The Maccabiah is a large and important gathering — the fact that thousands of Jewish athletes choose to pay large sums from their own pockets in order to participate in the Games proves it’s relevant. The 19th Maccabiah, which President Shimon Peres officially opened Thursday in Jerusalem, is the largest since the event was started, proving it has a future.
Despite the wonderful warmth, the Maccabiah also has organizational problems that need to be addressed — and the opening ceremony highlighted a handful of them. The UEFA Under21 Soccer Championship was hosted by Israel less than two months ago, and since its finals were hosted at the same place as the Maccabiah opening ceremony, it can serve as a useful comparison.
Hopefully, these were opening night issues, and things will run smoothly from here on. And thankfully, these are the kinds of problems that don’t require much money to solve, only a little bit of forethought… and the genuine will to make things better:
1. Bad logistical planning
Some 35,000 people filled Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium; almost a quarter of them were participants from one country or another. When the event ended, everyone spilled out, doing their best to heed badly organized signs, barely leading to poorly organized transportation.
Some of the participants told The Times of Israel they were later called back into the stadium, when those in charge realized they wouldn’t be boarding the buses just yet…
2. Poor time management
Though the Thursday opening ceremony was called for 8 p.m. (and with tickets warning the gates would shut at 7:45), the emcee only took the microphone at 8:10, and the ceremony itself only started at 8:30… presumably because Channel 1, which was screening the event, insisted on broadcasting its daily news show. As would surely have been clear long in advance.
This can lead to one of two conclusions; either the organizers misled the public, or they made a last-minute change and updated nobody. Neither option is a good one.
At 11:30, after three hours of ceremony, the event finally concluded. Ending so late (with few buses left for those who are dependent on public transportation) isn’t a great idea. The fact that dozens of athletes had to run to catch the last train, and then wake up early on Friday to actually compete, makes it even worse.
3. No press facilities
The Maccabiah, its chairman Amir Peled recently told the Times of Israel, is “the most important Jewish and Zionist event in the world.” It’s also an event that hundreds of thousands around the world would like to watch and hear about.
However, the organizers didn’t deem it important enough to provide the reporters (yes, they invited the media and paid for their tickets) with the facilities needed — such as internet — to cover the event as it unfolded.
Tens of thousands of people, speaking dozens of languages and representing over 70 countries, flocked to Teddy Stadium for the opening ceremony. They didn’t care too much about the logistics, and focused on having fun; the ceremony was as much about a Jewish get-together as it was a sporting event.
The chants of “Me-xi-co!” clashed with the British singing “when the Brits come marching in,” and the Argentinians made their presence known when their buses arrived. But there was no hostility between the “rival” athletes or the fans.
It was the first time the third largest sporting event in the world was opened in Jerusalem, rather than the Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan area, a fact pointed out by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, who delivered the mandatory speeches. But, thankfully, the evening wasn’t about the politicians — it was about the Jewish athletes and communities represented on the field and in the stands.
Hours ahead of the ceremony families touring Israel, people who had moved to the country years ago, and students on various programs, were already gathered outside the newly renovated stadium, enthusiastic for the games to begin.
Micha Glaser from Holland was waiting in line at the gates with his wife and two daughters, who were dressed in orange and smiling widely. The Maccabiah, he said, was a good reason to visit Israel. Spending time touring the country was “a great experience for all of us,” he said.
Nearby, a group of 40 or so 16-year-olds on the BBYO leadership program were screaming chants for their native England, and, only a dozen meters from there two dozen Mexicans were cheering their country’s delegation as its bus pulled up.
Standing near the high school students with sombreros and the national flag, the Cherem family from Mexico city said they were excited to watch their 18-year-old son Saul participate in the games as a member of Mexico’s basketball team.
On the way to the gates, the flags of Australia, Sweden and Colombia were being waved by many, and the small contingent from Hong Kong also held their flag high. Alexandra Parragh, the head of the Hungarian equestrian team who had landed in Israel Wednesday evening and woke up at 4a.m. Thursday to prepare her horse for the games, said that she was “very tired, but also very excited.”
At the gate to the stadium, head of the South African delegation Desmond Hyman — wearing an oddly shaped hat he called a Makarapa — was quick to point out the opening ceremony was being held on Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday. In honor of the Nobel laureate and former president, Hyman and the rest of the delegation wore special Mandela Day badges.
Later, when South Africa’s 370 athletes marched into the stadium, a large banner honoring Madiba was carried at the front of the procession.
Uzbekistan’s two athletes followed Austria’s dozen or so team members, before Australia’s 416-strong delegation, led by Olympic sprinter Daniel Solomon, took the floor as the communities, in order of the Hebrew alphabet, marched into the stadium.
First-timers Bahamas led the way for a total of 21 small Jewish communities — including Guinea Bissau, Luxembourg, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Cuba — who sent a delegation to the Jewish Olympics for the first time.
With 1,100 delegates, the emcees happily announced that Team USA was the “largest traveling delegation in the history of sports;” its athletes marched around the main stage to the cheers of many family members and supporters. President Barack Obama wished Team USA luck in a televised broadcast and also wished Peres a happy 90th birthday.
The Maccabiah torch was carried into Teddy by Israeli judoka and former European champion Arik Ze’evi, who received loud applause from the crowd. After being passed to Nir Davidovich and Noam Gershony, the torch reached US Olympian Aly Raisman, who lit the Maccabiah flame and gave the cue for the celebrations to begin.
Israeli rock singer Rami Kleinstein performed along with Grammy Award winner Miri Ben-Ari and her electric violin, American “X Factor” runner-up Carly Rose Sonenclar sang “Hallelujah,” and the tens of thousands in the stands enjoyed the show.
In short, despite the organizational glitches, it was a wonderful event.
JTA contributed to this report