David Saffer

The final countdown has begun to the 20th Maccabiah Games in Israel. Around 10,000 athletes from 80 countries will compete in 47 sports from July 4 to 18. Team Maccabi GB has a 400 strong delegation heading out to the Games and many will have aspirations to win a gold medal.

Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa host many sports but events also take place elsewhere, including venues in Netanya and Ashdod. The opening ceremony broadcast live on Israeli television will see competitors from around the globe enter the Teddy Stadium, Jerusalem, before a capacity crowd of 30,000 on Thursday, July 6th.

For Joel Nathan, general team manager of Team Maccabi GB, participating is the ultimate accolade for amateur Jewish athletes as it is the third largest sporting event in the world “Only the Olympics and Pan American Games as a multi-sport event are bigger,” he said. “Taking part at a Maccabiah Games as an amateur sportsperson is the biggest international event in which they will ever represent their country.

“But there is so much more to it because of the Maccabiah experience. Singing the Hatikvah in front of the 30,000 people at the opening ceremony is an unforgettable experience. But it’s also about the overall experience and part of my role as team manager is to make sure every athlete experiences that as well. I’ll be going around the country every day. My goal is to watch every sport so I will ensure my schedule is meticulously planned to allow that to happen.”

Having competed at the Maccabiah Games as a player, Joel coached at the 2009 Games, was manager of the U16 football gold medal team at the European Games in 2011 in Vienna and two years later led the U18 football side to a bronze medal in Israel. As general manager of the 14th European Games in Berlin, Team GB enjoyed a record haul of medals in 2015. Following the event, Joel was asked to carry on the role at Maccabiah 2017.

Winning is the goal but it’s not everything when it comes to this unique sports extravaganza. “We all sign up to a sporting event but there is so much more to the Maccabiah than just sport,” he explained. “Meeting athletes from around the world, making new friends that last a lifetime, the whole Maccabiah experience is unbelievable.”

As for work behind the scenes in putting together a Team GB squad, there is no let up. “Planning starts as soon as you get off the plane from the last Maccabiah,” Joel explained. “We appoint team managers, coaches and back room support for all sports but the buck stops with me on all sorts of issues. It’s more of a logistics than hands-on role for a particular sport but it’s important to know about all the sports in which we are taking part .
“I’ve learnt more about rhythmic gymnastics in the last year than I’ve ever known and it’s the same with lacrosse. We have experienced managers and coaches for all our teams but I’m making sure that I know something about every sport. One of the mantles I took on is that I want to know every athlete, manager and coach, before they get on a plane in July. So, I’ve been going around different training sessions to meet them all to see how they are all preparing.”

Security and getting around Israel is naturally an area of great detail for all the competing nations. The Maccabiah organising body has seen it all before. .“Once we land in Israel, everything is taken care of, travel and security is top notch,” Joel said.

Team GB at Maccabiah 2013 came back with a haul of 24 medals (three gold, nine silver and 12 bronze).Joel would not predict a medal total for Team GB who will be participating in Juniors, Open, Paralympic and Masters events this time around but believes meticulous training, planning and hard work will be rewarded.

“Getting athletes to Israel is becoming harder due to the financial constraints of the games and the cost to the athlete themselves,” he said. “It’s a huge effort just making it to the games, so I’m not going out with the aim to bring back a record total but it would be great to bring back as many gold medals as we can.”

So where does Joel rank being Team GB boss alongside other highs from his sporting career? “I’ve been involved with Maccabi sport since 1979 and have got as much pleasure being a manager of a junior football team doing well as competing as a player. Taking on this role is a huge honour and nothing will make me prouder than leading Team GB into the games for the opening ceremony. There will be ups and downs along the way but we will deal with everything thrown at us. This will be the pinnacle of my Maccabiah career and I want every GB athlete to have the best experience possible.”