Rainbow of flags as biggest Maccabiah kicks off in Jerusalem with Biden close at hand

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More than 10,000 athletes marched through Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium on Thursday night, waving their home country’s flags alongside Israel’s blue and white as the 21st edition of the Maccabiah international sports competition kicks off. in the presence of US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

The games, often referred to as the “Jewish Olympics,” are one of the biggest sporting competitions in the world, drawing thousands of Jewish athletes from around the world to Israel every four years.

This year’s Maccabiah Games will be the biggest ever, with more than 30,000 individual competitions in 42 sports. More than 10,000 athletes from 60 countries will compete during the two-week event, making it the third largest sports competition in the world. 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 Maccabee website.

For more than two hours on Thursday night, athletes of all ages flocked to the stadium, from the 3,000 strong Israeli delegation to hundreds of dancing and singing athletes from Panama and Argentina, to the two Singaporean gymnasts who cartwheeled the length of the stadium.

“It’s beyond exciting, it’s 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, of Detroit. , Michigan, as she watched in the stands. Loewenstein’s son, Alex, plays men’s fast softball for Team USA. “You can just feel the energy.”

Biden, in the region in full diplomacy, made a brief appearance at the stadium. As the American athletes entered the arena, Biden raised his hat, with “USA” written across the front, waved and saluted.

US President Joe Biden, center, gives a thumbs up as he stands behind a glass partition with President Isaac Herzog, left, and Prime Minister Yair Lapid during the Maccabiah Games opening ceremonies at Teddy Stadium from Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

He also met the US delegation in a private ceremony.

Biden spoke with about 200 members of the U.S. team for about 10 minutes and even sang happy birthday to one of the delegates, said Shane Carr, one of the leaders of the U.S. delegation. He told the players he was “very proud” of them and spoke about his failed attempt as an extra for the Syracuse University football team, Carr said.

“He also talked about how much he loves Israel and told us ‘what you do matters,'” Carr said.

“It’s amazing because now we’ve been recognized as what we’ve always known, which is great international sporting competition,” said Wesley Kaling, a 37-year-old water polo player from the American team.

US President Joe Biden poses for a photo with US athletes participating in the Maccabiah Games at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on July 14, 2022. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

“I get goosebumps just thinking about it, having him here is a validation of ‘this is a really big deal’. That foreign leaders are coming here for this is incredible,” Kaling said.

Organizers said it was the first time since the games began in 1932 that a US president had attended the ceremony.

Biden watched the ceremony flanked by Lapid and President Isaac Herzog. The US leader arrived in Israel on Wednesday for a series of events with Israeli leaders in a show of warmth and support for the Jewish state. He travels 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 you represent one nation – the Jewish nation, the nation of Israel,” Herzog said in a speech. “It’s the power of sport, to change the individual, the team, the country, to be better, to be healthier, to be stronger.”

National teams range from hundreds of members for countries with large Jewish populations, such as the United States and Canada, to a single member for countries such as Japan.

Bahamas Prime Minister Philip Davis recorded a message for the Caribbean nation’s eight participating athletes for the first time, encouraging them to “be strong and win many medals”.

A number of medalists from the Tokyo 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games, 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, even though the speakers and screens weren’t working. Fire services said the outage was caused by a burnt electrical box in the backstage area.

Despite the blackout, the energy in the stadium was palpable, including among the family members supporting from the stands.

Supporters at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem on July 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“I’m very proud and excited, just waiting to see her in the first match,” said Moshe Elimelech, an Australian-Israeli whose daughter is 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, had enthusiastically sported a football shirt since appearing with the Australian side at the 1997 Maccabiahs.

Four members of the Elimelech delegation perished during the opening ceremony of these games exactly 25 years ago, when a bridge leading to 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.

Great attention was also given to the Ukrainian delegation. As the 38 athletes from the war-torn country entered, the stadium erupted into a standing ovation.

Members of the Ukrainian delegation at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem. July 14, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

100m freestyle swimmer Alona Ratzinger from Kyiv, Ukraine, said she was delighted to be in Israel for the competition and really appreciated Israel’s support to help her compete, since the World Foundation Maccabi and European Union Maccabi sponsored the delegation. “I’m going to swim for my country,” she said.

Maccabi’s Russian and Belarusian delegations withdrew from the Games after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Although held in Israel about half the time, the games are not very popular with Israelis, and organizers are trying to generate local interest this year by opening many events to the public, among other members.

Public events and activities include the eight-day “Village Maccabiah” festivities on Netanya’s Poleg Beach, a nighttime race in Jerusalem, a sports and technology fair at the Tel Aviv Velodrome, and a number of parties across the country.

Israel has the largest delegation, followed by the United States, Argentina and Canada. Participants include athletes, coaches, support staff and, in some cases, families.

Globally, more than 450,000 Jewish athletes compete in sporting events with the Maccabi World Union. The games are held in Israel about half the time.

Some of the team sports participating in round robin tournaments have already started their matches. The French masters football team lost to Uruguay on Wednesday night, but they didn’t let that dampen their enthusiasm.

“We started with a loss but we hope we will do better in the rest of our matches,” said Frank Souffir, 48, who works at an office supply company when he is not on the pitch. soccer. “We’ve been playing together for about six months, but we’re afraid it’s not enough… But everyone is really well trained.

Souffir said their biggest rivals are Israel and Britain.

“[Israel] has international players who played at a high level, and also Great Britain, because as French people we cannot lose against Great Britain.

Charlie Summers and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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