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Jews in Sports: The Maccabiah Games

The Maccabiah is a series of athletic competitions for Jews throughout the world that are held in Israel. The goal of the Maccabiah is to promote the physical strength of Jews while fostering a sense of nationalism among Jewish athletes. Like the International Olympics, the Maccabiah is held every four years.

The Maccabiahh is named for the Jewish warrior Judah Maccabee who fought against the ancient Greeks. Many notable Jewish athletes have competed in the Maccabiahh, including swimmers Mark Spitz and Jason Lezak, gymnasts Mitch Gaylord and Aly Raisman, golfer Corey Pavin, basketball players Ernie Grunfeld and Danny Shayes and tennis player Dick Savitt.

The idea for an international Jewish sports competition grew out of the various sports clubs that existed in Eastern European countries in the late 1800's. At that time, many young Jews began to stress the importance of physical strength in the quest to downplay the image of "ghetto Jew." These clubs were to be united in the first decade of the new century, into the Juedische Turnerschaft, the Union of Jewish Gymnastics Clubs.

The Union became particularly Zionist in character when it began arranging visits to Palestine, but remained outside of the official Zionist Organization. In 1921, this Union became the Maccabi Work Union, further uniting the various associations. Many years later after the establishment of the State of Israel did the Union join the official Zionist Organization.

The first Maccabiah was held in Palestine in 1932, with 390 athletes from 14 countries participating in the event. The second was held in Tel Aviv in 1935, and was of particular importance to the yishuv as most of the 1,700 athletes from 27 countries remained in Palestine due to the rapid increase of anti-Semitism throughout Europe.

The following is a brief history of the games:

Maccabiah I (1932) - Nicknamed the “White Horse Olympics” because Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff led a parade honoring the games through the city streets while riding a white horse. The opening ceremony witnessed the release of 120 carrier pigeons, 10 for each of the 12 tribes of Israel, whose mission was to send to the world news of the opening of the first Maccabiah games. Approximately 390 athletes from 14 countries participated in the competition.

Maccabiah II (1935) - Held despite official opposition by the British Mandatory government. A German delegation of 134 Jews flouted Nazi Germany's order not to attend the games and the delegation refused to fly the German flag during the opening ceremonies. The games became known as the “Aliyah Olympics” because many of the athletes chose to remain and settle in Israel. The Bulgarian delegation stayed in Israel and sent home their sports equipment and musical instruments. A total of 28 countries were represented by 1,350 athletes.

Maccabiah III (1950) - Originally scheduled for 1938, the event was postponed because of the international political situation and British fears of an upsurge in illegal immigration. The first games to be held after the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel was attended by 800 athletes representing 19 countries.

Maccabiah IV (1953) - This Games initiated the tradition of bringing from Modi'in - Judah Maccabee's birthplace - the torch used to light the flame at the opening ceremony. A total of 890 athletes from 12 countries participated.

Maccabiah V (1957) - Some Eastern European countries did not send delegations to protest the Sinai Campaign. Competitors included American weightlifter and Olympic gold medalist Isaac Berger and Australian national tennis champion Eva Dulding. Hungarian four-time Olympic gold medalist Agnes Kleti performed in two exhibitions. The policy of playing the Maccabiah every four years was established.

Maccabiah VI (1961) - The International Olympics Committee endowed the Maccabi World Union with Olympic standing and declared the Maccabiah a “Regional Sports Event.” American Dick Savitt won two gold medals. Exhibitions were performed by two American Olympic medalists, Rafer Johnson (decathlon) and John Thomas (high jump). The event had 1,000 competitors from 27 nations.

Maccabiah VII (1965) - Several well-known athletes won medals, including swimmer Mark Spitz (winner of seven gold medals in the Munich Olympics), swimmer Marilyn Ramenofsky (then USA record-holder and silver medalist in the Rome Olympics in the 400-meter freestyle) and international tennis player Tom Okker (Holland).

Maccabiah VIII (1969) - Wimbledon winner Julie Heldman participated in the eighth Maccabiah.

Maccabiah IX (1973) - Dedicated to the 11 Israeli Olympians murdered by terrorists during the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Maccabiah X (1977) - “The Jubilee Maccabiah” marked 25 years of Maccabiahh competition. More than 2,700 competitors from 33 countries participated.

Maccabiah XI (1981) - The games honored the memory of Maccabiahh World Union President and International Maccabiah Games Committee President Pierre Gildesgame who died in a car accident. Thirty countries sent 3,450 to play in the games. Dan Shayes, the future Denver Nugget, played for the American basketball squad.

Maccabiah XII (1985) - Olympic legend Mark Spitz opened the games lighting a torch along with three children of Israeli Olympians murdered at the Munich Olympics. Four thousand sportsman from 40 countries attended the games. The junior Maccabiah was established.

Maccabiah XIII (1989) - The opening torch was carried by former world swimming champion Hanoch Budin, an IDF disabled veteran. The event brought together 4,500 athletes from 45 countries.

Maccabiah XIV (1993) - A total 5,500 athletes from 57 nations competed.

Maccabiah XV (1997) - Former Montreal Canadien coach Jacques Demers led a Canadian hockey squad consisting of numerous NHL players. The event was marred when a pedestrian bridge collapsed and four Australian athletes were killed and more than 60 other people were injured.

Maccabiah XVI (2001) - On the verge of cancellation because of ongoing violence, the 16th Maccabiah attracted more than 3,000 athletes from 41 Countries to participate in 44 sports. Women’s basketball returned to the Games and women’s soccer was added. U.S. Olympic swimming gold medalist and former world record holder, Lenny Krayzelburg earned a gold and set a new Maccabiahh record in the 100 meter backstroke.

Maccabiah XVII (2005) - Some 7,000 athletes from 55 countries participated in the 2005 Maccabiahh Games.

Maccabiah XVIII (2009) - 9,000 athletes from 54 countries participated.

Maccabiah XIX (2013) - Participants from 70 countries including 2012 Olympians Aly Raisman, Jason Lezak, Garrett Webber-Gale, Steven Solomon and Alex Shatilov.

Maccabiah XX (2017): - A record number of participants competed in the 2017 Maccabiah games in Jerusalem: 10,000 athletes from 80 countries competing in 43 different sports.  With over 1,400 athletes from 20 countries participating, soccer was the most popular sport at the 2017 Maccabiah games.  

Sources: Mitchell G. Bard and Moshe Schwartz. 1001 Facts Everyone Should Know About Israel. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005;
The Jewish Agency for Israel and The World Zionist Organization;
20th Maccabiah Games, known as Jewish Olympics, to open with record 10,000 athletes, JTA, (June 6, 2017).