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The 2001 Jewish Olympics Unafraid, Russian Athletes Excited to Compete at the Maccabiah Games

Masha Mazina, an Olympic gold medal winner in fencing and a member of the Russian team for next week’s Maccabiah Games, is surprised that many Western athletes have decided not to compete in the Games for safety reasons.

“I don’t think there is a really serious danger,” Mazina told JTA, reflecting the general mood on the 120-member Russian Maccabi team. “Besides, I have never been to Israel,” she added.

Mazina, 36, won her gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Slim and dark-haired, she first took up fencing at the age of 12. She also plays tennis and billiards and is an artist, but fencing is her passion.

The sport is “exciting and you have to think all the time. After the excitement of the duel, you don’t even feel how physically exhausting it has been,” she says.

Masha became an active member of the Moscow Maccabi club when it was first formally organized in 1995.

Another Olympic fencer, Sergey Sharikov, signed on to the Maccabiah effort more recently.

Sharikov, 27, won two gold medals in saber-fencing in Sydney and has been coaching the Russian fencing team for the Maccabiah.

The first Maccabi groups appeared in Moscow in the beginning of the 1990s. But it was only after the Russian Jewish Congress, formed in 1995, pitched in that the club was really able to get off the ground, says Sergey Tankelevitch, head of the Moscow branch of Maccabi.

According to Tankelevitch, more than 700 Muscovites of different ages are enrolled in the local Maccabi club, plus 12 working coaches.

“Our female table tennis team has won the Cup of Russia,” he boasts.

But he also says the club had to disband its highly successful male soccer team because of a lack of funding.

Jewish sport clubs began to grow like mushrooms in Europe after Max Nordau’s speech at the 1898 Zionist Congress, when he called on Jews to pay more attention to sports as a way of building national self-esteem and self-confidence.

By the summer of 1917, there were already 125 Maccabi clubs across Russia, including some in the remote Ural and Siberia regions.

Under the Soviet regime, the Maccabi movement lay dead until Mikhail Gorbachev became the USSR’s leader.

The first Maccabi groups in the region appeared in 1989 in Lithuania, but it’s St. Petersburg that now has become the center of the Maccabi movement in the former Soviet Union.

Tight on funds, Russian officials say they have negotiated down the price for each Maccabiah athlete, with some of the cost subsidized by Maccabiah organizations in other countries. Yet even the reduced price has proven prohibitive for other former Soviet Union countries, such as Ukraine, which is not sending a team.

The Russian team is prepared to go to Israel, seemingly unafraid of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence that has prompted some Western athletes to cancel their participation and has sparked reports that the Maccabiah marathon event has been canceled.

“I can’t understand what they are talking about,” Irina Koval, a European champion in the female 24-hour marathon running event, says of nervous Western athletes. “Israel is my land and nobody will persuade me that I have to be scared to go there.”

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