Marching at the opening of the Maccabiah

It makes sense that we cheered before even competing in any events. Every single member of every single delegation was a winner just for being there.

 Team USA at the Maccabiah. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Team USA at the Maccabiah.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

At a very young age, I developed a strong passion for sports. My parents used to take me to the Toronto Raptors basketball games after I turned two. I quickly learned the names of all the players, and would try to recreate the player introductions every time I returned home from a game. I would also emulate the team’s star, Vince Carter, by slam-dunking basketballs into my little plastic net.

Baseball became my next obsession after I asked my father to take me to a Blue Jays game when I was four. The entire experience captivated me. Everything, from the smell of hot dogs and beer that permeated the stadium, to the crack of the bat to the excitement of the game made me want to go back as much as I could. And go back I did. From grade school through high school, I attended around 20 Blue Jays games per year, often taking trips to see the team play in other cities around the US. When I could not go to a game, I watched it on television. My obsession has continued to this day.

Unfortunately, I am not as good a player as I am a fan. I was a mediocre house-league hockey player for 14 years, and had some success on travel baseball teams, but I was never good enough to play a sport at an elite level. Nevertheless, my love for sports has remained intact through playing recreationally and watching those who are better than I.

In spite of being content with my current connection to the sporting world, I have always dreamed of being professionally involved in some capacity. That dream was realized on the night of July 14, as I marched into Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium with Team Canada for the opening ceremony of the 21st Maccabiah Games. Although I was participating as a member of the communications team and not as an athlete, the experience was one of the highlights of my life.

The process began long before the delegations marched into the stadium. Coming from work, I missed the Canadian bus that was supposed to take me to the Pais Arena, so I ended up on a bus with members of the Ukrainian and Argentine delegations, who were passionately singing songs of national pride the entire way there.

 Team Canada marches into Teddy Stadium. (credit: ALDEN TABAC) Team Canada marches into Teddy Stadium. (credit: ALDEN TABAC)

I then arrived at the arena, where Team Canada was playing Team USA in a junior men’s hockey game in front of the delegations before the ceremony. Between periods, I spent time catching up with old friends participating in various events throughout the Games. This led me to a profound realization: just as Maccabiah gave me the opportunity to be a part of a national team at a worldwide sporting event where I otherwise could not, the same applied to most of the athletes.

The Maccabiah Games: Reserved for Jewish athletes

That the Maccabiah Games are reserved to Jewish athletes allows people who may not be able to qualify for other international sporting competitions to enjoy an experience nearly on par with being Olympian. From my observations, the athletes were well aware of this, which significantly contributed to their excitement.

One Canadian tennis player described the Maccabiah Games to me as the pinnacle of his athletic career, and something that he had been working toward since he started playing. For thousands of Jewish athletes from over 60 countries, participating in the Games is the greatest athletic achievement they will ever experience. The thousands of hours of practice they put in over the course of their lives, the long bus rides to tournaments, the early morning runs and all the other sacrifices they made to improve in their sports all become worth it when the athletes walk into the opening ceremonies wearing their country’s colors.

This feeling became increasingly palpable as delegations were called out one-by-one to exit the Pais Arena and march into Teddy Stadium. Countries marched according to Hebrew alphabetical order, which made Canada one of the last teams to enter. As such, I got to observe many of the other teams make their way out of the arena and noticed a similar pattern for each one. Before a delegation’s turn, participants chatted with each other and joked around. When a country’s name was announced, the team’s attitude shifted from one of frivolity to one of nervous excitement.

When Team Canada was called on the PA system, we all stopped talking and got up from our seats. The moment that for so many of us was only a dream until now had arrived. It was our time to represent our country in front of tens of thousands of onlookers, literally on the world stage. Phrases like “I can’t believe this is happening,” and “this is surreal” echoed throughout the team as we made our way into Teddy Stadium.

The silence turned to cheers as the team entered the corridor of the stadium that led to the field. Hundreds of athletes, coaches and members of the media shouted the national anthem at the top of their lungs. As we walked onto the field, thousands of people cheered us on, and enthusiastic spectators reached out for handshakes and high-fives. We were treated like the star athletes I grew up watching and continue to admire.

As we walked off the central stage to circumnavigate the stadium and get to our seats, the excitement did not wane. People in the stands continued to cheer, including three very special attendees: Prime Minister Yair Lapid, President Isaac Herzog and US President Joe Biden. If the massive stadium and thousands of screaming fans were not enough, seeing Biden wave at and salute our team really reinforced that the Maccabiah Games are not, as we say in baseball, bush league.

To the vast majority of participants who knew that their professional contributions will or already do lie in more traditional fields, marching in the opening ceremonies was an overpowering moment of being recognized for their contributions on and around the literal field of play. On top of that, to march as proud Jews in the capital of the Jewish state eight decades after our ancestors were forcefully marched to their deaths made the experience even more meaningful.

For these reasons, it makes sense that we cheered before even competing in any events. Every single member of every single delegation was a winner just for being there.  ■