The Last Word: The truth about the Maccabiah Games

More than anything, the Maccabiah is a large sports summer camp.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
After a long day covering girls' basketball, girls' soccer and a full schedule of events at the Maccabiah Games track and field competition, I decided to take a breather and sat down to watch the final relay races at Hadar Yosef athletics stadium in Tel Aviv just after 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The few track and field events I had seen thus far had been relatively entertaining, although it is always difficult to appreciate sports like a regular fan when one is writing about them - the constant note-taking sometimes gets in the way of the enjoyment. The track at Hadar Yosef has recently been relaid and this, coupled with the hi-tech scoreboard which featured a massive screen showing all the events live, gave an air of professionalism to what is essentially an amateur meet. It was therefore with some anticipation that I waited for the relays to begin. In most major athletics meets, the relay races are the climax of the schedule. The performances of the British teams featuring Linford Christie at the World Championships during the 1990s, for example, remain in the memories of many a sports fan to this day. So I was a little concerned when on Wednesday evening only two blocks were put down for the runners to begin the women's 4x400 meter relay. Where were the other competitors, I wondered? Maybe they haven't been told the race is about to begin. But no, there only were two teams running. No one would win a bronze medal, but at least silver was guaranteed. Yet I can't say I was surprised. As much as the sporting aspect is stressed by organizers and management, the Maccabiah Games is more about participating than winning. All this week debate has raged about the cost of playing in the Maccabiah and how it prices many Jews out of participation, reducing the quality of the competitions themselves. Jerusalem Post News Editor Amir Mizroch argued in an article on Tuesday's front page that Maccabiah as an organization needs to do more to raise money in order to ensure that the most talented Jewish sportsmen on the planet get the chance to compete in the "Jewish Olympics," regularly claimed to be "the third largest sporting event in the world." Mizroch's intention was right - Maccabiah should do as much as it can to ensure the quality of the Games - but his conclusion was all wrong. The Maccabiah isn't about finding out who the best Jewish athletes on the planet are. The main focus of the entire two-week event is on Jewish unity first and foremost. Of course the sporting competitions are significant to those involved, and everyone is trying to win. But this can be compared to the community pride of a local soccer tournament rather than the aura of grandeur at the Olympics. The planet's best Jewish sportsmen are never going to convene together in Israel every four years as competing at the Maccabiah would mean giving up on more important events or training which could adversely affect their careers. Professional athletes earn their living by turning out at world class events and only a few - such as US swimmer Jason Lezak, who has given up on the World Championship in return for the experience of visiting Israel - opt to compete at the Maccabiah as a special one-off. This is nothing to be worried about, and it should really be celebrated. The truth is the Maccabiah, more than anything, is a large sports summer camp which gives thousands of Jews, both young and old, the opportunity to meet like-minded people from all over the world. In the current economic climate it would be unfair to expect many people to choose to donate money to allow youngsters to take a two-week vacation to Israel rather than helping the poor and hungry. Some donors are concerned about the future of the Jewish people and that is why they would help fund the event, not because we want to find out who is the best Jewish high jumper. Another colleague argued that the Maccabiah Games lack credibility because not enough is done to focus on the sporting side, leading to poor quality competitions. He claimed that to make the Maccabiah truly significant there should be qualification requirements and it should not be held in Israel every time. This misses the point completely. Israel is the homeland and focus of the Jewish people and the Games are a perfect way to provide a chance for sporting minded Jews to make a visit to the Holy Land they very well may not have made otherwise. One could question why we at the Post have devoted so many column inches to an event which is of little real sporting significance. The reason is that this is still the largest Jewish communal sports gathering worldwide, it is only held once every four years and is therefore of interest to our readership. The fact is women's 800m race winner, Samantha Adelberg, who ran the anchor leg for the US in the 4x400m relay, had the most delighted look on her face as she crossed the finish line half a lap ahead of her Israeli opponent to claim her second gold medal of the evening even though she only had one other runner to beat. On Wednesday I saw the Canadian girls' basketball team get comprehensively beaten by Israel and then the American girls' soccer team dismantle Great Britain 8-1. Clearly the British girls soccer team would not manage to qualify if standards were applied. However, that they were able to put a team together and join so many Jews in Israel was a triumph in itself. The British girls were understandably upset after the defeat, but in my mind they are all winners, as are all the athletes taking part in the 18th Maccabiah.