What does the largest sporting event of the year have to do Nelson Mandela? Mandela’s birthday, on July 18, coincides with the opening of the 19th Maccabiah Games in Israel. During the opening ceremony the South African team of over 350 athletes will proudly fly the South African flag. They will also be taking with them a large banner reading: “Celebrating our legacy – Mandela Day” to reaffirm the values of individual freedom, reconciliation and racial tolerance which Madiba represents.

Leading the delegation will be Des Hyman, the deputy head will be Cliff Garrun and the group will also include medical officers, coaches, physiotherapists, media and logistics professionals. The team is fully representative of all the provinces of South Africa, with about 70 athletes from Cape Town, and smaller numbers from Durban, Port Elizabeth and East London. Accompanying the athletes will be over a thousand family members and supporters from South Africa and these will be complemented by hundreds of expatriate South Africans, largely from Ra’anana, a town with a distinctly South African character, nicknamed “Ra’ananafontein.”

The Maccabiah 2013 Opening Ceremony will take place at the Teddy Stadium (named after Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem’s most famous former mayor) in Jerusalem. A capacity crowd of about 32,000 spectators are expected to attend this impressive event, including President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, as well as numerous foreign and local dignitaries.

The Maccabiah 2013 will be the largest in history, with over 9,000 overseas athletes representing 71 countries, two more than the previous record. Team Israel will be by far the largest, comprising about 3,000 athletes, bringing the total to over 12,000 competitors. Israeli athletes qualify regardless of religion and Arab Israelis have also competed.

The emotive ceremony will include the athletes’ march, the lighting of the Maccabiah torch, and live performances by local and internationally renowned artists such as Rami Kleinstein, Grammy Award-winning violinist Miri Ben-Ari, X-Factor USA finalist Carly Rose-Sonenclar, Canadian-born singer and winner of Israel’s The Voice Kathleen Reiter, and Israeli star Harel Skaat.

Teams will be competing in 35 sports and for the first time Junior Rugby, Girls Football and basketball will be included. Archery, Equestrian, Handball and Ice Hockey are debuting in the open category at these games.

The undoubted star of team USA will be Aly Raisman, the Hava Nagila gold medalist gymnast at the London Olympics, and she will perform a special gymnastics exhibition. Backing her up are some other serious Jewish sportspeople, such as swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale, basketball coaches Danny Schayes and Brad Greenberg, and softball coach Erez Borowsky.

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 games in its modern guise was conceived by Yosef Yekutieli, a 15-year-old Russian boy inspired by the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, who dreamed of a worldwide Olympics for Jewish athletes in Palestine. The Maccabiah Games were first held in 1932, to commemorate the 1,800th anniversary of the Bar Kochba revolt.

The Bar Kochba revolt (132–136 CE), was the third major rebellion by the Jews of Judea Province against the Roman Empire and the last of the Jewish-Roman Wars.

Simon bar Kochba, the commander of the revolt, was acclaimed as a Messiah, a heroic figure who could restore Israel. The Maccabees, after whom the games are named, are traced back to an even earlier period of Jewish history, when the land of Israel was under the influence of Hellenism, and a client state of the Seleucid (Syrian) Empire.

The Maccabees rose up in revolt against Antiochus who issued decrees forbidding Jewish religious practice, to found the Hasmonean dynasty, which ruled from 164 BCE to 63 BCE. They reduced the influence of Hellenism and Hellenistic Judaism and reasserted the Jewish religion, expanding the boundaries of the Land of Israel by conquest. The Maccabees destroyed pagan altars in the villages, circumcised boys and forced Jews into outlawry.

The term Maccabees as used to describe the Jewish army is taken from the Hebrew word for “hammer.”

For each participant, and for those fortunate enough to attend as spectators, 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, to Judaism itself. The interaction and camaraderie with Jewish contemporaries from the far reaches of the world, in the land of Jewish roots, inspires pride in and an awakening of a rich heritage and reinforces the connection with the land of Israel. The personal “struggle” of each athlete to achieve victory against all odds, echoes the meaning of “Israel” which speaks of Jacob’s “struggle” with the Angel.

The closing ceremony, on July 30, will also take place at the Teddy Stadium and be directed by Ronen Peled and produced by Ilan Faktor. It will conclude with performances by internationally recognized DJs and select Israeli artists, among them Infected Mushroom, Balkan Beat Box, Offer Nissim, TYP, Riff Cohen and Orphaned Land.

The author is the chairman of the South African Zionist Federation (Cape Council).

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