In a gala event attended by some 30,000 people, with parades, fireworks, music, and speeches by world leaders – including U.S. President Barack H. Obama – the 19th Maccabiah Games kicked off Thursday night in Jerusalem. Over 9,500 athletes from 78 countries are in Israel for the Games. It's the biggest Maccabiah in history, with contests in 42 different events.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, and other Israeli officials welcomed the participants. “This is your country,” Netanyahu said, proclaiming the opening of the games to the loud cheers of the crowd.
President Obama addressed the crowd as well, via a pre-recorded message. The Games, Obama said, “are a great reminder of how sports can bring people together, and also a great example of friendship between nations, especially between Israel and the United States.” To everyone participating Obama wished good luck, “and to those of you on Team USA, we can't wait to see what you accomplish,” the President said, taking a moment to wish a happy 90 th birthday to Shimon Peres, whom he called “an example of vitality and dedication to all of us.”
Also speaking via pre-recorded message was UK Foreign Minister David Cameron, who called the Games “a tremendous force for good bringing Jewish people together from across the world. As we saw in the olympics in britain last year, sport has a unique capability of bringing people together,” Cameron said, adding “to the 420 members of Team GB, do us proud and bring the gold home to Britain.”
The Maccabiah Games were conceived as a “Jewish Olympics,” with the first games held in 1932. According to historians, the year was chosen specifically because it was the 1800th anniversary of the Bar Kochva rebellion, the last major resistance put up by the Jews to Rome. The second games were held in 1935, with the next one taking place only in 1950, due to World War II and the Holocaust years. Since then, the event has been held every four years.
The games consist of athletic contests in areas like swimming, running, track and field, and other Olympic-style events, and generally follow the rules of the Olympics – and in fact, are seen as somewhat of a staging ground for the Olympics, as several dozen athletes who participated in the Maccabiah later went on to win medals in the Olympics.