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
The concept of the Maccabiah Games was the brainchild
of 15-year old Russian-born Yosef Yekutieli. The Eretz Yisroel
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
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
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
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
With approval came the next conundrum: reaching the world Jewish
community with news of this unique sports extravaganza. So, in
a world absent television,
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
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
desert through Cairo and Alexandria (Egypt); hopped a ship to Salonika
(Greece); then on to Gorna, Sofia, (Bulgaria); Belgrade, Novy, Sad (Serbia),
and Zagreb (Croatia)*; through Vienna and Linz (Austria) to Nuremburg and
(Germany); through Metz to Paris (France); and by ferry to Brighton and
the English cities of London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds; to Glasgow
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
The original Maccabiah was held March 28 to April 6, 1932. Its
overwhelming success guaranteed its permanent future. Originally
conceived as a quadrennial
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
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
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
of participants), are considered Regional Games by
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
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
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);
(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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
The International Maccabiah Games
Committee is established and includes
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Women's basketball returns to the Games
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.