Spirit of Judah Maccabee strides into the present day
(CNN) -- The Maccabiah Games is arguably Israel's premier athletic event.
Patterned after the Olympics, it features Jewish athletes from nations throughout the world competing in a variety of sports.
The spirit of the event, as well as its name, is linked to the Hanukkah celebration.
The games were named after Judah Maccabee, who battled the forced assimilation by the Greek-Syrian kingdom that ruled Palestine during the 2nd century B.C.E.
The physical prowess of the ancient Maccabees later came to symbolize the modern-day strength, athleticism and military might of the Jewish state.
In the late 19th century, Jews who faced oppression formed self-defense units and gymnastic clubs. They used the Judah Maccabee name as a model.
Theodore Herzl, father of modern Zionism, stressed the interest in strength when he said: "Join together, young men, we need you. Train not only your spirit, but your muscles as well. Be strong and upright and study diligently. We shall need your strength and your knowledge. I believe that a new and wonderful generation of Jews shall arise in the country. The sons of the Maccabees will return to life!"
On the eve of World War I, more than 100 such clubs existed in Europe.
As the Jewish community grew in Palestine, interest in sports took hold. The first World Maccabiah Games were staged in 1932.
Over the years, the games have evolved. More nations and more athletes have taken part.
The 15th Maccabiah last summer was the largest so far. Some 5,500 athletes representing 56 countries competed in 43 different sports throughout Israel.
The event was marred when a bridge collapsed at the opening ceremony. One hundred Australian athletes were on the bridge when it collapsed. Four were killed and others were injured.
Some of the better-known athletes in America who have taken part in the games include swimmers Mark Spitz and Wendy Weinberg, basketball players Larry Brown and Ernie Grunfeld and weightlifter Isaac Berger.