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Maccabiah Games get underway


JERUSALEM, July 16 (JTA) — If the Super Bowl ever were held in Jerusalem, it might look something like the opening night of the 16th Maccabiah Games.

Flying acrobats, floating nymphs, pre-teens in pink stripes simulating synchronized swimmers, dancing mascots and more than 2,000 athletes paraded up and down the playing field of Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium on Monday night, celebrating the opening of this year’s Jewish Olympics.

And the estimated 20,000 locals loved it.

They cheered for every country, whether it was Ukraine, Uruguay or the United States. Clapping as each of the 45 countries was announced, they rose to their feet only when the blue-and-white Israeli contingent emerged at the end.

They munched on boureka pastries and cracked open bagfuls of sesame seeds, the Israeli version of hot dogs and popcorn. Many were immigrants from the countries represented in the Maccabiah, wearing their native countries’ colors or waving their flags.

Swigging bottles of water and Coke, they boogied to the Israeli music piped in through the loudspeakers. When the stadium lights went off, they swung the flashlights provided by El Al Israel Airlines, oohing and aahing at the fireworks that lit the sky.

Beyond the stadium, the view was of Gilo and Beit Jalla, the Jerusalem community and the neighboring Arab Christian village from which Palestinian snipers have fired at Israeli civilians for much of the past year.

But the Israelis inside the stadium were ready to celebrate the presence of more than 2,000 Jewish athletes from around the world.

They didn’t mind leaving their cars in parking lots at the entrance to the city and taking Egged buses to the stadium, which is located at the southern end of Jerusalem.

“These people are coming from all over, from Netanya to Nahariya,” said Motti, a Jerusalem policeman directing traffic.

Security was tight in Jerusalem in preparation for the opening of the games in the open-air stadium named for longtime former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek.

Early Monday, two would-be Palestinian bombers blew themselves up less than a mile from the heavily guarded stadium in what appeared to be a “work accident.”

Jerusalem Police Commander Mickey Levy said the bomb was intended for the Maccabiah opening.

There were more than 1,000 security personnel guarding the stadium for Monday night’s event. During the day, Israeli teen-agers waiting for permits to work at the stadium stood impatiently in line as two harried Maccabiah staffers checked the lists provided by the production team.

“If your name’s not on the list, I can’t let you in,” explained Michal, a staffer, for perhaps the 10th time. The scenario was little changed later in the day as thousands of ticket holders stood in line, waiting for security to check their bags and wave them through the metal detectors.

The crowds were surprisingly complacent about being herded to their seats.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that this year’s Maccabiah was more than just a quadrennial Jewish sporting event.

Until mid-June, the security threat posed by the ongoing Palestinian uprising caused Maccabiah officials to consider canceling the event.

There also was the specter of the last Maccabiah Games in 1997, when a bridge collapsed, sending the Australian team tumbling into the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv and killing four of them.

Australia’s Maccabiah team gathered Sunday at the site of the bridge collapse for an official memorial service. At Monday night’s opening, there was a short memorial service commemorating the Australian athletes, as well as the Israelis killed in the 1972 Munich Olympics and Jewish soldiers who died in World Wars I and II.

For the most part, though, spirits were high as more than 2,000 athletes marched into the stadium in their uniforms.

Due to the security situation, fewer athletes are competing this year than in past Games. But Maccabiah officials and local leaders applauded those who came.

“You have done it, thank you,” said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “This is the kind of solidarity we need now, more than ever.”

This year’s Games have been shortened to seven days from the usual 10.

Several Olympic gold medalists are competing, including U.S. swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg, who won three gold medals in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Born in Soviet Union, the 25-year-old Krayzelburg told Israeli media that he sees the Maccabiah as an opportunity to show how important Israel is to Diaspora communities.

“I’ve wanted to go to this for a year and a half,” Krayzelburg said. “It’s not just about a swimming competition.”

This year’s sporting event has become more than just the Jewish Olympics, according to Maccabiah officials.

“We are one people, with one dream,” Maccabiah World Union President Jean Feterer said at Monday night’s event. “Be strong and be courageous.”

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