Israel: The eternal problem of Imaging

The Maccabian Games, that ultimate, almost-but-not-quite Olympian, event that has always inspired great pride among the international Jewish athletic community, is due to celebrate its 20th anniversary this month. The whole country has joined the frenzy. An array of television advertisements and billboards are encouraging all on-hand to come watch, and cheer on, the athletes.  The roads and highways are decorated with an array of international flags, as well as a specially-designed one upon which the year 2017 is written in a jagged script, in shades of white and blue, suggestive of the lightning speed we  can expect from the athletes convened to perform their athletic feats. Whether local or foreigner, resident or tourist, it's hard to escape the excitement in the air.

A few months back, the Israeli Triathlon Association announced its official, representative team and I was delighted to discover that I was to participate. Although quite honored, I was, at first, hesitant. The Olympic distance triathlon was scheduled to take place in mid July in one of the hotter spots in Israel, the city of Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee. I was apprehensive and moaned: "It's going to be so uncomfortable--wretchedly hot--steaming." I began to fantasize about an alternative option, one that included dipping my toes into the chilly Atlantic Ocean halfway across the world. There are better places to spend one's summer than Israel. Maybe I should forgo this "honor." But eventually my friends and fellow teammates convinced me that this was one of those lifetime events I'd regret missing, a chance to participate on the international level, to represent my "adopted" country, to stand 'Israel proud.'

I went for it. Why not? What's a little heat? And hadn't someone mentioned something about cool t-shirts? Team goodies?

I continued to train hard despite the heat and humidity and began to look forward to both my event and the Opening Ceremony. Soon enough I'd be marching into Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem with a host of other Israelis, some hoisting the Israeli flag high in the air, all proudly representing Israel in unified dressed. All good.

Or at least, until last week. That was when the great balloon of anticipation burst.

It only took one photograph, albeit a controversial one that zoomed through the social media leaving a trail of laughter and discontent in its wake, to turn the tide of my mood. Featured was a woman modeling the official Israeli team uniform intended specifically for the Opening Ceremony. No one really cared or commented about the Lacoste polo cut, one that truly didn't suit our steamy climate, or the pinwheel pattern in the shoulder area which was a bit over-designed, even fussy, because the only thing we all saw was the shock of red writing that stretched, as if brutally carved out with a jagged knife (and yes, the brutal associations of this are not missed here in the Middle East), across the front. Imprinted in bold red, sharply diverging from the expected, and appropriate, blue and white of the rest of the shirt, turning it into some kind of gruesome pseudo-American version with its red, white and blue, was the logo of one of Israel's largest supermarket chains, Supersol.

Yes, that's right. Each and every Israeli athlete, while representing their country over the next two weeks, would be best remembered for advertising a supermarket. Heavy sigh. I'm sure you just heard mine. Although I'm obviously appreciative of whatever financial assistance Supersol has provided for projects connected with these Maccabiah games, the decision to make their sponsorship center stage, replacing something as important as nationalistic pride--I mean, what would have been wrong with a simple Israeli flag or the Star of David?--making the athletes look like marching billboards, more likely to be stacking fruits and vegetables or pushing a shopping cart than running down a field and scoring a goal, was misguided at best and may, just have been, a bit nefarious. 

Honest to God, What were they thinking?

At the beginning, when that one photograph circulated, it was so ridiculous as to have been funny and, indeed, many a joke, between friends, family and fellow athletes, surrounded what was no less than a travesty. But soon enough, after the rest of Israel has seen these shirts televised on Channel Two, the whole subject will expand to become a national joke. At this point, my laughter has been spent. I remain only embarrassed, embarrassed to wear a uniform, meant to be representative of my country, that shows such an appalling lack of taste at a moment when taste is so important.  I will walk into the Opening Ceremony in uniform that suggests not athletic effort but, instead, the likelihood that I'll be found the next day working the deli section at my local market. Where is the pride in that? Where is the pride in participating in these games as a representative of my country, the 'host' country?

I don't know who was responsible for such an awful decision. I don't know whether to blame the Israeli Maccabiah Association for not figuring out how to collect enough money (and yes, we actually paid for this horrific garment) to avoid having to turn the national uniform into a walking advertisement, for their horrifically bad taste, or for their part in making their own team a laughing stock. For, no question, the appearance of the Israeli delegation, all 2400 of us, is going to provide better entertainment than any of the fancy acts planned for the Opening ceremony.

I chose to compete in horrific heat precisely in order to represent my country. I'm outraged that somewhere up the totem pole, someone did not appreciate what that meant--the commitment I've made. And although I will march with the team on Thursday and compete to the best of my ability in my race next week, the take-away from these Maccabiah games might very well be disappointment in a country incapable of knowing how to step up to bat and show their nationalistic pride in an appropriate manner instead of counting their agorot. It wasn't such a tall order!

I suppose I shouldn't be all that surprised. These ugly shirts, a missed opportunity so important because of its international audience, are just one more example of how Israel continues to underestimate the significance of positive imagery. So, as usual, I'll be left holding my head high, remembering who I represent, arms folded over my chest in an effort to lessen the damage done by that humiliating logo, and getting out there and running my race. To my fellow Israeli competitors I say: If you can survive this, you can survive anything. May the Force be with you.