Maccabiah veterans recount Games' chaotic past
Yosef Tamir was 17 years old when he won three bronze medals in the first Maccabiah in 1932, finishing third in the 200- and 400-meter races and the javelin throw.
But when he asked for his medals he received a surprising answer. "We sent you the medals but they must have got lost in the mail," the Maccabiah's organizing committee told him in a letter. "Send us ten agorot and we'll make you new ones."
Thinking back at that episode, the 94-year-old reckons somebody must have intercepted his medals and taken them for themselves. He still vividly remembers the first Maccabiah and its impact on the Jewish settlement in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. At his home he keeps a little archive of news clippings from the Games. One news story from the now-defunct newspaper run by Itamar Ben Avi, son of the driving spirit behind the Hebrew language Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, is written in an archaic style.
"Delegates came from Casablanca, Cairo and Beirut," Tamir recalls. "But the U.S. already dominated the field."
He remembers how Sir Arthur Wauchope, the High Commissioner of the British Mandate, attended the closing ceremony as did Zionist leaders Meir Dizengoff, Chaim Arlosoroff and Henrietta Szold. The 1,500-meter race was the main event of the Games, and non-Jews were allowed to participate. Egyptian runner Mohammed Said ran in the event, causing some Jewish organizers to worry that a non-Jew would win the most important competition.
"[Said] led for most of the race, but two Jews overtook him in the end," Tamir recalls.
The Maccabiah has always been much more than a sporting event, he says. "The Maccabiah gave aliyah [Jewish immigration to Israel] a tremendous boost. Many of the athletes were allowed to stay. They changed things and promoted ties with Jews abroad. The first Maccabiah changed the history of Jewish settlement. The British thought all the athletes would go back to Europe, but they could feel Hitler coming and they stayed."
Athlete turns MK
Tamir went on to become a member of Knesset for the revisionist Gahal party, which later formed the Likud with other factions. As a lawmaker he focused on environmental issues long before they became fashionable. As an athlete he was good in track and field, but was also considered a talent in soccer, which is why he was chosen to represent Palestine in an international match against Egypt. "They asked us to bring clean socks, a towel and soap to training," he recalls.
Unfortunately, Tamir never played against Egypt. He was stopped at the border because he didn't have the proper paperwork. "I had come to the Land of Israel with my parents in 1924 from the Soviet Union and never had the paperwork done," he explains.
Alex Ziloni, then only 16 years old, participated in the long jump in the first Maccabiah, and ran the 100 meter sprint in the second Games held in 1935. "I went to the toilet just before the race and when I came back I saw they had started without me," he says with a smile. "I was crushed, I could have done well."
A year after participating in the Maccabiah in 1935 he went to study flight engineering in Britain. Later, Ziloni would become a senior official in the budding Israel Air Force.