Americans going to Maccabiah eager to compete

WASHINGTON, June 26 (JTA) — Running faster or being stronger won’t be the only things on the minds of U.S. athletes at the Maccabiah Games in Israel next month.

Maccabiah organizers in Israel had considered postponing the games until next summer following a number of cancellations from athletes worried about security because of the ongoing violence in the Middle East.

In the end, the Games will take place — and while the threat of terrorism still looms, nearly two-thirds of the U.S team will compete in the “Jewish Olympics” despite concerns about their safety.

Cautious but upbeat, U.S. athletes are looking forward to an event they hope will attract only sports records, not political headlines.

Now the games are even getting some star play: U.S. Olympic gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg said he will swim in the Maccabiah Games despite the violence.

Krayzelburg, who won three gold medals in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, said he never considered dropping out.

“I want to come close to my heritage,” said Krayzelburg, who was born in the Soviet Union and will be visiting Israel for the first time. “It’s important to show support for Israel.”

Some 2,000 athletes are expected to compete in this year’s Maccabiah, down from the 5,000 who originally registered for the competition.

Latest indications are that about 360 U.S. athletes will compete — slightly more than half of the 600 Americans originally scheduled to take part in the 10-day event.

The pre-camp cultural program for U.S. athletes — which includes educational seminars and tours to the Dead Sea, Caesarea the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and other sites — will take place as planned, officials say.

The major change concerns the athletes’ free time, said Alan Sherman, national vice president of Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel. Rather than trying to supervise athletes in public places, entertainment will be brought to the games compound, and athletes from other countries will be invited to watch with the U.S. team.

The opening ceremonies of the games, which are held in Israel every four years, will take place at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium on July 16.

Some participants, like Scott Rosen of Pittsburgh, Pa., waited until the last minute to decide whether to compete. Security issues were a concern for Rosen, but he said he was willing to trust the organizers.

The problem really was whether there would be enough members of the softball team to compete. In the end there were not, and Rosen had to bow out.

“You can compete anywhere, but the Maccabiah is more than just a sports competition,” said Rosen, who has never been to Israel.

Maccabi USA had planned to push to postpone the games, but reconsidered after consulting with Jewish organizations and Israeli officials, said Bob Spivak, the group’s president. It would have been the first time the games were postponed since World War II.

Spivak said officials discussed security and how the reduced number of athletes would affect the quality of the competition. The U.S. team was then notified of the decision to go ahead.

“The major response was ‘Yes, let’s go,’ ” Spivak said.

But Maccabi USA organizers have encountered a fair amount of criticism from the U.S. delegation — the second largest after Israel’s — for not keeping participants well informed.

Some coaches have pulled out of the competition because of security concerns. In addition, many coaches and athletes were frustrated by the alleged lack of communication with organizers.

Nevertheless, those planning to compete are eager to get on a plane already and let the games begin.

Ed Rossier and Jacob Israelow, recent graduates of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., who are competing in track and field, are excited to go.

Rossier said that as long as he can interact with other athletes, he doesn’t mind the restrictions on his free time.

While concerned about possible terrorist attacks, Israelow believes it is important that the competition go on and that Jews worldwide show solidarity with Israel.

“These games will take on their own historic significance,” he said.

The last Maccabiah Games, in 1997, was marred when a footbridge collapsed, killing four Australians and injuring 70 other athletes.

The first Maccabiah Games, featuring 13 countries and 300 athletes, were held in 1932.

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