MUCH LIKE The Jerusalem Post, the Maccabiah Games came from humble beginnings to
earn a worldwide reputation.
The two are also connected by the fact that
they both celebrate their 80th birthday this year, so it seems only appropriate
to remember some of the great names to have graced the Maccabiah down the years
as we honor the Post on this special occasion.
We had initially planned
to assemble a top 10 list of the Maccabiah’s all-time greatest athletes. But
just like the Post, there were simply too many highlights over the past eight
decades to sieve through and therefore we decided to pare it down to the
ultimate five, the crème de la crème, so to speak, who truly symbolize what the
Maccabiah is all about. Here they are:
5. Jason Lezak
While the Maccabiah’s
standing as a first-class sporting event has waned in recent decades, it remains
a massive attraction to Jews across the world, with some 9,000 athletes from 54 countries joining 3,000 Israelis in its 18th and most recent installment
three years ago.
American swimmer Jason Lezak is one of those renowned
athletes who took part in the Maccabiah in 2009, not due to its significance in
the world of sports, but rather because of its illustrious Zionist
Lezak had little trouble taking gold in the four events he
contested in the Maccabiah and has eight Olympic medals to his name – including
four golds – from the past four Games. However, he will forever be remembered
for one race in the Beijing Games just over four years ago.
the US 100-meter freestyle relay team, and despite being nearly a full body
length behind the then-100m. free world record holder Alain Bernard of France,
he led the Americans to the gold with a remarkable finish.
the fastest 100m. free split in history to edge Bernard at the wall and played a
crucial role in aiding Michael Phelps amass an unprecedented eight golds in a
single Olympic Games.
4. Ben Helfgott
Helfgott is one of only two known
athletes to have survived a concentration camp and gone on to compete in the
Born in Pabianice, Poland, in 1929, Helfgott was almost 10
years old when his life changed forever with the Nazi invasion of
Just six weeks before his hometown was liberated in November
1944, Helfgott and his father were deported to Buchenwald, and after five months
as a slave laborer, he was sent to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia three weeks
before the Russian army arrived.
Helfgott was liberated from
Theresienstadt in May 1945 and he was one of the 732 orphans under the age of 16
offered a temporary home by Britain, a group which became known as “The
Helfgott ended the war barely able to walk, weighing less than 40
kilograms, but he went on to represent Great Britain in the weightlifting
competitions in the Olympic Games of Melbourne 1956 and Rome 1960.
18-year-old in 1948 he coincidentally came across some weightlifters and adopted
the sport. He went on to win a bronze at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff in
1958 and took gold medals at the 1950, 1953, and 1957 Maccabiah Games.
Nevertheless, above all else, he provides a unique example of the triumph of the
human spirit over adversity.
3. Tal Brody
Brody’s influence on Israeli
basketball is incalculable.
Israeli basketball was in its infancy in
every way possible when Brody first signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv in 1966. He
joined the yellow-and-blue following his participation in the 1965 Maccabiah, at
which he led the US team to the gold medal.
“I accepted the challenge put
before me during the 1965 Maccabiah to help raise the level of Israeli
basketball in general, and Maccabi Tel Aviv in particular,” he once told the
Brody was selected as one of the top 10 college players in the US
by Sporting News magazine during his time at the University of Illinois and was
chosen by the Baltimore Bullets with the 12th pick overall in the 1965 NBA
However, he fell in love with Israel during his stay for the
Maccabiah and has since earned an iconic status in the country. He helped
Maccabi to its first European Championship title in 1977, coining what is
without a doubt Israeli sports’ most celebrated quotation following Maccabi’s
victory over CSKA Moscow en route to the final: “We’re on the map and we’re
staying on the map, not just in sport, but in everything.”
the first sportsman to be awarded the Israel Prize in 1979 and many Jewish
athletes from across the world have since followed in his footsteps in making
Israel their home after participating in the Maccabiah.
2. Agnes Keleti
Unlike Mark Spitz, who tops the list, Keleti arrived at her first Maccabiah in
1957 with her legendary status long secured. The gymnast won 10 Olympic medals
over three Games, including five gold medals, placing her seventh all-time among
women athletes for most Olympic medals. Keleti would have likely won at least
several more had it not been for World War II.
Born in Hungary in 1921,
she won the first of 10 national gymnastics titles at the age of 16. However,
she was forced to purchase the papers of a Christian girl and work as a maid in
a small Hungarian village to survive the Holocaust. She resumed training after
the war, but missed the 1948 Games through injury and only made her Olympic
debut as a 31-year-old four years later, a grand old age in gymnastics
She ended the Helsinki Games with a gold, a silver and two
bronzes, before taking four golds and two silvers in Melbourne four years later.
During the 1956 Olympics, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary to crush the local
uprising and Keleti, along with many other of her countrymen and women received
political asylum in Australia.
She immigrated to Israel a year later, and
finally gave the locals a chance to enjoy her talents in the fifth
Keleti is now approaching her 92nd birthday.
When Spitz arrived in Israel for his first Maccabiah Games in 1965 he
seemed like no more than another talented teenager. However, he proved his
prodigious promise by taking four gold medals at the age of 15 in his first
international event, and was named the Games’ most outstanding athlete. The
world was given a glimpse of Spitz’s gift in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico
when he won two gold medals with the US relay teams as well as picking up
another silver and bronze. But that was only the appetizer for what was to come
in the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Spitz returned to Israel for the 1969
Maccabiah, taking six golds, before cementing his place as an all-time sporting
legend with his unforgettable performance in Munich, winning seven gold medals
while breaking the world record in each event, a record which stood until
Michael Phelps took eight golds in Beijing 2008.
In 1985, Spitz was part
of the Maccabiah once more, this time lighting the torch to open the Games, 20
years after first making a name for himself in the Jewish Olympics.