A sigh at the Maccabiah’s end

You have to imagine that as the 16th Maccabiah comes to a close tonight, organizers of what many have called the “Jewish Olympics” will breathe a great big sigh of relief. And well they should. Because if the Maccabiah were a participant in the real Olympics, it would be the Jamaican bobsled team: smacking its head along the track in a rickety old sled, praying just to finish the run in one piece.

Palestinian terrorism nearly led to the games’ indefinite postponement, when the largest delegations threatened to pull out. In the end, about 40 percent of the athletes and coaches who committed to join the games stayed home. Entire delegations smugly watched from afar, as the brave made the journey and poured their hearts out here in Israel. Maccabiah organizers sweated buckets, though, as youngsters called Mom and Dad to say “It’s perfectly safe here!” while bombs went off in Binyamina and Netanya – and a mere kilometer away from Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium, the morning before the opening ceremonies.

But if the higher-ups at Maccabi World Union worked overtime to convince 2,000 foreign Jewish athletes and their entourages to make the trip, they took one extended coffee break thereafter. Organizers (it’s a misnomer, really) couldn’t produce accurate or timely schedules for the events. They couldn’t provide the names of athletes or, in the case of the mysterious futsal, even tell what certain sports are (mini-soccer). They couldn’t even check with Lenny Krayzelburg’s coach before announcing that he had pulled out of two swimming events (he swam in one of them).

Some Maccabiah insiders complained that only a handful of people in the establishment actually put in the work necessary to make the games a world-class event, while others literally kicked up their heels and relaxed, or left the office to press the flesh at official dinners.  And why shouldn’t they slack off? They’re afflicted with the same malaise that led to the horrible opening day disaster in 1997, at which the event’s handlers didn’t bother to put a safe bridge over a river that no one had bothered to keep toxin-free, and then later didn’t bother to pay damages to the victims for four years. It took three years for the MWU president to resign for the gross negligence – and that only under pressure from the Knesset, in the face of a boycott by the Australians.

The games are not merely about schedules and proper spellings, though. Supposedly, they’re about sports. At least, they are for 2,000 men, women, and kids who brought their coaches, their gear, and their sports drinks to Israel. The enthusiasm they put into every play, every stride, made us all proud.

For Israeli athletes, on the other hand, the Maccabiah is an annoying distraction from events that actually matter. While triple gold-medalist Krayzelburg and many other world-champion athletes came from all over the world to join the games, Israel’s top swimmers were overseas in international competitions, as were Israel’s best sailors, kayakers, tae kwon do practitioners, the national youth basketball team. Local heroes who did stick around complained of inadequate playing surfaces and penny-pinching team sponsors. (But, hey, what would you rather have: top-notch sports complexes, or spinning tots in multi-colored fluttering costumes at the opening ceremonies?) So when Krayzelburg, who finished five seconds ahead of his finals heat in the 100 meter backstroke last Sunday, politely said that the level of, er, competition was not what drew him to the Maccabiah, you have to nod your head and say, “Duh.”

Maybe the Maccabiah is short on class. And on real sporting focus. But the main thing is Zionism, right? And we here in Israel have plenty of that to share with those Jews who are just too comfy in their Diaspora homes. Or so thought one bright-eyed rugby player, until he showed up for his first match and was told that there would be no playing of Hatikva beforehand. Just a quick game, and then back home to catch the sit-coms.  Perhaps a little post-Zionism crept in.

If the events at the Maccabiah are really little more than friendly pick-up games, then the truth is that they’re meant for one thing more than any other: tourism. We night as well dispense with the “Jewish Olympics” facade and just invite everyone over to Israel for bagels and lox instead; they’d feel just as Jewish, and could avoid our bridges.  In fact, why wait four years for the next shot-in-the- arm? Why not hold the Maccabiah every year? Or every week? The local bagels and lox industries would take off!

Even without organization, without challenging athletic standards, and with a Zionist fervor that requires plenty of self-starting, you may have wanted to take home at least some cheesy souvenirs from the Maccabiah. But t-shirts, pens, notepads, and commemorative cups were conspicuously absent from the usually enterprising Israeli scene. Inexcusably so, I might add, because you’ll find thousands of gaudy knick-knacks hastily slapped together in the kiosks of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa.At the Sydney Olympics last summer, Barbie went full throttle. Coca-Cola and McDonald’s were kookoo for hoopla. And they raked in the bucks. Here? Zilch. Where was the flood of Maccabiah tie-ins from Elit, Osem, Telma, Burger Ranch, to name just a few of the Israeli food giants? Why didn’t movie theaters offer discounts for people with Maccabiah ticket stubs?

The Maccabiah really is one of the most important Jewish events, and one of the most important things for Israel, according to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Israelis just don’t know it. There are oodles of heartwarming stories among the foreign and local athletes who have convened here these several days for a procession that, after all, does indeed transcend the minor troubles of day-to-day life. Lots of those 2,000 foreign athletes were in Israel for the first time, and perhaps their experience will bring them back for other visits. It’s just a shame to realize that the Maccabiah could have been so much better than it was.

Or, God forbid, so much worse.