80 years, 18 Maccabiah Games, thousands of dreams come true, millions of souls inspired

July 16, 2013 16:09
Mark Spitz

Marl Spitz. (photo credit: Reuters)


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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 celebrated their 80th birthday this year, so it seemed 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 creme de la creme, so to speak, who truly symbolize what the Maccabiah is all about.

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 history.

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.

He anchored the US 4X100-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.

Lezak recorded 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 Olympics.

Born in Pabianice , Poland, in 1929, Helfgott was almost 10 years old when his life changed forever with the Nazi invasion of Poland.

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 Thereisenstadt three weeks before the Russian army arrived.

Helfgott was finally liberated from Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia 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 Boys.”

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.

As an 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. However, 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 said.

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 draft.

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.”

Brody also became 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 Spitz, 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 the Second World War.

Born in Hungary in 1921, Keleti 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 terms.

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. Keleti, who is closing in on her 92nd birthday, immigrated to Israel a year later and finally gave the locals a chance to enjoy her talents in the fifth Maccabiah.

1. Mark Spitz
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 as 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.

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