By Alex Flum, Monica McNutt and Hannah Yasharoff
Eilat, ISRAEL- When Ed Peskowitz agreed to sponsor the first Friendship Games, he didn’t have a master plan to settle international tensions with jump shots.
After serving as an assistant basketball coach at the 2005 Maccabiah Games, Peskowitz, then co-owner of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, was asked to sponsor an international peace conference in Israel. Peskowitz declined, but said he might be interested if the conference related to sports.
Now in its 12th year, the Friendship Games is defined less by its week-long international basketball tournament, and more by the forum it serves for cross-cultural exposure and interaction. That latter role has become increasingly critical over the life of the event.
“It was an opportunity, just by happenstance, to do something with international understanding,” said Peskowitz in a recent interview in his Potomac, Maryland, office two weeks before the start of this year’s event.
Set against the scenic backdrop of Eilat, a tourist beach town and the southernmost city in Israel, the tournament seeks to bring together countries not always friendly toward each other.
Both female and male athletes – as young as 18 and as old as 32 – will represent Lithuania, Jordan, Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Palestine, Ukraine, Poland and Eilat have men’s teams participating, while Russia is sending a women’s team. Three women from Germany will join the Jordanian squad.
Israel will have four different teams: Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and a local team from Eilat.
“Many countries have had conflicts in the not too distant past,” said Arie Rosenzwieg, Games organizer and former Athletic Director of Tel Aviv University. “All this is put aside and friendships formed.”
Shella Carmi, who became the manager of the games in 2012 but has been involved in the Games since its inception, recalled the first Friendship Games being confined to the court, with only a few cultural events taking place.
Now, Carmi likens the environment during the week-long event in Eilat to an Olympic village.
“They are eating breakfast, lunch and dinner [together],” Carmi said. “At the pool in the night and everybody together, that’s the point of the Friendship Games… It’s not enough going to the court and play[ing] basketball and that’s all. We need to help them connect to each other.”
Michael Leitner, a professor at California State University – Chino, says his interest in the Friendship Games is to use sports as a tool in conflict resolution among players from countries that may not always get along.
“Usually (dialogue groups) bring together people who already have positive attitudes,” Leitner responded to questions via e-mail. “The beauty of sports programs like the Friendship Games is that many of the participants could be there for the thrill of the competition, not necessarily because they are drawn to coexistence programs.”
According to Leitner, who surveyed competitors prior to last year’s Friendship Games, “negative attitudes persist among Arabs and Jews towards each other” and that “many Europeans have negative attitudes toward Israelis.”
Leitner’s research revealed 60 percent of Arabs and Jews believe “it is nearly impossible to trust each other.”
After the 2016 Games, however, 80 percent of those participants Leitner surveyed said they trusted Israeli Jews, Arabs, Palestinians and Jordanians. Leitner said the Friendship Games generate more impact than traditional peace summits or dialogue.
In the past, the tournament has seen as many as 32 teams, hailing from Greece, Serbia, China, Canada and the United States. Liberty College in Lynchburg, Virginia, participates every four years due to an NCAA rule that prohibits student-athletes from playing abroad more than once during their college careers.
With a wide range of professional leagues abroad, some players from Israel, Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Germany, Cyprus and Greece have played in the Friendship Games, according to Carmi.
During the eight days of competition, dozens of young athletes will compete on the court, but off the court stay in the same hotels, eat meals together, sightsee and socialize with each other. The Games’ organizers hope that the connections made will extend beyond the tournament.
“This is not something that can be measured,” said Rosenzweig via e-mail. “But the continued success and friendships that prevail throughout the years speaks for itself.”
The event’s organizers sponsored student coverage of the Friendship Games. Editorial control of the coverage and content remained with the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.