About 10,000 athletes from dozens of countries competing in the 21st Maccabiah Games will participate in 42 sporting events watched by tens of thousands of spectators – during which over 2 million bottles of water will be consumed.
The 21st Maccabiah Games, known as the “Jewish Olympics,” are set to take place in Israel on July 12-26, with venues in Jerusalem, Haifa, and Netanya. About 10,000 athletes from 80 countries competing in the quadrennial event will participate in 42 sporting events watched by tens of thousands of spectators.
The rich history of the Maccabiah Games, the Maccabi World Union, and Kfar Maccabiah date back to pre-state times. The Media Line spoke with Maccabi World Union’s Amir Gissin in the final days before this year’s largest sporting event in the world.
TML: Amir Gissin is the incoming CEO of Maccabi World Union, the largest sporting event this year the world over. By any means, a sporting event of this nature is a tremendous job, it’s huge, and the numbers are about 10,000 athletes. Where are we today in terms of who’s coming?
Gissin: The Maccabiah is probably the most important event in the Jewish calendar, at least for us in terms of the number of participants. Not only are we going to have 10,000 athletes, which is almost the number of athletes that competed at the Tokyo Olympics (in 2021), which had 11,000, so we run 90% Olympic Games. Many people are coming to Israel with them, especially after three years of the coronavirus where Jews from all over the world could not visit their second home in Israel. All of a sudden, this mass of visitors from the Jewish world is going to join us, and this is quite an exciting event. We’re looking forward to it. As you can imagine, this is a great logistical challenge. The opening ceremony is just 10 days away, and we can’t wait.
TML: The breakdown of the people that are participating?
Gissin: Out of the 10,000 athletes, we have around 3,000 from Israel. The largest delegation we have from abroad is obviously the US delegation. It’s worth mentioning that the US delegation to the Maccabiah, which is 1,400 athletes, is larger than the US delegation to the Tokyo Olympics. It’s a huge delegation. The second-largest delegation in Argentina with 800 participants, and we all know the economic difficulties in Argentina these days. The fact that so many people are coming just demonstrates the commitment of this community to Israel, to Maccabi, and to the Maccabiah Games. The Canadian delegation is the third largest. We have many large delegations. And also, many small delegations. All in all, over 60 delegations, also from places like Cuba, Venezuela, and, obviously, Ukraine – no less important.
TML: Joseph Yekutieli was only 15 years old when he came up with the concept for the Maccabiah Games, and that was really an offshoot of what was happening in Stockholm and the Olympics at that time, 1912. What’s happened since? When was it actually created?
Gissin: We’re talking about an event that happened 90 years ago.
The 1st Maccabiah happened 90 years ago.
It’s never stopped; the only time it stopped was during the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust. I think that the Jewish people at that time, with a difficult history, with antisemitism, needed a change of direction. And the concept of trying to develop the sports culture and a healthy mind in a healthy body approach had its followers and it began to develop 90 years ago until today. And today we see the strength of this concept in the fact that sports in general but also among the Jewish people is a uniting force. Many times in the Jewish world we see dividing forces, but Maccabi and sports are a uniting force, and to experience personally the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah with 40,000 people in the stadium celebrating their Judaism and their connection to Israel and sports, I think this is a once in a lifetime experience.
TML: Many have written about the fact that in the early days there were Jews that were trying to immigrate, and some of those that participated in sports used the opportunity because the British authorities were not allowing them to come to Israel. Can you share anything about that period?
Gissin: Before the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews from all over the world looked for ways to leave the places where they were and come to Israel. As Zionists, some of them were doing it out of conviction, some of them just needed to run away from oppressive regimes and countries and places, and we have numerous stories of people that used their participation in the Maccabiah as a way to get to Israel.
And today they are part of the movement’s history, they’re part of our activities, and we do our utmost to remember all the Maccabi members who perished in the Holocaust and those who managed to run away with the help of Maccabi through sports and get to Israel. And many of those stories are part of the new World Jewish Sports Museum that we are about to open here, in this building in Kfar Maccabiah, immediately after the Games.
TML: It begs the question of whether some of these young athletes are inspired to live in Israel. Do you see any of them coming to stay?