Commentary: Priced out of the Jewish Olympics

Many talented athletes couldn't afford to participate in the Games.

maccabiah american delegates 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
maccabiah american delegates 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Sorry to rain on the (literal) parade, but somebody has to bring up the elephant in the stadium: While there is much to celebrate in the gathering here of young, talented, enthusiastic Maccabeans from around the world, the Maccabiah has become so expensive that there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of outstanding Jewish sportsmen and women who stayed home because they were priced out of the Jewish Games market. This year's Jewish Olympics, more than in years' past, have become the Rich Jew's Olympics. Even though these games are the biggest to date, so many athletes couldn't afford to come that the very character of the competition is in question. If only rich Jews from rich countries can afford to come to the Maccabiah, what does that say about our solidarity as a people? The world financial crisis has had a huge impact on the capacity of the World Maccabiah to get sponsorship for teams. Many longtime sponsors have remained loyal, but their contributions have decreased. The worsening economic climate has also made it harder for teams and individuals to raise the money needed to travel to the games. Australia didn't send a junior cricket team and kept two soccer teams at home. There is a young Canadian swimmer, top of his age group in that sports-mad country, who stayed at home because of lack of funds. South Africa's 2005 gold-medal winning rugby team stayed home, and so did the water polo team. The cost for the South African team has almost doubled since the last games. In 2005 the South Africans paid R25,000 each. Now, as the rand continues its descent, the price for competing in the games has shot up to R45,000, leaving many priced out of the market. Even in Israel, there are some athletes who chose not to miss several days of work to compete, because they know there are 14 unemployed people lining up for every job, and they don't want to irritate their bosses. To make matters worse, there has been a deluge of complaints about the organization of the games, mostly around the issue of accommodation. Some competitors have already pulled out and gone home, others are staying with relatives, and others say they won't be coming back to the next Maccabiah. When the cost of coming is so high, substandard living conditions add real insult to injury. It took two days to find rooms for the 150-member Canadian delegation. Managers of junior teams, who are living with their charges, are also complaining about the living conditions, and many of them won't want to come back either. This could be a serious threat to the standards of team sports in future games. While juniors and seniors pay the same registration fee, seniors are put up in hotels, sometimes really good hotels, while the juniors are housed in youth hostels, and in some cases, homes for abused children. The juniors feel as if they're subsidizing the seniors. Several junior teams have complained about substandard, even atrocious, living conditions. Members of a girls swim team housed at a home for abused children said that when they turned on the showers, ants streamed out and insects crawled out of cracks in the walls. (That ants are coming out of the showers at a home for abused children is a scandal in its own right.) The girls also said that for two days they didn't sit on the toilets because they were in a disgustingly, unsanitary state. Seeing as Israel is the only country that holds Olympics every four years, local organizers could have used the time between the Maccabiahs to find appropriate accommodation and fix up lodgings. Israel should be investing more in this event in terms of upgrading sports infrastructure, improving tourist accommodations, and deepening ties to the Diaspora. In the (unlikely) event that the 19th Maccabiah in 2013 attracts an even larger number of athletes, there really won't be anywhere to put them all. The overall cost of this year's Maccabiah is NIS 75 million and it was not easy to raise the money. But World Maccabiah's slow internalization of the worsening economic times has not helped. The body is meeting next May to talk about reforms and creative ideas to keep the competition alive and viable - and there can be no underestimating the importance of such a reassessment. "The Maccabiah cannot go on becoming more expensive. We've reached our limit financially and also in numbers. Israel can't cope with more athletes," Maccabi World Union President Jeanne Futeran acknowledged to The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. The fact that so many potential competitors are not here does not sit well with Futeran. "I would like to see every Jewish athlete here," she said. To stay relevant to the wider Diaspora, the Maccabiah needs to find ways to subsidize more Jewish athletes, especially athletes from countries whose currencies are weakening against the dollar. It needs to identify weaker Jewish communities and work with them to make sure that nobody is left behind. It needs to work with the national airline, El Al, to lower prices for athletes coming from all over the world. Despite everything, many of the participants who did make it are having the time of their lives. They're seeing the country, meeting Jews from all over the world, and partaking in an Olympic-type experience very few of them could hope to replicate at an actual Olympics. But then there are those who can only look from afar with envy. For many of the current participants, this is a first visit to Israel. For their coreligionists who stayed home, Israel may seem further away than ever. For more of Amir's articles and posts, visit his personal blog Forecast Highs