A friend of Charles Coates at the University of Illinois had some interesting news in early 1935.
"Chuck, they’re having a track meet in Palestine," Coates’ buddy said.
Coates, a sprinter since his elementary school and high school days in New York City, hadn’t heard of the second Maccabiah Games. But an all-expenses-paid trip overseas sounded exciting.
Enter me in the tryouts, Coates told his friend.So a few weeks later, Coates showed up at an armory here, qualified for the U.S. Maccabiah team and in March, as a one-man sprint team, was part of a 16-athlete American delegation that boarded the Conte Di Savoie, an Italian ship, bound for the Promised Land.
"I have all the memories" of the weeks of travel back and forth, of the nine days of competition, of the encounters with Jewish athletes from 28 countries, says Coates, who went to school with future Olympian and sportscaster Marty Glickman and played high school football against future Football Hall of Famer Sid Luckman.
Coates still lives in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and still works every day as president of the Paramount Wire Co., a firm founded by his father.
At 91, Coates is, as far as he knows, the oldest veteran Maccabiah competitor still living in the New York area.
He remembers the voyage ("We went in steerage. I think we could see the fish."), the running on a cinder track (he won a bronze medal in the mile relay), the accommodations in the Tel Aviv house of an American-born couple (many of the U.S. athletes stayed in tents), and the touring of the country (the team went by bus to the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb and the Dead Sea) like it was yesterday, Coates says.
A supporter of the Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel organization, he thinks back now to his first and only time in Palestine, which became Israel 13 years later.
"I think more of it now than I did then," he says.
With an omnipresent tie and jacket, perfect hearing and glasses he wears only for driving, and still slim with the bearing of an athlete, Coates looks and acts 20 years younger than his age.
"God gave me years," he says. "People ask me when I’ll retire. I tell them, ‘That will happen when I get old.’ "
Coates shows a visitor a picture of the U.S. team marching in Tel Aviv’s sports stadium in the 1935 Games’ opening ceremony, and remembers what he was thinking that April day.
"I had [the letters] USA on my shirt. I thought, ‘I’m representing all the Jews of the United States,’ " he recalls.
That, Coates says, is when he started to realize he wasn’t in "just another track meet." That and when training at the Jerusalem YMCA across the street from the King David Hotel, he met Jewish athletes from around the world. And when he heard stories there about the dangerous conditions, the attacks on Jews by Arabs, in Palestine.
With the Holocaust on the horizon in Europe, the 1935 Maccabiah was held (despite British opposition) a year earlier than scheduled, earned the title of the "Aliyah Olympics." Flouting British Mandate prohibitions on Jews immigrating to Palestine, many of the athletes, including the entire Bulgarian delegation, stayed there after the Games. The German team surprisingly had received permission at the last minute from the Nazi government to attend the Jewish competition.
Not that Coates paid much attention.
"I was a 20-year-old kid," he says. Actually, he was 21. "I was too busy looking at the girls. I was too busy being a kid, having fun."
If honesty were an Olympic event, Coates would win the gold.
"I was a young, stupid kid," he says, an indifferent student and an indifferent trainer. He wasn’t in top shape; that’s why he didn’t win any individual sprint events. "If I had applied myself, I could have won any event I entered."
Coates says the Maccabiah experience changed him. It made him grow up. "It made me proud I was a Jew," he says.
"I vowed," Coates says, "I never again would have to say, ‘I could have done better if I applied myself."
Within a year, Coates was at work in his father’s business.
"All my competitiveness I put in the business," helping to keep it afloat during the Depression and boosting it years later when foreign competition left it without clients, he says.
Soon he was married; his running days were over. The next Maccabiah, slated for 1938 but postponed by the imminent outbreak of war in Europe, didn’t take place until 1950. Coates never went back to Palestine or Israel.
"I’ve been busy working," he says.
His Maccabiah medal? "I don’t even know where it is," he says. Over the years it got lost, mixed up in his collection of trophies and awards.
"I used to win medals every week," Coates says.
The trip back to New York, like the voyage over, took several weeks, with stops along the way at several European ports. When he returned here, in June, he called his friend who had told him about the Maccabiah Games.
Coates offered his thanks. "I said, ‘Without you I would not have had that experience.’"