Los Angeles business leader Steve Soboroff was in a great mood as he headed off to the opening ceremonies of the Chai Maccabiah at Ramat Gan Stadium with the ebullient members of the Committee of 18. Standing at the front of an Egged tour bus, he thanked the passengers for their financial contributions and urged them to redouble their efforts for the 2013 Maccabiah. “If we can raise another dollar for every dollar we raised this time, if we can send one more athlete for every athlete we sent this time, and if we can double the number of committee members, we will be able to make the Maccabiah a world-class event on par with the Olympics.”
Soboroff dreams big, and only two years into this project, he has far exceeded the initial goal he set for himself: to raise $900,000 by recruiting 18 individuals to donate $50,000 apiece. His longer-range goal — to professionalize the longstanding Zionist amateur sports event the way Peter Ueberroth revamped the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles — would be no small feat.
By the time the Maccabiah games opened, the committee had contributed $1.5 million to the Maccabiah World Union, and its membership expanded from 18 to nearly 30, including Dodgers’ CEO Jamie McCourt, who underwrote the baseball series, and former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, who underwrote the chess competition. Many committee members attended the games, bringing along family and friends, to total about 120, more numerous than many national delegations.
In addition to financial support, Soboroff brought together a group of advisers to provide technical expertise, including sports/entertainment mogul Phil Anschutz and former U.S. Soccer head Alan Rothenberg, to help with merchandising and sports marketing. Through online television channel JLTV, the games were available to more than 1.5 million viewers worldwide — a first.
The committee also enabled one of the most inspirational moments in the games. The Maccabiah organization of India, housed at the Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue in Mumbai (shaarhashamaim.com), represents India’s 2,000-year-old Jewish community, still reeling after the terrorist attacks last October. They had e-mailed Eyal Tiberger, secretary general of the Maccabiah World Union, saying they wanted to send their cricket team to bolster their traumatized community.
“Eyal then e-mailed me to say they had heard from India and we had 45 minutes to find $125,000 in order for the Indian team to meet the commitment deadline,” Soboroff said. “They literally had nothing — no equipment, no shoes, no uniforms.” A flurry of e-mails ensued and the money was raised, with extra to cover basic needs. Several weeks later, the Indian delegation strode into the Ramat Gan Stadium in tailored, beige suits, to wild applause from the crowd. And, after handily dispatching the Israeli, English and Australian teams, they lost narrowly to South Africa, winning the silver medal.
The committee also helped finance the participation of 350 athletes from various nations who qualified but could not raise funds to attend. Many have small Jewish populations — like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Slovenia and Peru. In all, 7,000 athletes from 54 countries participated in more than 30 events. As usual, Israel, with 2,000 athletes in the games, won the lion’s share of the medals — 628 (239 gold, 216 silver and 173 bronze), followed by the U.S.A., with 255 (84 gold, 92 silver and 79 bronze). Australia got 60 and Russia 57, coming in third and fourth. The committee’s efforts to subsidize needy athletes could reduce a perception, noted in the Israeli press, that the games are only for “rich Jews.” Some believe less-fortunate talented athletes are left behind. Competing in the games doesn’t come cheap, to be sure.
The Maccabi USA (maccabiusa.com) delegation took athletes in the juniors, open and masters categories; open athletes (usually the most competitive level) needed $3,300 apiece; juniors and masters contributed more than $6,000, as did individual family members who went as part of the official mission. While some funding is available for athletes who cannot raise the money, the worldwide recession impacted the U.S. team, as endowment and fundraising income have declined.
Thirteen karatekas (practitioners of karate) qualified from the USA Martial Arts Center in Beverly Hills to make up half of the U.S. karate team. Two months before the games, several of them were still scrambling to reach their goal to join the team; even though three were forced to drop out, the L.A. group won 12 medals. Even with such financial challenges, the Chai Maccabiah was the largest ever, and the U.S. delegation of about 900 was introduced at the opening ceremony as the “largest traveling sports delegation at any time anywhere in the world.”
Despite its size and promotion as the “third largest sporting event in the world,” the Maccabiah remains an amateur event and in many ways, amateurish. Accommodations for some athletes were not ready on time, requiring a jet-lagged Canadian softball team to sit in the blazing sun for 10 hours while temporary arrangements were sorted out. Other accommodations could charitably be described as shabby. Food quality was uneven, and shuttles didn’t get to events on time because drivers got lost.
After two days, local media reported the abrupt cancellation of the softball series, when cops from the local municipality came on the field and stopped a game mid-match because Maccabiah officials had failed to procure a required business license. Two days later, the series resumed after a license was obtained. Yet, according to Jerusalem Post sports editor Jeremy Last, this year’s games were reported to be “the best ever,” with far fewer problems than in past years. “I don’t believe Israelis are equipped to run an event of this magnitude of people coming from abroad with the quality of service expected by Americans, Argentinians or Canadians,” he observed.
Many Israelis are indifferent to the games, and Last, who covered the previous run of games as well, doesn’t think there’s much of a market for selling TV rights to more than a few events — soccer, rugby, basketball and swimming.
Soboroff, despite his boosterism, also is not blind to the numerous challenges he faces. Like Jack Nicholson’s character in “Chinatown,” he explains the inexplicable by invoking the locale: “It’s just Israel. It’s how it is. But we’re working on it and will make it better.”
Gina Lobaco attended the 18th Maccabiah to cheer for the U.S. Men’s Open Water Polo team and her son, Sam Blum, a goalie (silver medal). A former journalist, she serves as the development director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.