Hosting about 10,000 Jewish and Israeli athletes and tens of thousands of fans, Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium brimmed with excitement on Thursday night as the 20th Maccabiah Games opened.
Participants from over 80 countries gathered at the opening ceremony, celebrating athleticism, Judaism, and Zionism during the 50th year of Jerusalem’s reunification. The games are the biggest yet, with a record number of participants topping last Maccabiah’s 9,000 athletes.
The athletes already began competing on Tuesday and the Games will continue until the closing ceremony on July 18. Forty three sports will be competed at the “Jewish Olympics” including swimming, tennis, and the most popular Maccabiah sport, soccer. The athletes will test their skills in one of the four Maccabiah divisions—Junior, Masters, Open, and Paralympics.
Fans and athletes cheered to the sound of the Maccabiah theme music in Thursday’s ceremony and excitedly represented their countries. The roar crescendoed as members of the Zionist Youth Movement Maccabiah scouts encircled Teddy Stadium with Israeli flags, preparing for the athletes to enter.
As the athletes of Australia entered the stadium, the crowd went absolutely wild, pressed against the sides of the runway to cheer and high-five the athletes as they danced past. Great Britain’s PM Theresa May and Canadian PM Justin Trudeau were among those who sent a pre-recorded video, wishing the athletes b’hatzlacha - good luck.
Countries from Cayman Islands to Singapore were represented, with the athletes celebrating their Jewish pride in Jerusalem. Diaspora Jews united in the Holy Land, athleticism bringing the world’s Jews together.
One woman remarked on behalf of her son, Danny Rubenstein, a member of the US men’s open soccer team. “In a million years, I never believed that the sport of soccer that I’m so passionate about would give me the honor and privilege of representing my country and religion,” she said.
A tipping point in the country parade came, literally, as the crowd leaned into the runway as an estimated 1,000 US athletes partied past, 1,600 including doctors, coaches, and other team members. The roar remained as 2,400 Israeli athletes waved to the crowd, chanting “el el Yisrael!.”
The mood then shifted to a more serious note as Jews who were killed in the Holocaust and throughout history were recognized. Bar Rahav, an athlete turned IDF soldier who was killed in the Gaza Strip, was recognized in particular for his service.
Following this, President Reuven Rivlin spoke with outstretched arms to the tens of thousands of attendees. “Welcome home”, he said.
“It’s so great to see you here in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city, rebuilt and free, at the opening of the 20th Maccabiah Games,” Rivlin declared. “Commemorating fifty years since the liberation of Jerusalem. The time has come to pluck the fruits of fame,” he continued. “To elevate ourselves - not just physically - but also spiritually.” He said that this spirit shaped Jerusalem and the Maccabiah. “Beloved athletes, our country is your country. Our home is your home,” Rivlin said.
Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu then shared his messages for the athletes, for the citizens of Israel, and for the Jewish people. His first was a wish for the athletes’ success. “Jump for the skies!” Netanyahu cried. The prime minister told his personal story of athletics. He tried wrestling and soccer, but injured himself, so he refused to wish the 2017 Maccabiah athletes ‘break a leg.’ Instead, he said, “You’re all winners, you’re all champions!”
Netanyahu then transitioned into his second message, a message for the Jewish people. “We are all one people. The Maccabiah is a game for the Maccabees... the Maccabees liberated our land against all others.
“We are all descendants of the Maccabees... We suffered the greatest tragedies in the history of man. Yet we came back,” Netanyahu stated.
While the opening ceremony was only held on Thursday, the first gold medal of the 20th Maccabiah was already handed out on Wednesday night.
The first competitions already got underway on Tuesday and it was South Africa’s rugby sevens team that claimed the first gold of the Games when it beat Israel 19-12 in Wednesday’s final.Allon Sinai contributed to this report.