The Games Must Go On

After weeks of debate, organizers of Israel’s 16th Maccabiah Games announced last Friday that the Olympics-style sporting competition will open as planned July 16 in Jerusalem, despite widespread individual cancellations due to fears of violence.

Officials at the Maccabi World Union, the international organization for the Maccabiah Games, made their announcement just one day after the U.S. delegation decided to participate. The United States has consistently sent the largest Diaspora delegation to the games.

“After the terrorist attack [that killed 20 in Tel Aviv on June 1], we were, of course, uncomfortable with the situation and asked Israel to postpone,” said Bob Spivak, president of Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel. But, he said, following a meeting in Israel of Maccabi officials, organizers returned to their home countries and spent a week reassessing their plans to participate, consulting with athletes and their families as well as Israeli officials.

“The cease-fire did make a difference,” Spivak said, “and activities have been changed and planned with a major security presence.” Rather than allowing athletes to partake of Israel’s nightlife and other attractions on their own, Maccabiah programs will include barbecues and a discotheque on-site. A four-day cultural program which includes tour stops at sites such as Masada and the Western Wall will continue as planned, before the games begin.

“We’re concerned with the quality of the experience, not just the numbers in the various delegations,” Spivak said, adding that the majority of calls and e-mails from participants were positive about attending.

Still, the number of athletes heading to Israel for the 16th Maccabiah Games is significantly reduced from the more than 5,600 who had registered by early April. Within a week after the June 1 attack, about 2,500, or less than half of the athletes, still planned to participate.

Maccabi World Union President Jeanne Futeran openly worried that a Maccabiah with so few participants would be an embarrassment. The American delegation numbered around 250 at press time, down from a high of 670, but Maccabi USA officials were still awaiting final responses from half of those who had canceled.

One local athlete who will definitely attend the games is Lenny Krayzelberg, a triple gold medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Last year, Krayzelberg said he would skip the world championships in Japan to compete at the Maccabiah. Krayzelberg competed in the North American Maccabi Youth Games before he was an Olympic champion, in 1990, and again in 1992. But as late as last Friday, he was still mulling over his security concerns for the international games. “I’m still looking forward to it, but I’m being cautious,” he said.

After consulting with Maccabiah officials and friends in Israel throughout the weekend, Krayzelberg felt that his fears had been adequately addressed. “They assured me that security had been taken care of, and I really want to go,” he said Monday. “There’s no other games like it. There’s the Olympics, and the ‘Jewish Olympics,’ the Maccabiah. These games are my heritage. I’m not going there to prove anything, I’m going for the experience of competing in Israel. I think I’m going to have a great time.”