(JTA) — Newly-elected Argentine President Javier Milei spoke last Thursday at the opening ceremony of the Pan American Maccabi Games, an international tournament for Jewish athletes which runs until January 5.
Over 10,000 people attended the two-hour event at Movistar Arena in Buenos Aires, located in the city’s Villa Crespo neighbourhood, which is traditionally associated with the local Jewish community.
A handful of countries from outside of North and South America sent athlete delegations, including Australia, Great Britain, France and Zimbabwe. Israel’s delegation — pared down in size due to the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks — received a special welcome.
The Aussies are represented by 160 athletes, coaches, managers, officials, and supporters, and got to be the first team to march into the stadium, due to alphabetical order.
They’d arrived almost a week earlier for a team pre-Games camp, and are having an unforgettable time.
The chosen flagbearers for Australia were Neil Slonim, Barry Lipp, and Sam Gamsu.
When officially opening the Games, Argentina’s president said, “I want a warm greeting to all the Jewish people and in particular to those who have family or loved ones near the front lines,” said Milei, referencing the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza
His comments drew multiple standing ovations. “I accompany you in this difficult moment and I want to ratify at this moment my unalterable commitment to the state of Israel and to the Jewish people in their fight against Islamic terrorism, for peace and freedom.”
He also referenced the Chanukah story, as he did in his inauguration speech, and added some words in Hebrew.
“Many times I have said that I did not come to guide lambs, but to awaken lions. I see in the Maccabean Games this spirit of excellence and courage,” he said.
“Because of that, I say to the athletes ‘Chazak ve’ematz’ [‘be strong and courageous’].”
The opening ceremony included a sombre prayer in memory of those killed on Oct. 7, led by Romina Schvalb from Kibbutz Nir Oz.
Her brother-in-law, Ruben Engel, was killed in the Hamas attacks.
Other prominent attendees included Argentine Vice President Victoria Villaruel; the U.S. and Israeli ambassadors to Argentina, Marc Stanley and Eyal Sela; and the mayor of Buenos Aires, Jorge Macri.
Milei, a right-wing former economist who has already begun enacting sweeping changes to the country’s financial system, is not Jewish — but he has a passionate interest in Judaism.
He has talked about studying with a rabbi, and potentially converting to the religion.
For his first trip abroad since being elected last month, he visited the tomb of the Lubavitcher rebbe in New York.
The Pan American games started in 1950 and occur every four years. Argentina was also host in 1995 and 2007.
On the first two days of the Games, Australia won several gold and silver medals in triathlon (MacMan), swimming, and table tennis, and its netball team beat Argentina 51-16.
For the latest Australian team updates, visit http://www.facebook.com/macauspanam