From athlete to Head of Delegation: Barry Smorgon’s 50-year Maccabiah journey

March 9, 2020 by Michael Puterflam
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He was one of 23 Australians who competed at the 1969 edition, it was his first overseas trip and first journey to Israel. Over 50 years on, he still vividly remembers walking into the opening ceremony.

Barry Smorgon

In 2021, Barry Smorgon, currently the chairman of Maccabi Australia, will head an Australian team almost 25 times larger; a perfect illustration of the lifelong connections and memories forged at what is now the world’s third-largest sporting event.

“Walking into the stadium as I’ve had the pleasure and opportunity of doing on four occasions, it really is a highlight of ones’ life,” Smorgon said.

“The people I know who’ve done it once, they remember it for the rest of their life.

I was a young person when I marched into the stadium in 1969 and I’d never been to Israel before. In fact, it was my first overseas trip.

I didn’t know anyone who had been to a previous Maccabiah, so the whole thing was just an eye-opening experience.

And, I still recall marching into the stadium in Ramat Gan, which is in Tel Aviv.”

After moving to Sydney over two decades ago, Smorgon was asked in 2006 to be the patron of the Maccabi International Games, in doing so he ‘fell in love with Maccabi all over again.’

Since, he has been on the board of Maccabi Australia for 14 years as President or Chairman and created countless memories, many of which stem from the Maccabiah Games in Israel.

“I recall from other previous Games when the rugby team won the gold medal, that stands out.

I remember Matt Levy breaking the world record in Israel, the only world record ever achieved in Israel.

I recall Steve Solomon playing in the soccer when he was in the juniors and then in 2013 went in the 400m after he had been so successful in getting to the final at the London Olympics.

And I can’t not mention Mark Spitz. At the 1969 games, Mark was at his peak and I think he won eight gold medals in the pool. To watch what became the greatest athlete in the world, that was something pretty special as well.”
Following a thorough review of Australia’s time at, and leading up to the 2017 Games, Smorgon and his senior leadership team are planning to do things differently this time around. Their philosophy revolves around a collegiate approach, rather than putting the onus on a small group to manage the squad.

He believes the fresh approach is ‘empowering a lot of people,’ with preparations already ramping up towards the Games, which kick off in July 2021.

73 coaches and managers have already been appointed, rules, regulations and processes are being updated, and Smorgon believes his team are ‘well ahead of the curve’ as they look towards delivering the best experience possible for the athletes.

“I think that this concept of shared responsibility, doing it as a team, will pervade through not only the Operations Group people but the managers and coaches too,” he said.

“If you set the right culture – and we’re focused on athletes’ enjoyment of the Games to ensure that people maximise their athletic ability to the best of their capabilities – and we hope that everyone has a wonderful time.”

With the 2021 iteration fast approaching, Smorgon has a concise message for those thinking about taking part: “Come join the team”

“Not everybody is going to be an Olympic athlete.

Certainly not too many Jewish people from Australia, the opportunities for Jews to compete in the Olympic Games or the Commonwealth Games is pretty remote for most. Although, it appears there could be four or five Jewish athletes in the Australian team for Tokyo 2020.

This is an opportunity to actually represent the country, wear the Australian emblem as the team marches into a stadium of 45,000 people and to compete at the highest-level Jewish sport can be. That’s a privilege in and of itself I think.”

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