic (Team USA was the largest visiting delegation in Maccabiah history), some very small (two cyclists from the tiny Pacific island of Palau), and Maccabim from Scotland, appearing for the first time under their own national flag, paraded into the Opening Ceremony at Ramat Gan Stadium. The spectacle Opening Presentation themed on Jews becoming a nation and building a home in Eretz Yisrael. The impressive Closing Ceremony at the IDF Armor Corps Memorial in Latrun was probably the most moving and best ever.

The 18th Maccabiah was viewed by millions worldwide via satellite. It was the first Games to be televised beyond Israel's borders.

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