Aly Raisman, Mark Spitz and Yosef Yekutieli, the inspired Jewish visionary who created Maccabiah Games

Despite ridicule & obstacles, Yekutieli worked on his idea & every 4 years, further inspired by the Olympics, he finally  developed what we now know as the Maccabiah Games.


 With the Olympics now over, all of us sports fans can resume our lives, and for those of us in the southern hemisphere, our regular sleep patterns as well. But as I sit here reflecting on the Olympics and the inevitable comparisons between London 2012 and Sydney 2000, as well as Australia’s relatively poor showing, I am also reminded of the Jewish connection to the Olympics and how small inspirations can lead to big things.
First Maccabiah Games in 1932 was selected as the year marking the 1,800th anniversary of the Bar Kochba revolt.

First Maccabiah Games in 1932 was selected as the year marking the 1,800th anniversary of the Bar Kochba revolt.


To start with, most Olympic Games have had Jewish athletes, certainly in the last 50 years. The most famous of whom is probably Mark Spitz, the American swimmer who claimed seven gold medals in 1972. This year again America had a Jewish gold medallist who wanted the world to see her passion for Judaism. As a gymnast, Aly Raisman performed a floor routine to the tune of Hava Nagila, very likely the world’s best known Hebrew song, that has been covered by many, and was even once featured in a Bollywood film. Though the song had been used in gymnastics before, it had never been used for a performance by a Jewish gymnast at an Olympics. Her performance touched the hearts of many and claimed top prize for her team, her country and her people.

The Jewish connection to the Olympics [shows] how small inspirations can lead to big things.

From a parochial perspective, an 18-year-old kayaker was the first ever Jewish Australian to win an individual Olympic medal when she claimed silver (previously a Jewish Australian had won a medal as part of a team sport), whilst another young Jewish Aussie did himself proud when he made the final of the 400 metres in athletics, setting two PBs on the way to the final. He came last in the final, but it was the first time in more than 30 years that any Aussie had ever made the final of the 400, so it was a great achievement.

Aly Raisman performed her floor routine to the tune of Hava Nagila,

But all of these feats are small fry when it comes to the achievement of Yosef Yekutieli. His family moved from Russia to the nascent Jewish land when he was just a small boy as part of the First Aliyah. By 1912 as a 15-year-old he was so inspired by the Olympic movement as a whole and by the Stockholm Olympics of that year, that he decided there needed to be a Jewish equivalent. For the next decade, despite plenty of ridicule and obstacles, he worked on his idea, every four years further inspired by the Olympics, and finally he developed what we now know as the Maccabiah Games.

Like the Olympics it has come to be a multi-sport quadrennial gathering of athletes, but it also has a number of distinctions from the Olympics. Firstly, it is only for diaspora Jews and for both Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis, and has always been held in Israel (or Palestine before the formation of the State). For some who participate, it is their only connection with Israel and with Judaism. Secondly, it is not only for youth and elite athletes. There are multiple categories and it is designed to be as broad as possible for as many people as possible. Despite this, many prominent and less prominent elite athletes, including Olympians have and continue to participate. Mark Spitz is a regular visitor, as are many others. And thirdly, the sports change every four years depending on demand. Despite these nuances, the Maccabiah Games are officially sanctioned and recognized by the IOC and by the World Federation of Sports, and in terms of participants, rank within the top five largest sporting gatherings in the world. And like the Olympics, they are governed by a central agency known as Maccabi World Union. Not bad for an idea spawned by a teenager inspired by the Olympics.

Many Maccabiah Games have been remarkable, but some have been more remarkable than others, both in a positive and negative sense. The 1973 Games for instance, being the first major sporting event since the murder of 11 Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics, included an extended memorial service, attended by the leadership of Israeli and world Jewry. The Munich massacre has in fact been commemorated numerous times, often with family members of the slain athletes, involved in the proceedings. For the Maccabiah movement though, the greatest tragedy befell the opening ceremony in 1997, when the Australian team (second alphabetically) walked over a temporary bridge to the stadium and without warning, it collapsed. In the aftermath, four Aussie competitors died, and many others were injured. Again the Maccabiah held a commemoration service, but like the Olympics in 1972 after the Munich massacre, with so many competitors and officials in town, most of whom had trained for a long time, it was decided that after a delay, the Games needed to go on, and they did though with a more sombre feeling.

The 2001 Games were beset by problems, recriminations and threatened boycotts emanating from the bridge collapse and the Intifada in Israel. They proceeded anyway, though on a smaller scale, with US Olympian and world record holder Lenny Krayzelburg forgoing the international swimming championships to compete and carry the flag for America. He also set the fastest time for a backstroke ever swum in Israel, and he did that in a warm up. He was asked at one point if he ever felt fear being in Israel at such a volatile time, but said that coming from southern California, there is more chance being stabbed there than bombed in Israel. The excitement and optimism that he brought was a catalyst for the whole nation, and the Maccabiah movement has never looked back.

The 2005 Maccabiah Games were the biggest yet, with nearly 7,000 competitors from 54 countries. The opening ceremony started with a tribute to the Australians killed in 1997, as well as many others who were killed or injured by terrorism. It also featured many present and former Olympians who were lured by the spectacle of the event. The most recent Games in 2009 again attracted more than 50 countries, including new countries, like two competitors from Palau. It was the first Games to be broadcast outside of Israel, included more participants than all the Maccabiah Games of the 1970s combined, and was actually the largest worldwide sporting event of 2009.

The 19th Games of 2013 are set to be even bigger and better, and all of this came about because a teenager inspired by the Olympics dared to dream big. The motto of the just ended London Olympics was ‘Inspire a Generation’. Yosef Yekutieli inspired not just a generation, but like his predecessor, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founded a movement. For those of us who watched the Olympics, it is now our turn to be inspired, and not just in sport but in all realms of life.

Alex Kats was a volunteer at the Sydney Olympics and attended the Opening Ceremony of the 2001 Maccabiah Games in Israel as a guest of the Zionist Federation of Australia


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