July 11, 2005

Israel opens Maccabiah amid security for Sharon

By Ori Lewis

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - The 17th Maccabiah Games, popularly
known as the "Jewish Olympics," began on Monday with a burst of
song, dance and fireworks, and unprecedented security for Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon.

Sharon, attending the quadrennial event in a Tel Aviv
stadium, sat behind a newly erected wall of bulletproof glass
in the dignitaries' box.

He has faced death threats over his plan to evacuate all 21
Jewish settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank
starting in mid-August.

The games were the biggest in Maccabiah history, with some
7,000 competitors from 55 countries participating and about
30,000 spectators, a sign of a sharp decline in
Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed since a ceasefire was declared in

The previous Maccabiah in 2001 was postponed by two months
following a series of Palestinian suicide bombings and shooting

Run loosely along Olympic guidelines, the 11-day event
includes athletics, swimming, football and tennis as well as
lawn bowls, chess, bridge, netball and cricket.

The games' image was badly tarnished eight years ago when a
footbridge collapsed over a polluted river at the entrance to
the Tel Aviv stadium where the opening ceremony was being held,
killing four Australian competitors.

A Maccabiah Games organizer was convicted for negligence in
the bridge collapse along with four other Israelis involved in
building the structure.

The games were founded in 1932, 16 years before Israel's
establishment. They have been held regularly, except between
1938 and 1950, the years corresponding with the Nazi Holocaust
and the Arab-Israeli war that led to Israel's establishment in

Among the competitors this year were more than two dozen
current or former Olympic, world or European champions.

Israel has long seen the Maccabiah, now more a Jewish
jamboree than a top-class sports event, as a showcase of Jewish
pride and solidarity and an opportunity to attract new
immigrants from among the athletes.

"It's much more about bringing people together," said Yael
Arad, Israel's first Olympic medal winner from 1992 and herself
a former competitor in the Maccabiah women's judo events.