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16th Maccabiah Games come to a close

JERUSALEM, July 23 (JTA) — The 16th Maccabiah Games ended with a lot of fanfare, flaming batons and fireworks — and a sigh of relief from the organizers that the much-anticipated event had ended safely and without mishap.

There were hundreds of police officers and soldiers surrounding the outdoor Jerusalem space where the event was held. In addition, X-ray scanners and metal detectors checked bags and bodies, making the attendees feel secure.

This was the first time the Maccabiah opening and closing ceremonies were held in Jerusalem. Last week’s opening event was at Teddy Stadium, in the city’s southern corner, while the closing party was in the cavity of Sultan’s Pool, a Herodian reservoir that looks up at the ancient walls of the Old City.

More than one delegation head said he would breath more easily once his athletes were home safe and sound — but he was glad they had attended this year’s Games.

“This was about solidarity, showing a deep connection to the state of Israel,” said Richard Feldman, the delegation head for Great Britain, who brought 160 athletes instead of the usual 350 British delegates.

Indeed, that was the theme of the closing ceremony: Unity and solidarity, or “Am Echad” — or One Nation — and “We Are One,” both of which were printed on the T-shirts worn by American athletes to the final event.

“This year’s Maccabiah made a statement, and the athletes should feel proud,” said Bob Spivack, president of the Philadelphia-based Maccabiah USA. “It’s about more than sports.”

After the bombing at the Dolphinarium disco in Tel Aviv at the beginning of June, several countries pulled out of the Maccabiah Games, despite pleas from Israel that they not award a victory to Palestinian terrorists.

The USA team almost canceled as well, which could have been fatal to the Games. The organization’s executive committee urged world organizers to postpone the Games until 2002 for security reasons.

But after meeting with Israeli and Jewish leaders, such as Sports Minister Matan Vilnai and Canadian philanthropist Charles Bronfman, the Americans decided to attend.

At that point, countries had to scramble to find players, replace coaches and form teams. Yet despite fewer teams and athletes than in previous years, many participants felt the level of competition was still high.

Israel blew away the rest of the field in the medal race, winning 96 gold, 74 silver and 74 bronze medals. The U.S. team came in second, with 21 gold, 23 silver and 30 bronze medals.

The Israeli team — used to the security situation in their native land — was the largest, but its member athletes also were considered among the most skilled and competitive.

With this year’s competition safely behind them, some began setting their sights to the future.

“We need to start planning now for the next Games in four years,” said Mark Berman, a coach for the Israeli softball team. “My view is that this continues to serve a purpose. It’s bonding for Jewish athletes, and I’m encouraged that so many individuals made a statement and showed up for the Maccabiah.”

It didn’t seem as if the athletes were ready to leave after Monday night’s closing ceremony. They stomped their feet, waved colored flashlights and hooted their way through the show, which included belly dancers, the Israel Defense Force choir performing disco numbers and a helicopter bearing the Maccabiah flame from Teddy Stadium.

In return, the athletes were thanked and applauded for their decision to compete.

“We’re grateful to the athletes, because without them we wouldn’t have had the Maccabiah at all,” said Oudi Recanati, chairman of the Maccabi World Union and one of the sponsors of the 16th Games, which were shortened to seven days from the usual 10.

Despite the low turnout and some unusual competitions — in some events every team won a medal, because there were only three teams — it seemed that the significance of this year’s games was that they took place at all during such a tense and trying time for Israel.

“The very fact that the 16th Maccabiah was held, against all odds, is a tribute to the Jewish people of the world,” Recanati said.

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