Team USA at the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah Games, July 6 2017 (Courtesy/Maccabi USA)
Team USA at the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah Games, July 6 2017 (Courtesy/Maccabi USA)

Maccabiah Games get underway with huge opening ceremony in Jerusalem

Some 10,000 athletes from around the world marched into Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium on July 6 for the opening ceremonies of the 20th Maccabiah Games. Televised live on Israel’s Channel 2 news, the attendance at the opening night festivities was more than 20,000.

Also known as the “Jewish Olympics,” the Maccabiah Games is the world’s third largest sporting event, according to organizers. This year’s event is bringing together a record number of athletes from 80 countries, to compete in 45 different sports, over a two-week period through July 18. More than 2,100 medals will be handed out, and eight cities in Israel will play host to competitions.

The Jerusalem Post reported that the “crowd went absolutely wild” when Australia’s delegation of 600 athletes entered the stadium. Twenty years ago, a bridge collapse at the 1997 Maccabiah Games claimed the lives of four Australian athletes.

Thousands of Jewish athletes from around the world attended the 20th Maccabiah Games opening ceremony in Jerusalem, June 6, 2017
Thousands of Jewish athletes from around the world attended the 20th Maccabiah Games opening ceremony in Jerusalem, June 6, 2017

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the crowd, and dignitaries such as British Prime Minister Theresa May and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke via pre-recorded videos.

As usual, the U.S. delegation boasted the largest foreign team, with 1,200 athletes and coaches. Bay Area athletes will take part in swimming, water polo, tennis and basketball, among other sports. Most of those events will get underway on Sunday, July 9.

Anthony Ervin celebrates winning gold in the Men's 50m Freestyle Final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo/File)
Anthony Ervin celebrates winning gold in the Men’s 50m Freestyle Final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo/File)

One of the big names to watch is swimmer Anthony Ervin, 36, a UC Berkeley grad who is the reigning Olympic champion in the 50-meter freestyle, winning the gold medal in Rio last summer, 16 years after doing so for the first time in Sydney 2000.

Ervin was chosen to light the Olympic flame at the opening ceremonies on July 6; NBA basketball star Omri Casspi, who just signed with the Golden State Warriors this week, was one of six other prominent athletes honored as torchbearers.

The games officially began on July 4 with the first rugby preliminaries; Team USA opened with a 17-12 loss to Australia and then fell 24-10 to South Africa. Ten more events followed on July 5, including Team USA trouncing Cuba 21-9 in men’s softball; beating Israel 7-0 in women’s field hockey; and losing 3-2 to Canada in men’s ice hockey.

Former U.S. Olympic swimming champions Jason Lezak and Lenny Krayzelburg are in Israel as guests of honor at the games. Lezak, who competed in the Maccabiah Games in 2009, has eight Olympic medals (including four golds) while Krayzelburg, a 2001 Maccabiah veteran, holds four Olympic golds.

JTA reported on July 6 that the son of legendary Brazilian soccer player Ronaldo will be competing in the Maccabiah Games. Ronaldo’s son Ronald, 17, is not Jewish, but he is a member of Brazil’s under-18 soccer team.

“This is the Brazilian delegation that represents us at the World Maccabi Games. A special hug to my son @ronald_lima. Good luck, guys! Go for it, Brazil,” Ronaldo posted on Instagram, along with a photo of the team. Not to be confused with Portugal’s current soccer star, Cristiano Ronaldo, Brazil’s Ronaldo, 40, is one of the greatest soccer players of all time; in 98 matches for his national team, he scored 62 goals, the second most in Brazilian history behind Pelé.

Ronaldo’s wife and son have been members of Sao Paulo’s Hebraica, a type of club popular across South America that functions as a cross between a Jewish community center and a country club. “Ronald and his mother Milena have been full members of Hebraica club for years, where they felt warmly welcomed and feel like home, as they say,” said Avi Gelberg, who presides over both the Maccabi organization in Brazil and the Hebraica club in Sao Paulo. “They have also been approaching Judaism more and more.

“We didn’t have a full team in this category, so we decided to reward the kid by inviting him.”

Milena, an ex-model who also is not Jewish, is a member of the Sao Paulo Hebraica women’s soccer team. She holds the women’s record for soccer ball juggling, or keeping a soccer ball off the ground, with over 55,000 touches.

Eligibility rules for Maccabiah competitors vary from country to country. Some delegations require athletes to be Jewish according to strict interpretation of religious law, while others have more liberal rules.

Soccer is the largest sport at the games, with more than 1,400 athletes from 20 countries participating. The competition categories are youth, open, masters and Paralympics. For online coverage of the games, visit