My First-Hand Account of Covering the Maccabiah in Israel

Editor’s Note: This first-hand account of Neag School graduate student Noam Watt ’22 ED with a degree in Sports Management deals with his summer experiences covering Maccabiah.

As a student at UConn, I have covered Gampel Pavilion, Rentschler Field, Elliot Ballpark and numerous venues down the road including Clemson University. This summer I added a new location to my reporting trip: Israel.

Full Maccabi Media Program team
The Maccabi Media Program team of 14 meets during the Maccabiah Contest in Israel. (Photo courtesy of Noam Watt)

I spent July reporting on the United States delegation in Maccabiah 21. The Maccabiad, often referred to as the Jewish Olympiad, is the third largest sporting event in the world. I was one of 14 journalism students selected for the Inaugural Maccabi Media Program.

Chaired by longtime Philadelphia 76ers broadcaster Marc Zumoff, the Maccabi Media Program provided daily coverage of Team USA at the 21st Maccabiah, including live broadcasts, feature videos, articles and game recaps.

After arriving in Israel on July 6th, we spent the first week touring the country as part of our Israel Connect program – hiking in the northern region, floating in the Dead Sea, learning about the history of Masada and visiting the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. While athletes from 42 different sports at Maccabiah balanced tours with early-morning exercises at training camp, the media team was hard at work writing stories and producing videos of the day trips. On Israel Connect Saturday I reported from the lowest point on earth at the Dead Sea and then from the top of Mount Masada. The blazing 100 degree heat was a change from the November football games at Rent.

Sports competitions began on July 12. Our first assignment was for men’s volleyball between the USA and Israel. The Israel team consisted mainly of national team players. They made quick work of the Americans in a three-set sweep. (Watch a time-lapse video of the media team getting ready to film a game.)

The next day we got up at dawn and slept after midnight. At 6:00 a.m. we were at the Kraft Family Sports Campus in Jerusalem preparing for an 8:30 a.m. broadcast of men’s soccer between the USA and Belgium. Since it was our first broadcast of the trip, we quickly learned how to set up a three-camera broadcast complete with monitors, intercom headsets, and cables galore. The biggest challenge? Find internet access in a foreign country. Also, none of us spoke Hebrew. Still, we found our way into the air and the Americans found our way into the back net – seven times in a 7-0 win.

After dismantling and packing our gear, it was back to the hotel for a nap before the opening ceremony later that evening at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium. We invaded country by country in the adjacent ice hockey arena, which served as a staging area. The energy grew as more athletes walked in, each in a colorful outfit to represent their nation. As dusk fell, the Parade of Nations began. We left the hockey arena and entered the football stadium via the parking lot.

The feeling of being surrounded by so many Jews was deep. I would take a moment… to look around and appreciate that everyone there was Jewish.

My job for the night was to film the US delegation entering the ceremony. That came with the advantage of being at the front of the field, even ahead of our flag bearer, Stuart Weitzman. I will never forget the feeling when all 1,400 Americans gathered in the delegation, decked out in red, white and blue striped sweatshirts. There was a sense of excitement, energy and Jewish pride. Chants of “USA” echoed through the summer air as anticipation mounted. Then we marched out of the backstage tunnel, under an archway, into the limelight of a stage projecting the flag of the United States. The packed stadium erupted and the next few minutes were a blur for me as I shot around and filmed the team.

I remember President Joe Biden waving to our delegation from a box—he was the first US President to attend Maccabiah. I remember the sound of Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” blasting out of the speakers. I remember little kids asking me for my USA hat or holding out their hands for a high five. I felt like a celebrity. However, my job was to remain locked in and continue to film the actual celebrities, the athletes. We weaved through the crowd and to our seats where we could relax and enjoy a performance filled with music, fireworks and the lighting of the Maccabiah Torch.

Noam Watt and Ethan Zohn
Noam Watt (left) meets with Ethan Zohn after the 45-plus football team volunteered at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv. (Photo courtesy of Noam Watt)

The next day we were back at work sharing stories from athletes like Ethan Zohn, winner of Survivor: Africa and a goaltender on the 45+ men’s soccer team. His team volunteered at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv.

As the competition progressed, there were great victories and narrow defeats. There were wonderful moments too. On July 19th I was assigned to cover wheelchair basketball, one of the few Paralympic sports in the Maccabiah.

With seconds on the clock and the United States two behind, the US got the ball to Allon Doronn, who pulled up from the halfcourt and nailed a game-winning buzzer-beater. He was bullied – not only by his teammates, but also by his opponents.

Doronn, a left foot amputee, saw his shot quickly go viral, which is featured on NBC Sports, ESPN and countless other sites. It showed an incredible moment of athleticism and also represented the beauty of adaptive sports.

That was the most significant competitive moment during my time in Israel. Adaptive sports are particularly important to me because they were a way for my oldest brother, Aaron, to exercise. Additionally, exercise can be a way to develop skills, make friends, and achieve goals in a supportive environment as a child.

Aaron, who has significant disabilities, played adaptive football and basketball in his youth. He was paired with volunteers who worked with him on techniques and allowed him to play the sports many of us grew up playing. His participation mattered to me as his younger brother—so much so that I ran the same program as a senior.

Seeing Doronn’s shot go viral was validation that adaptive sports matter. They are important because they enable people of all abilities to play sports. They are important because they evoke magical moments. They are important because they give all athletes a chance to shine.

At the end of the games, the United States collected the medals, totaling 274 of them. There were gold medals in some high-profile sports like men’s and women’s basketball, women’s soccer and men’s ice hockey, and gold in sports like fencing for the first time in decades. While the focus was on sporting achievements, the experience was important to athletes, coaches and media alike.

The feeling of being surrounded by so many Jews was deep. With each sport we covered, I took a moment to look around and appreciate that everyone there was Jewish. It was an unusual feeling after growing up in classrooms and teams where I was one of only a few Jewish children. But in the Maccabiah I was one of many Jews. And while I didn’t fight for gold, I did what I love in a country that feels like home to me.

During my three weeks in Israel I grew personally and professionally. Now I will translate it into my work at UConn where I will be a video assistant for the athletics department. But for now reporting from home in the United States, I’m Noam Watt, Maccabi Media.

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