Sports | World

Top officials put a Jewish stamp on the Rio Olympics

An aerial view of Rio 2016 Olympic Park during construction (Gabriel Heusi/

RIO DE JANEIRO (JTA) — Mazel tov! That’s perhaps how the big shots in charge of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the first to take place in South America, will toast victories when the competition gets underway Aug. 5.

Three of the top officials of the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee, including its president, Carlos Arthur Nuzman, are Jewish.

Rio 2016's first test event, an international sailing regatta that gathered 326 athletes from 35 countries, Aug. 3, 2014. (Alex Ferro)
Rio 2016’s first test event, an international sailing regatta that gathered 326 athletes from 35 countries, Aug. 3, 2014. (Alex Ferro)

But in the run-up to the games, there have been more “oy gevalts” than mazel tovs as organizers deal with reports of unfinished venues, polluted swimming and sailing sites and, most of all, concerns about the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

In an interview with JTA, Nuzman said the number of Zika cases in Rio have dropped sharply in recent weeks, and are expected to fall even further during the dry months of the Brazilian winter, as Rio 2016 organizers emphasized at a news conference on June 7. Last month, the World Health Organization said there is no public health justification for postponing or canceling the Games.

“None of the top athletes have declared not to come. If there’s a second-layer one who won’t come, good for him,” an irritated Nuzman told JTA.

One of Brazil’s most prominent sports figures, Nuzman, 77, is a former president of the Brazilian Volleyball Confederation and has been president of the Brazilian Olympic Committee since 1995.

Nuzman preferred to talk about the robust Jewish connections at the games, including a ceremony to honor the 11 Israelis murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972, the Israeli company that is providing security for the games and his own deep ties — as an athlete, sporting official and Jew — to Brazilian sports.

“My connection with Judaism and with Israel is through sports,” said Nuzman, who was part of the first Brazilian male volleyball team in 1964  when the sport debuted at the Olympic Games. “I started my career playing at the Brazilian Israelite Club and I have attended four Maccabiah Games in Israel.”

The grandson of Russian immigrants, Nuzman was born in Rio, home to an estimated 25,000 Jews. He is an active member of the 440-family Conservative synagogue Congregacao Judaica do Brasil led by Rabbi Nilton Bonder, his nephew. Nuzman’s father, Izaak, presided over the Rio Jewish federation, the Hebraica Club and the local Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal.

“He was one the greatest leaders of our Jewish community. He brought [David] Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir to Brazil,” Nuzman boasted, noting the late prime ministers of Israel.

The Jewish trio in charge of the Rio Olympics: Carlos Arthur Nuzman is flanked by Sidney Levy, left, and Leonardo Gryner, Nov. 9, 2012. (Marcio Rodrigues)
The Jewish trio in charge of the Rio Olympics: Carlos Arthur Nuzman is flanked by Sidney Levy, left, and Leonardo Gryner, Nov. 9, 2012. (Marcio Rodrigues)

Nuzman relies on other prominent members of the local Jewish community as deputies. Sidney Levy, a business executive, is the Rio 2016 committee’s chief executive officer and has a $2.2 billion budget to manage. Leonardo Gryner, a communications and marketing director who was part of the Rio 2016 bid, is deputy CEO.

“I have no connection to sports at all,” Levy said in an interview published at the Keren Hayesod webpage. “My duty is totally business-related.”

The Jewish trio at the helm of Rio 2016 is behind the ceremony to honor the Munich victims. The Aug. 14 event at Rio’s City Hall will be co-led by the International Olympic Committee along with the Olympic committees of Israel and Brazil.

Four yeas ago, the IOC rejected appeals for a moment of silence at the opening ceremonies of the London Games in 2012, the 40th anniversary of the tragedy. Critics at the time were not appeased by various events marking the anniversary that took place at other venues.

The IOC also announced a special area in the Rio Olympic Village to commemorate the memory of all Olympians who have died. In addition, a moment of reflection in honor of all dead Olympians will be held during the closing ceremony.

“There will be no minute of silence at the opening ceremony,” read an IOC note, frustrating a longtime request of families.

The widows of weightlifter Yossef Romano and fencing coach Andre Spitzer will instead light 11 candles at the City Hall event. The Israeli government will be represented by the minister of culture and sport, Miri Regev.

“The mayor will open the doors of his house in a gesture of great friendship with the Brazilian Jewish community and the whole people of Israel,” Israel’s honorary consul in Rio, Osias Wurman, told JTA. “We are deeply moved. Symbolically falling on Tisha b’Av, one of the saddest days of the Hebrew calendar, the event will be a unique moment.”

The security of the 12,000 athletes and anticipated 500,000 visitors is among the most sensitive issues for organizers, and the Israeli company International Security and Defense Systems, or ISDS, won the international tender to secure the games. ISDS has coordinated security at previous Olympics and World Cups, and will provide services from consulting to security supply systems.

“It’s an honor for ISDS to be the very first ever Israeli group to be part of the Olympic family,” Leo Gleser, ISDS president and a former Mossad agent, told JTA.

Last November, a French national identified as an executioner in ISIS propaganda videos tweeted, “Brazil, you are our next target.” Brazil’s counterterrorism director, Luiz Alberto Sallaberry, recognized the statement as credible.

“I can’t speak much about security or it won’t be security anymore,” Nuzman told JTA .

Brazil has long regarded itself as an unlikely target of extremists thanks to its historical standing as a nonaligned, multicultural nation. Security experts have warned that many Brazilian officials do not realize how big a stage the Olympics is for anyone seeking to sow terror.

Israel will make its 16th appearance at the Olympics by bringing to Rio its largest delegation ever, with nearly 50 athletes for the Olympics and another 50 for the 2016 Paralympic Games following immediately afterward. Some 10,000 Israelis are expected to make it to Rio to root for their national heroes. A temporary Israeli consulate will be established in Rio to serve the Israeli population during the games.

“The local Jewish community enjoys seeing the Olympics team in international cooperation with other countries. The federal police have very well trained staff. We are very optimistic,” Octavio Aronis, head of security of the Brazilian Israelite Confederation, told JTA.

Rio’s Jewish federation president, Paulo Maltz, is more guarded.

“There is always a first time, it has happened twice in Argentina and Brazil is not free of it,” he told JTA, citing the Buenos Aires bombings of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the AMIA Jewish center in 1994. “We’ll be on total alert.”

Schools will be closed during the Olympics following a Rio municipality decision to move the winter school vacations from July to August, in large part to reduce traffic.

“It’s a relief,” Maltz said.

Those who make it to Rio will be able to take part in two special Shabbat ceremonies. Some 300 guests are expected at Bonder’s synagogue, including Regev, the Israeli sports minister. Chabad will host a Shabbat event during the Paralympics.

In a joint educational project around Rio 2016, students from four Jewish schools and four municipal public schools will produce a book about the Munich murders and the Olympic spirit.

“Children must understand the evil caused by terrorism,” said Sergio Niskier, one of the project organizers and a former Jewish federation president. “It’s fantastic to see Jewish schools and public schools from the municipality, despite their abyssal social and economic realities, working hand in hand in this project.”

The Israeli singer Ester Rada, whose parents were Ethiopian immigrants, will perform at official sites where fans can watch the sporting action on big screens.

“It’s an example of the polyvalent, multicultural aspect of the Jewish state, which is formed by over 70 different origins that make up the Israeli society,” said Wurman, the honorary consul.