July 5, 2009, Updated September 13, 2012

The 18th Maccabiah Games kicks off this month in Israel, with more than 5,300 athletes from around the world, and another 2,000 from Israel expected to take part.

Countering stereotypes that Jewish people are better known for their thinking skills than athletic prowess is the 18th Maccabiah Games happening July 12 to 23 throughout Israel.

The once in every four years Jewish version of the Olympics is expected to draw more than 5,300 athletes from around the world, and a couple of thousand from Israel. It will be the largest event of its kind ever, say organizers.

The United States is expected to send some of its most promising Jewish athletic stars to the event, considered one of the five largest sporting events in the world by participation.

This year those from the US expected to come include swimmer Jason Lezak, a gold medalist from three Olympics Games, Sydney Athens and Beijing. “The man responsible for Michael Phelps’ victory in the relay,” says event spokesperson Yaron Michaeli.

In basketball, “we have a few good players coming from US colleges,” he adds. “There is Jonathan Scher, from Duke, considered one of the best in the college division. And a few other players like Derrick Glasser from Arizona, and Stephen Gruber from Brown,” says Michaeli.

A smorgasbord of games

Swimming, basketball, soccer – with 184 games of soccer scheduled – will be the most popular events, and would you believe it, the Maccabiah Games will also include a chess tournament, a highlight of the event. Michaeli was unfazed when asked why there is a chess tournament in a sporting event. “Chess? We don’t have only Olympic [sports], we have chess and bowling and other events,” he says.

A nice angle of the games is that the Israeli participants also include Israeli Arab citizens – both Muslim and Christian. In the swimming team, for instance, Israeli Arab Dea Mafroua is participating in the breaststroke competition.

About 1,000 athletes from the United States are booked to come to Israel, in many cases with their families, and about 400 athletes from Canada. Among those signed on, there are 1,700 young participants in the age group 15-18 and thousands more in the Open group ages 18-40. “We have a few hundred in the Masters level,” says Michaeli.

With the world opening up and becoming a global village, and Israel especially becoming an international tourist hub for its culture and nightlife, one wonders why Jewish people need their own sporting events. “It’s a nice tradition to get together every four years,” Michaeli responds. “It’s a big question, but we think the event is unique and we must keep this tradition. It’s not only about sport, it’s about community.”

The Maccabiah Games opening ceremony will take place at the national stadium in Ramat Gan. Events will happen at all corners of the country from the north to the south.

US Gold medalists come to Israel

Past athletes in the games include Olympic Gold medalist swimmer, Mark Spitz, the gymnasts Mitch Gaylord and Kerri Strug, stars from the National Basketball Association such as Ernie Grunfeld, Dolph Schayes and Danny Schayes, along with tennis pros Brad Gilbert and Dick Savitt.

The event first began in 1895-96 as an all-Jewish Maccabi gymnastics club in Constantinople. After World War I, there were over 100 Maccabi-style clubs throughout Europe.

Jed Margolis, executive director for Maccabi USA Sports for Israel, said in an ISRAEL21c story after the last event in 2005 that he “got chills” as the plane taxied from the runway. “People are eager to come back to Israel to experience the joys and wonders of this country,” he said. “[My expectations are] that everyone is going to have a gold medal experience on the court and off the court.”

Ittamar Herman, chairman of the organizing committee for the Games said on the official website that despite the worldwide economic crisis, the games will see a 15 percent increase over the number of athletes who participated in the last Maccabiah four years ago.

“It is not a simple matter to arrange for so many athletes to get from place to place throughout Israel, and we will do our best with whatever resources we have,” Herman said.

Three competitions in one

Always held in Israel, the games include three separate competitions: Open, Juniors, and Masters, and every Israeli citizen, and every Jewish person from around the world is eligible to compete.

This year participation is expected to come from Jewish people representing some 50 different countries.

And to meet the needs of the chess players who want to be in the “game,” the International Chess Festival, part of this year’s Maccabiah Games, will take place in Netanya starting on July 12. According to festival organizers there will be a game for everyone, pro level all the way down to amateurs.

“Chess will be fantastically high-level in all divisions: Jews are traditionally great in Chess, and a lot of the world’s top talent will be here. Ten Jewish Grandmasters are coming to a special competition,” added Dr. Gilad Weingarten the Maccabiah sports department chairman.

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