Andrew G. Szabo gets asked a lot of questions about his delegation at the 2013 Maccabiah games − “Where is that?” being the main one.
It’s a fair enough question, really, for Guinea-Bissau − the country Szabo and his nine teammates are competing for − is not a very well known entity on the international sports circuit, much less on the Jewish scene, sports or other wise.
But yes, they are representing Guinea-Bissau, officially the Republic of Guinea-Bissau, and not to be confused, as Wikipedia helpfully points out, with Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, or Papua New Guinea − all of which are totally different countries that did not have any badminton, basketball or lawn bowling players marching into Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on Thursday evening. To say Szabo and his teammates are “from” the tiny West Africa republic that sits between Senegal and Guinea and is better known for its coup d’etats, constant political volatility and international cocaine smuggling than for either hoops prowess or shul attendance would be something of an overstatement. Guinea Bissau is about 50 percent Muslim and has a sprinkling of Christians − with the rest of the population of 1.6 million holding onto the various forms of animism practiced by their ancestors back when the land was part of the kingdom of Gabu. Jews are not big there.
True, way back in the 16th and 17th century a handful of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula settled the Guinean coast to trade gold, slaves, ivory, spices, wax and hides, but those Jews are long gone. Today, the country has no organized Jewish community or permanent Jewish presence.
But there are a handful of Jews who do business, have investments and hold residency permits − and it’s these folks who decided it was about time the country, a member of the Africa Union, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Community of Portuguese Language Countries and the South Atlantic Peace and Cooperation Zone, also became a member of the Maccabiah family.
It all started two years ago, when Szabo, the heart and soul behind the creation of the team, turned 40 and decided to enter the European Maccabiah Games in Vienna. “I had always wanted to compete,” says the Hungarian born entrepreneur and adventurer who moved to the United States at age 18 and launched Date.Com, one of the largest dating sites on the Internet. He could have played for the strong Hungarian team, or joined the massive U.S. one. But instead Szabo registered as a Guinea Bissauan, leading his team-of-one to win a bronze in badminton, an accomplishment that led the speaker of the Guinea Bissau parliament to publicly thank the “big white Jew who made us proud.”
Szabo’s first connection to the country began when, between starting a family, moving to L.A., and building and selling several online marketing companies, he became involved in mining ventures in West Africa. The connection deepened a few years later when Szabo decided to create an alternative marathon road rally to the famous Paris-Dakar race, launching the Budapest-Bamako rally in 2005, today the most popular amateur car race through the continent.
When instability in Mali made it too dangerous to rally through there, Szabo diverted the race through Guinea Bissau, bringing much needed tourism to the poor, often overlooked, country. In return, he garnered not only official appreciation and a residency permit, but also an appointment as advisor to the government, and a Guinea Bissau travelling ambassadorship to North America.
For this year’s Maccabiah games, Szabo, who has switched to lawn bowling, came with nine other athletes − another lawn bowler, seven basketball players and the sole female of the team, badminton star Rachel Hirschler − in tow. It’s all something of a PR gimmick, he would be the first to admit, but why not bring his adopted country, which has one of the lowest GDP per capita in the world, some attention?
And the team is not only bringing attention to Guinea Bissau, they are also fundraising so as to bring some actual help to the country. They are hoping, says Szabo, to raise $20,000 to buy thousands of insecticide-treated, malaria- preventing mosquito bed nets, which will be distributed by the rally drivers at the next Budapest-Bamako race.
“The whole thing is great fun, on all levels,” says Hirschler, a 33-year-old Hungarian whose company is developing the software for machines in a future Guinea Bissau casino − and who has been in the West African country exactly once in her life, but holds residency there. “When she is not traveling the world or playing badminton or running her own business, she’s looking for a husband,” reads the Hirschler bio on the Guinea Bissau team’s page on the Maccabiah web site. “The team’s mission is to find her a nice Jewish boy in Israel to marry her. Let’s make a shidduch!”
Apparently, there really are those who read those bios because, upon returning to her hotel room in Jerusalem after the opening ceremonies Thursday, the attractive blonde had three requests for dates under her door. “Text me after Shabbat,” one read.
“That in itself, is all the success we need,” notes Szabo, teasing her as the two walk to the Kotel before Shabbat in Jerusalem.
The team, meanwhile, is doing “unbelievably,” says Szabo. On Friday, their basketball team was walloped by the Australians, but this in no way diminished his enthusiasm. “Losing by 40 points is nothing!” exclaims Szabo. “We did much much better than expected. Unbelievable!” “Winning was never the objective,” he continues. “The Maccabiah is just one of the most amazing Jewish experiences in the world and it’s great to be here.”
And back in Guinea Bissau, where a slump in cashew prices has half the population worried about eating, is anyone following the team’s progress in Israel? “Not really,” admits Hirschler. “They don’t really know we are here. And I’m not sure they really care.” “But,” concludes Szabo, ever the optimist. “If they did know, and did care, it would make them happy.
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