Playing in the Holy Land

Runners race through Jerusalem’s walled Old City during the first Jerusalem Marathon this spring.

The easy assumption to make about the Israeli sporting culture is that it’s a place where athletics are used as distraction from an often-troubled reality.  

Easy, yes. But not exactly accurate.

For reporters in the country this spring on a trip centered around the first Jerusalem?Marathon, the storyline seemed simple when a bombing struck the city days before the race. And though mayor Nir Barkat broached the incident in a prerace news conference, talk soon returned to the course’s hilly nature and historic setting.

It didn’t seem forced or head-in-the-sand. It could have been Mayor Menino talking about Boston.

All in all, it seems, sports are popular in Israel for the same reasons they are in the U.S. It’s not about distraction. Sport is international.

Pride in Israeli national teams and competitors is palpable there — the Olympic Experience Museum in Tel Aviv is an impressive testament to that. And the Wingate Institute near Netanya is dedicated to turning out top-caliber athletes.

But watching a Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball game in a sports bar is just like catching the Celtics.

Israel’s just as active in participatory sports. An Appalachian Trail-style hike bisects the country from north to south, and smaller trails wind through historic sites outside Jerusalem. There’s mountain biking, climbing and golf (yes, really), too.


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