Kaplan lays bare the Maccabi Games

  • 1-Milner Jack
I don’t know too much about well-known US sportswriter Ron Kaplan other than that he has a blog called “Kaplan’s Korner”. It deals mainly with baseball, American football and ice hockey but last month Kaplan released a book on the Maccabi Games - “The Jewish Olympics: The History of the Maccabiah Games”.
by JACK MILNER | Aug 19, 2015


It is in times like these that it is fortunate to have family in the US as they let me know as soon as a book like this is available and, as in this case, have sent me a copy. As it deals with various issues, including politics, I rushed to see how much detail Kaplan had about South Africa and the apartheid years.  

He does cover the political issues quite well but there is the odd mistake when it comes to South Africa. For example, when he spoke of the 1981 Maccabiah he points out that “several countries, including the United States, Israel, Canada, South Africa, Argentina and others boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.”

South Africa may very well have boycotted the Moscow Olympics - if we had been invited in the first place!

In the early 1970s, when the subject of South Africa and Rhodesia sporting participation started to become a hot potato, the general feeling of the Maccabi organisers was that this was a Jewish event and that they should not be bound by International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules.

Kaplan quotes Arthur Goldman, chairman of Maccabi SA at the time, calling for the Maccabiah to be withdrawn from the IOC.

“It is high time the entire present concept of the Maccabiah be altered to minimise the effect and possibility of the present - and let me warn future - from the outside world of sport.”

Kaplan points out that the coverage of the Maccabiah by the international press has not been particularly impressive, despite the fact that there is a group of 25 individuals who have won medals at both the Olympic and Maccabi Games.

“The Maccabi Games were incredibly… underreported,” said Kaplan. “I don’t know if they were reported more at the time and that information is just not available anymore, or if they just didn’t think this was a big enough deal to record it back in the 1930s and even in the ‘50s.

“Finding the information was difficult, and the accuracy of the information, depending on the source… you might have somebody’s name spelled three different ways. Finding accurate results was extremely difficult.”

While Mark Spitz competed in the 1965 Maccabi Games before winning nine Olympic golds (including seven in 1972 alone), Jason Lezak first took part in the Maccabi Games in 2009, after he had already been to the Olympics three times.

The same path was taken by Lenny Krayzelburg, who tasted Olympic gold a year before he swam in the 2001 Maccabiah.

“It’s like walking on the moon. What do you do for an encore?” Kaplan said in an interview, referring to winning an Olympic medal. For Krayzelburg and others, the Maccabi Games provided the answer.

“Krayzelburg decided he knew about these Games, and he wanted to get in touch with his Jewish heritage, so that’s why he became an athlete there and a spokesman for the Games - and a very vocal spokesman, a very big supporter,” said Kaplan.

The book has a total of 20 chapters, the first an introduction dealing with Jews and the organised sports movement, before devoting a chapter to each of the 19 Maccabi Games that have been held.

In 2001 I covered the Maccabiah and the SA v Israel Davis Cup tie at Ramat Hasharon. Amos Mansdorf, captain of the Israeli team, made an interesting comment at the time: “The Maccabiah is not a sporting event, it is a political event.”

Kaplan agrees in the sense that at some point the Games were hijacked by politicians who were more interested in aliyah than sport.

I had to laugh in one part of the book where the editor of the Jerusalem Post questioned the sustainability of the Games. “The Games have shown up Israel’s lamentably low standards in so many sports. The root of the trouble is in the schools where there is an indifferent and even apathetic attitude to games.

“The dearth of adequate sports facilities accounts for this in part and the result is that 20 per cent of our 18-year-olds joining the army, are overweight.”

That is one thing that has changed markedly in Israel and a lot of that had to do with the arrival of the Russians in the later decades. They have had a huge impact on a wide variety of sports in general in Israel, such as ice-hockey, in arid little Israel! 



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