The Other Olympics

This was one of the first essays I had to write for my my first semester in college. Therefore, I find it’s only fitting that it’s the first essay I post here. The topics of my essays vary widely, from personal to political to special interest and beyond, but I’m sure there’ll be something that’ll interest almost anyone in most of my essays. This first one happens to center around sports and patriotism/nationalism.

The Other Olympics

The stands are packed with waiting fans, men and women forced to the edges of their seats poised with cameras and waving flags in their hands. People from seventy countries have converged for the start of a sporting event that occurs only once every four years. The athletes will come to the field, the President and Prime Minister will speak, the torch will be lit, and the games will begin.

Not in Turin, Italy. Not in Beijing, China. But in Ramat Gan, Israel.

Our buses left campus after dinner. A group of more than eighty teenagers from around the US attending a six-week High School program in Israel, we occupied ourselves by playing truth or dare and listening to music, all the while the fact that we were headed to a once-in-a-lifetime experience seeming to elude us, floating just overhead while we talked and laughed.

When we arrived, none of us had quite expected to be there. We’d come to Israel to study its history and to experience its culture, to learn about Judaism and our own history, but none of us had foreseen this. None of us had known we’d be attending the opening ceremonies of the eighteenth Maccabiah, the Maccabbi Games, the Jewish equivalent of the Olympics.

We wound our way through the parking lot towards the gate, all of us wearing matching t-shirts to not lose ourselves in the crowd. Gate seventeen greeted us with a grin, opening its mouth wide as we passed through security one-by-one, our counselors handing us our tickets as we waited to go in. Just inside the gates, smiling ushers passed out programs and miniature Israeli flags to wave in the stands. We climbed the stairs towards our seats and at the top, I staggered forward in surprise, awed by the crater I’d come upon, rows upon rows of chairs carved into its sides and filled with hundreds, if not thousands of people in the stadium. A mile away, a massive stage had been erected, surrounded by colossal video screens broadcasting the entire show. I shook myself from my stupor and found my seat, next to Carrie and Logan, two of my classmates on the trip. While the dusk deepened and we waited for the show to begin, we talked about anything that came to mind and waited less and less patiently for nightfall to come.

At last a hush fell over the stadium and our conversation was cut short. A cheer broke the air as white lights rolled out of the darkness and a parade of bicycles pedaled around the field below, their wheels alight and dazzling as their performance started the show. A dozen camera flashes sparked in the stands like the fluttering stars in the sky above. When the bicycles had wheeled their way off the field, the announcers found their place on the stage and began speaking, first in Hebrew, then in English, then in languages I didn’t even recognize, as they welcomed everyone to the eighteenth Maccabiah. Moments later, the screens behind them came alive as they called the first country’s name and their athletes began to enter the stadium. Everyone clapped, more stars came alive and died in the darkness as people took pictures of their approach, and the first country was joined by a second, and a third, and by the time the fourth one came, Carrie was asking how much longer till it would end. I laughed and told her it goes by faster on TV. Logan agreed and said at least while watching TV we could do other things.

Canada, Columbia, France—Macedonia, Lithuania, Estonia—we cheered for all the countries as their athletes entered, sometimes surprised that there were enough Jews in these unheard of lands that they could be represented here. Argentina, Uruguay, Greece—Jewish athletes from all over the world, and they kept coming and coming.

Once more the stadium fell silent and the announcers called out, “The United States of America.” We leapt up from our seats, jumping and cheering and snapping pictures like crazed paparazzi. We pounded our fists in the air and hollered, “USA! USA!” Even after the thousand athletes had found their place on the field, even after the next country and the next after that had been introduced, we continued to cheer. We cheered until our throats were sore, and as we collapsed back into our seats, I felt a sudden change in myself. I thought back to my home in North Carolina and realized that I had never felt more a part of the US than I did right then. I’d always been a part of a smaller faction, my family, my synagogue, my town, my state, but not until then had I seen myself as a part of my country, loving my country as a whole.

Carrie complained again how long it was taking, and I yawned in my seat next to her, thinking the same thing. Then we saw a white and blue-striped flag enter from the far left of the field and a rush of static ran through the stadium. Before the announcers even had a chance to speak, everyone jumped up and cheered, clapping for our homeland as Israel’s flag marched across the field. Not just the eighty of us from America, or the small group from Spain sitting behind us, or the Australians a few rows down, but all of us, the entire stadium cheering not just for the homeland of native Israelis, but the promised land for all of us, Jews from seventy countries come home to share solidarity through sportsmanship. My connection to Israel grew deeper as the cheering went on, my love of the land grew stronger as the flags waved in the air and thousands of people shared a single moment of connection, a single moment that transcended language and culture and history, and brought us together as a unified people.

Carrie asked, “Is it over yet?” and even before I could answer, the first torch-runner was introduced and began dashing around the field. The torch changed hands twice, a third time to a man in a wheelchair, and then once more to a man at the base of the stairs. He dashed upwards and we turned to watch, lifting our heads as he touched the flame to the altar and the offering burst upward toward heaven, the eighteenth Maccabiah underway, the games begun.

On the bus ride back to our campus in Hod HaSharon, we were quiet and withdrawn. The darkness didn’t lend itself to gameplay, and our voices were still hoarse from all our cheering, our bodies exhausted just the same. Inside, though, I was discovering myself again, going over the scenes once more, reliving that feeling I’d never felt before, that connection not just to a community, but to a kingdom, a new connection to both my homeland and my home.

Class: ENG 111 Expository Writing
Assignment: Write a narrative essay about a remembered event.
Grade: 95/100 (A)
Date: September, 2009

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2 thoughts on “The Other Olympics

  1. I am probably being a horrible nitpick. xD ..the assignment should say ‘a remember_ed_ event’, I believe.

    The essay itself is beautiful, though. That event sounds absolutely incredible and truly is a one-in-a-lifetime experience. In your writing it’s possible to feel at least some of the energy that was present when the Maccabiah’s opening ceremony actually occurred, and that’s just awesome. <3

  2. Indeed, my dear, your eyes are better than mine. My thanks for bringing that killer typo to my attention.

    And, as always, thank you for your wonderful words. You fill me with warmth from head to toes.

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