Stars of David: The history of Maccabiah

The Games began in 1932, as a way to create “a new kind of physically fit Jew”. Simon Griver tells the dramatic story of their growth


Walter Frankl, from Austria, was among 390 Jewish athletes from 18 countries who participated in the first Maccabiah in 1932, in a small makeshift stadium in Tel Aviv.

He won gold and silver medals in the 100m and 200m but, more importantly, he decided to remain in Tel Aviv. He never saw his family again, as they all perished in the Holocaust.

Back in 1981, on the eve of the 11th Maccabiah, I interviewed Frankl. He told me, “Prior to the Zionist Congresses of 1921 and 1925 in Vienna, there had been Maccabiah sports meetings. The Maccabiah movement was an integral part of Zionist philosophy. We were trying to make a new kind of physically-fit Jew who could work the land — and sporting prowess was an important part of that.”

The second Maccabiah, in 1935, drew 1,250 sportspeople from 28 countries, competing in 18 sports. By now the Nazis were in power and it was only at the last moment that the German delegation received permission to travel to Palestine. Most of the participants wisely chose not to return home.

Much had changed by the time the third Maccabiah was held, in 1950. Even though, in an independent Israel, participants no longer required visas from the British authorities, the Holocaust and war had taken their toll and only 800 sportspeople from 20 countries took part. The fourth Maccabiah in 1953 saw the event move to its new home in the Ramat Gan national stadium and 892 sportspeople from 23 countries took part.

From then on, the Jewish Olympics entered its four-year cycle, unbroken ever since. It has also seen more participants attend, from more countries, increasing with almost each successive event. 

In 1957, 980 athletes came from 22 countries to the fifth Maccabiah and by the seventh Maccabiah in 1965 there were 1,200 participants from 25 countries. 

Only at the eighth Maccabiah in 1969, with 1,450 participants from 27 countries, was the size of the pre-Holocaust second Maccabiah surpassed. A young Amercian swimmer, Mark Spitz, won six gold medals, ahead of his remarkable haul of seven gold medals at the Munich Olympics.

The ninth Maccabiah in 1973, held in the shadow of the Munich Olympics, where 11 members of Israel’s squad were murdered by the PLO, saw 1,500 participants from 26 countries. The Maccabiah now began to increase in size exponentially. The 10th, in 1977 saw 2,700 participants; the 11th had 3,150 and the 12th, in 1985, welcomed 3,700 participants from 37 countries. 

With the end of the Cold War, the 13th Maccabiah in 1989 brought the first-ever delegations from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, with 4,400 participants from 46 countries. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw 5,100 participants from 48 countries attend the 14th Maccabiah in 1993.

The 15th Maccabiah in 1997 was marred by the collapse of a bridge over the Yarkon River leading into the Ramat Gan stadium, causing four members of the Australian squad to lose their lives. Five thousand participants came from 50 countries. 

The 16th Maccabiah in 2001 was staged in Jerusalem, despite the terror of the Second Intifada and attempts by some to switch the event to America. There were 3,300 participants from 46 countries.

By the 17th Maccabiah in 2005, the games were back on track in terms of growth, and back to Ramat Gan, as 7,326 participants came from 55 countries. The 18th Maccabiah in 2009 drew 7,510 participants from 50 countries and the 19th drew 9,000 participants from 72 countries. 

More than 10,000 participants from 85 countries will compete in 41 different sports in the 20th Maccabiah. As in the previous games, athletes will compete across the four categories — Juniors, Open, Masters and Paralympics.

Maccabi USA will send the largest overseas delegation of 1,200. The Canadian, Australian and Argentinian squads will field in the region of 650 competitors, with Team Maccabi GB represented by 375 athletes. South Korea, the Philippines, Cambodia, Singapore, Malta, Cayman Islands, Bahamas, Trinidad and Haiti will compete for the first time, as well as the first-ever official team from Morocco. The 20th Maccabiah will be bigger and better than any that preceded it — but this could never have happened without the achievements of the 19 previous Maccabiahs.

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