The man with the plan

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has rejuvenated the sporting vibrancy of the Israeli capital, and the return of the Maccabiah Games is just the latest example.

July 16, 2013 15:45
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at a press conference to promote the 19th quadrennial Maccabiah Games.

Nir Barkat at Maccabia press conference 370. (photo credit: Courtesy GPO)

Nir Barkat definitely has a dream. Sitting with the Jerusalem mayor in a revamped Teddy Stadium overlooking the new state-of-the-art basketball arena and sports complex set to open this month in the capital, it is easy to share in the brightness of his vision.

“For me, Jerusalem has to be the hub, as capital of the state of Israel,” Barkat exclaims.

Its role is to be a center of many activities, spiritual, holy, cultural, sports and other major events. By accomplishing that, we will be that much closer to the ultimate goal of having Jerusalem serve as a magnet for people.”

While Jerusalem is and always will be the religious capital for Jews and other religions all over the world, Mayor Barkat wants Jerusalem to become known as a sporting and cultural hub as well.

“Bringing the 19th Maccabiah Games back to Jerusalem was one of the first things I declared upon taking office [in 2008].

In order to do that, we had to make some investments into the city, both in terms of expanding the stadium to enable the capacity of people for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, as well as bolstering the infrastructure around the city and upgrading both our sports facilities and general accommodations to enable people coming for the Games to enjoy not only the sports activities, but to actually enjoy Jerusalem.”

The Maccabiah is just one of many high-profile sporting events that have marked Barkat’s tenure at the Jerusalem helm. In the past two months alone, the Israeli capital has hosted the UEFA Under-21 European Championship as well as the Formula One Road Show, in both cases the occurrence of which would have seemed a pipe-dream just a couple of years ago. Of course, there is also Barkat’s institution of – and participation in – the annual Jerusalem Marathon and a renewed financial commitment to make sure that the city is up to par when it comes to sporting facilities, both professional and recreational.

Clearly, this evident emphasis on sport is a well thought-out strategy of Barkat’s mayoral platform.

“It has been one of my major goals, the advancement of both sport and culture,” he notes. “Both are catalysts for growth and dramatically improve quality of life. The same way we have scaled our sports activities on both a national and international level, we have done the same with culture with events such as the light festival in the Old City.”

“Different people connect to Jerusalem in different ways. Usually when people come here, they will go see some of the holy sites, cultural sites, usually spend time walking around the city, more time in the hotels and the restaurants. That is all fantastic, but we want more. I believe that the rejuvenation of sport and culture is integral to helping us fulfill the enormous potential of the city of Jerusalem.”

When it comes to the Maccabiah, Barkat is obviously thrilled at the sheer mass of visitors to his city. However, his affinity and clear excitement for the Games go well beyond that.

“As a point of fact, the Maccabiah Games creates bonds between people, bonds people’s hearts around each other through sport. I know that for me personally, sport sharpens my thinking and allows me to optimally perform in anything I do. Naturally, most sports also get people together. So integrating sports, culture and global Jewish bonding is a win-win-win all around.”

The mayor is quick to point out the benefit of such events for local Jerusalemites as well.

“You’ve got 40,000 nights booked in Jerusalem hotels just for the Maccabiah. That means that a whole host of local industries – from food to transportation to many other tourist-related services – are going to increase beyond their maximum capacity. That enables the local marketplace to reinvest, redevelop, and upgrade, which is great for the day-to-day life for years to come.”

“When you create successful national and international events there is expectation for more, and so it creates a comfort level and belief in the future. The private business sector follows that lead. Now, we are already seeing more and more hotels are now being built, more restaurants, more young people and more entrepreneurs jumping on the opportunity bandwagon. Simply put, this growth of events pushes the economy up and enables more investors to invest in our great city.”

There are more than just the practical advantages.

“There is a definite element of city patriotism when it comes to bringing in a large event.

Right now, Jerusalem patriotism is peaking with residents becoming more aware of how prepared their city is to host such things. It creates pride in the ability of the city to perform at such a high quality and in a very direct way creates a much better future for the city of Jerusalem.”

Seemingly, the overall long-term goal is to use various sports and other cultural events as catalysts for growth and enhancement of quality of life around the city. Even more than that, Barkat sees sport as an essential part of the education process.

educate people at a young age. I believe in investing in sports on a municipal level and we have built strong ties with the different branches of sport at the youth level. When a child participates in sports, they are taught important life values such as discipline, teamwork, commitment and self-confidence. All these lessons extend to sports at the adult level as well.”

Indeed, when it comes to future events in Jerusalem, Barkat’s “think big” mentality remains the underlying theme.

“Successful events enable me to think bigger into the future, it proves to me what I intend to do in the next term.

[Barkat is up for reelection in October].

I envision us being able to take on larger projects and I think that by demonstrating that we can orchestrate these events to a high quality, we will show the world what we are capable of.”

When asked about the hypothetical potential of Jerusalem one day being an Olympic- worthy host, Barkat noted that “I think it’s a combination of an array of options. The bottom line is that we are open for business for all kinds of opportunities.”

Barkat’s biggest source of pleasure when it comes to the sports and cultural renaissance in Jerusalem is how it has unified the oft-volatile social landscape within the city.

“We have seen how the local residents of Jerusalem – whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian or otherwise – participate together in these events. In the Formula One Road Show, we had tens of thousands of Muslims and Christians and tens of thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews coming and sharing the streets side-by-side, shoulder- to-shoulder without a single incident reported to the police. Same with the light festival, where there where 300,000 people wandering around the Old City – through the Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish quarters – without one incident reported.

“So you see the atmosphere changing and everyone is enjoying these events in a unified way. If I could hope and envision into the future, I would be happy to see that kind of participation expand based on understanding that these events really create friendly relationships among people more than anything else.”

Barkat, a former rally-car driver who participated twice in the famed Dakar Rally, maintains a healthy sporting regimen that includes “running, a little soccer, biking… I love fishing.

I don’t have a tremendous amount of time for sports or physical activity, but I try to make it a priority and I see that it benefits me in the rest of my life as well.”

Looking forward to a momentous month, Barkat hopes to attend as many of the Maccabiah ceremonies and events as possible and to “be around” as a welcoming presence for all the visiting delegations.

“I really wish them lots of luck and success in their respective events. Beyond that, I want to make sure they enjoy both the games and the city of Jerusalem. To remind us all that everyone is a shareholder in the city of Jerusalem. When you come here, remember that this city is yours as much as it anyone else’s. For me, it is extremely important to give them a hug, and to say ‘Jerusalem loves to host you, enjoy your stay, success in your endeavor, and go back home as an ambassador. And, of course, come back and see us again soon.’”

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