More than 10,000 athletes marched into Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium Thursday night, waving flags of their home nations alongside Israel’s blue and white as the 21st edition of the Maccabiah international sporting competition kicked off with US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid in attendance.
The games, often referred to as the “Jewish Olympics,” are one of the world’s largest sports competitions, drawing thousands of Jewish athletes from around the world to Israel every four years.
This year’s Maccabiah Games will be the largest-ever held, with more than 30,000 individual competitions in 42 sports. Over 10,000 athletes from 60 countries will compete during the two-week event, making it the world’s third-largest sports competition.
The events are the first since 2017, after the 2021 Games were canceled due to the pandemic.
Sports fans can follow along with live coverage on the Maccabiah website.
For more than two hours Thursday night, athletes of all ages streamed into the stadium, from the 3,000-strong Israeli delegation to hundreds of dancing and chanting athletes from Panama and Argentina to the two Singaporean gymnasts who cartwheeled around the entire length of the stadium.
“It’s beyond exciting, it’s just so cool to see all these countries, and all the different countries with all these Jewish athletes, and just to be surrounded by so much Jewishness,” said Dana Loewenstein, from Detroit, Michigan, as she watched in the stands. Loewenstein’s son Alex is playing in men’s fastpitch softball for the US team. “You can just feel the energy.”
Biden, in the region on a diplomatic push, made a brief appearance at the stadium, flanked by Lapid and President Isaac Herzog. As the American athletes entered the arena, Biden held aloft his hat, with “USA” emblazoned on the front, waved and saluted.
He also met the American delegation in a private ceremony.
Biden spoke to about 200 members of the American team for around 10 minutes and even sang happy birthday to one of the delegates, said Shane Carr, one of the heads of the American delegation.
He told the players he was “damn proud” of them and spoke of his failed attempt as a walk-on for Syracuse University’s football team, Carr said.
“He also talked about how much he loves Israel and told us ‘what you do matters,'” said Carr.
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“It’s amazing because now we’ve been recognized as what we always knew this was, which is a great international sporting competition,” said Wesley Kaling, a 37-year-old water polo player on the US team.
“I get goosebumps just thinking about it, him being here is a validation of ‘this is a really big deal.’ Having foreign leaders come here for this is unbelievable, ”Kaling said.
Organizers said it was the first time since the games began in 1932 that a US president attended the ceremony.
The American leader arrived in Israel on Wednesday for a series of events with Israel’s leadership in a show of warmth and support for the Jewish state. He heads to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian leaders on Friday, then flies from Israel to Saudi Arabia.
“You have come to us from dozens of nations but represent a single nation – the Jewish nation, the nation of Israel,” Herzog said in an address. “This is the power of sport, to change the individual, the team, the country, to be better, to be healthier, to be stronger.”
The national teams range from hundreds of members for countries with large Jewish populations, like the US and Canada, to a single member for nations like Japan.
Prime Minister of the Bahamas Philip Davis recorded a message for the eight athletes participating from the Caribbean nation for the first time, encouraging them to “be strong and bring home many medals.”
A number of medalists from the 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo, led by gold medalists Linoy Ashram and Artem Dolgopyat, lit the Maccabiah torch. Former Red Sox second baseman Ian Kinsler was also part of the torch ceremony.
Shortly before Biden arrived, a power outage hit the stadium for about 20 minutes. The athletes continued to parade through, despite the speakers and screens not working. Firefighting services said the outage was caused by a burnt electrical box backstage.
Despite the outage, the energy in the stadium was palpable, including among family members supporting from the stands.
“I’m very proud and excited, just waiting to watch her in the first game,” said Moshe Elimelech, an Australian-Israeli whose daughter is the captain of the Australian tennis team. “I’m just on the verge of tears,” said her mother, Susan Clare.
Elimelech, who now lives in Israel, excitedly sported a soccer jersey from his appearance with the Australian team in the 1997 Maccabiah.
Four members of Elimelech’s delegation perished during the opening ceremony of those games exactly 25 years ago, when a bridge leading into the stadium collapsed into the polluted Yarkon River.
Earlier in the week, the entire 560-strong Australian delegation visited a memorial to the athletes killed in the collapse.
Much attention was also on the Ukrainian delegation. As the 38 athletes from the war-torn country marched in, the stadium erupted in a standing ovation.
100m freestyle swimmer Alona Ratzinger from Kyiv, Ukraine, said she was thrilled to be in Israel for the competition and really appreciated Israel’s support in helping her to compete, since the World Maccabi Foundation and European Maccabi Union sponsored the delegation. “I’m going to be swimming for my country,” she said.
The Russian and Belarusian Maccabi delegations withdrew from the Games after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Despite being held in Israeli roughly half the time, the games aren’t widely popular with Israelis, and organizers are trying to drum up local interest this year by opening many events to the public, among other members.
– Karel Valansi (@karelvalansi) July 14, 2022
Public events and activities include the eight-day “Maccabiah Village” festivities at Netanya’s Poleg Beach, a night run in Jerusalem, a sports and technology fair in Tel Aviv’s velodrome, and a number of parties across the country.
Israel has the largest delegation, followed by the US, Argentina and Canada. Participants include athletes, coaches, support staff, and, in some cases, families.
Globally, there are more than 450,000 Jewish athletes involved in sporting events with the Maccabi World Union. The games are held in Israel roughly half the time.
Some of the team sports playing round-robin tournaments have already kicked off their games. The French open master’s soccer team lost to Uruguay Wednesday night, but they weren’t letting that dampen their excitement.
“We started with a defeat but we hope we’re going to do better in the rest of our games,” said Frank Souffir, 48, who works at an office supply company when he’s not on the soccer field. “We’ve played together for about six months, but we’re worried it’s not going to be enough… But everyone is really well trained.
Souffir said that their biggest rivals are Israel and Great Britain.
“[Israel] has some international players that used to play at a high level, and also Great Britain, because as French people we can’t lose to Great Britain. ”
Charlie Summers and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.