Feature photo courtesy of the Friendship Games
Eilat, Israel— At the end of the first day of the 2017 Friendship Games, international diplomacy met Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.”
A dance party capped the opening night of the week-long basketball tournament in Eilat, Israel, that brings together college athletes from varying backgrounds around Europe, the Middle East and Russia. The approach is emblematic of what distinguishes the Friendship Games from other international gatherings.
When the Games debuted in 2006, the schedule heavily favored basketball over social events. But as Games manager Shella Carmi has learned over her 12 years working for the tournament in various positions, the social events are what forge the best connections between participants who are sometimes reluctant to do so. They are planned as carefully as the games are by event organizers.
“It makes people want to come,” Carmi said. “They [are] fighting to get a budget from the universities, or even paying half price from their pocket in order to come.”
The opening night festivities, which Carmi likes to move to a different location each year to entice athletes to return, took place this year at an outdoor space in the desert off a dirt road. The sign at the entrance says it is a camel ranch, but the facility bizarrely combined the elements of a nightclub, petting zoo and obstacle course.
And the athletes loved it.
At one point, a dance circle emerged around a player from Jordan and a team manager for the Israeli Jewish team, who had perhaps the most exceptional dance moves to “Despacito” — Luis Fonsi’s version, not Justin Bieber’s— the Friendship Games have ever seen.
For attendees, it was a no-pressure means of easing into the co-existent nature of the tournament; a way to connect with people with seemingly nothing in common.
“The main focus of the Friendship Games, from what I’ve heard, is to bring Arabs and Israelis more close together and to not stay so blind about both sides,” said Marta Coelho, a player for the Israeli Jewish team who lived in Angola, Holland and Hong Kong before moving to Tel Aviv three years ago.
“It opens your mind to the realities and not so much what you see on TV or in the media where they over-dramatize the whole issue. It’s not so black and white… and I think the Friendship Games really brings that out.”
Carmi said she and her volunteers used to plan impromptu, optional social events during nights at the hotel, but that most teams opted out and stuck to their individual groups.
“Maybe one or two with the open minds and better English, they’ll accept our invitation, but not all of the teams,” Carmi said. “And the end, when the tournament is finished and everybody goes home, nobody stay in touch.”
Counter that with what has happened every year since the Games made social events mandatory and at exciting off-campus locations: “Much, much less tension,” according to Carmi.
She added that teams stayed at the hotel Friday night after a busy, tiring day, but after some solid time socializing at the opening ceremony, willingly intermingled on their own, sharing drinks and playing cards.
“You can see the Polish sitting with Lithuania,” Carmi said. “Lithuanian guys are a close team and it was the first time [they sat with another team]. I saw guys from Palestine and Jordan and everybody sitting [in the hotel lobby together.]”
For the next week, players will be confined during the day to playing with their teammates. At night, however, they’ll be brought back together through fun activities like a speed dating ice-breaker, live entertainment and just plain hanging out in the hotel.
It’s an oversimplification, to say the least, to suggest a dance party is the solution to world peace. Prejudices toward other countries don’t magically melt away in one night.
But there was an undeniable change in the air after the festivities of the first two days: players who before sat during meals in flocks of only their own teammates began to branch out. Friendly ping pong matches between nations were proposed over broken English.
They’re small steps, but they’re steps in the right direction. And they’re steps that are sometimes most easily taken through a collective “Single Ladies” dance break.
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.