The 15 months I’ve spent living in Thailand came in handy during the Opening Ceremonies of the 19th Maccabiah Games. The “sabai sabai” mentality of “it’s all good” was my compass as I maneuvered through the sea of chaos.
A battalion of coach buses idled outside the Marina Hotel in Tel Aviv, where my softball team would be spending the next twelve days. All over the city, and the rest of Israel, a similar scene was set, as a contingent of bus drivers sat at the ready to transport 7,500 Jewish athletes to the newly renovated Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.
From downtown Tel Aviv, it should take no more than 55 minutes for a bus to make its way to the capital. After all, Ligeia and I had just done the trip a few days earlier when we explored the Old City of Jerusalem and visited the Western Wall. In the thick of rush hour traffic, however, our journey to the Opening Ceremonies took us just about 3 hours.
The bus let us out in the stadium’s parking lot, which had been converted into a massive waiting area for all the athletes. I felt privileged to join competitors hailing from all over the world, from Angola to Zimbabwe and about 50 other countries in between.
It was clear that there was an attempt made to keep the event somewhat organized, as flags from all represented countries marked where we were supposed to arrange ourselves. In reality, though, with so many excited, jet-lagged and hungry people in one place, the parking lot was a rainbow flood of country colors, with everyone mingling with everyone else.
After a couple hours of meeting fellow Jewish athletes, exchanging pins to grow my global collection, Maccabiah officials herded my team toward the section of the parking lot designated for Canada. Our country’s delegation of 600 participants was wedged between Russia and the Czech Republic, and my patience quickly wore thin as we ended up standing around for what seemed like eons.
Eventually, our flag bearer led us out of the parking lot, through the stadium entrance and onto the track in front of an audience of 50,000 Maccabiah supporters. The rush was amazing! I kept looking for television cameras so I could wave hello to Ligeia and my family watching at home, but they never focused on my section of Team Canada.
The gravity of participating in the world’s 3rd largest multi-sport competition (behind the Olympics and Pan-Am Games) finally hit me. I strolled around the track proudly, fully decked out in my Canadian apparel, waving to the spectators in the stands cheering us on, and a smile permanently set on my face.
At the end of our 400m lap, we were ushered up to our seats to watch Team Israel, the largest delegation of the Maccabiah Games, enter the stadium and to enjoy the Opening Ceremonies. There were musical and dance performances, fireworks displays, and even speeches by Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and 90-year-old President, Shimon Peres.
A definite highlight of the evening was the lighting of the flame to officially open the Jewish Olympics, as they’re informally known. The torch was carried around the stadium by distinguished Jewish athletes, and the large flame towering over Teddy Stadium was set alight. I could immediately feel its warmth, which I welcomed as my body has become acclimatized to the hot, Thai weather.
With the ceremonies complete, more than 50,000 people slowly evacuated from the stadium, many of them making a necessary pit stop in the bathroom, and the chaos resumed. Finding our assigned bus among the hundreds of idling buses was a difficult scavenger hunt, and it took us almost an hour to find it.
Thankfully, though, the ride back to our hotel in Tel Aviv was quiet, uneventful and traffic-free. It was almost 3:00am when my head finally felt the comfort of the pillow, and I fell asleep thinking, “Let the Games begin!”