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Tuesday, 17 July, 2001, 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK
Thousands at 'Jewish Olympics' despite fears
Dancers at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah games in Jerusalem on Monday
The opening ceremony proceeds amid tight security
The Maccabiah Games - the alleged target of a Palestinian militant attack - is an international Jewish sporting event which has become known as the Jewish Olympics.

Thousands of Jewish athletes from around the world are attending.

The 16th Maccabiah Games, originally scheduled to last 11 days, has been shortened to eight days, after many athletes cancelled their participation for fear of attacks by militant Palestinians.

Members of the UK delegation entering Teddy Stadium
The event will end next Monday
A suicide bomber killed two Israelis in a northern Israeli town less than one hour before the opening ceremony on Monday night.

Israeli security said they averted a spectacular and deadly attack planned for the closing ceremony, when they killed two senior members of the militant Hamas movement in a helicopter strike on Bethlehem on Tuesday.

Earlier Monday, two Palestinians who police say were preparing a bomb one kilometre (half a mile) from the stadium were killed when the device exploded prematurely.

43 delegations

More than 3,200 athletes, making up 43 delegations, marched down Teddy Stadium in West Jerusalem at the opening ceremony, as security forces surrounded the area and helicopters hovered above.

The athletes were led out on the field by the Australian delegation, which lost four of its members during the previous Maccabiah games, in July 1997, when a bridge they were crossing collapsed.

At least 16,000 spectators, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, assembled at the stadium for the festive opening.

'Maccabean spirit'

As he greeted the athletes and audience, Mr Sharon said, "Today another terrible crime of Palestinian terror has struck us. Your arrival in Israel from the far corners of the earth is a testimony to the victory of the spirit of the ancient Maccabeans [who, according to Jewish tradition, fought the ancient Greeks to defend Jerusalem]."

The feeling was shared by some of the participating athletes and their relatives.

The father of a South African table-tennis player, Leslie Shein, 51, told the Associated Press news agency he felt a sense of unity in the opening festivities.

"It's very meaningful at this time when we feel so isolated," he said. "We feel the world is against us."

Others admitted they were nervous.

Tense atmosphere

"It's very difficult for the athletes to compete in this tense atmosphere, but I know that we are very well protected by the army and local police," Jonathan Vakneen, an American track and field athlete, told Israel radio.

The American delegation was supposed to number about 600 athletes, but "with all the fears and concerns, that was cut back to about 350," the US team manager, Jed Margolis, was quoted as saying by AP.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seen on a huge video screen at the opening of the Maccabiah
Mr Sharon hailed the "victory of the spirit of the ancient Maccabeans"
One very famous American athlete did make it, however, despite the political tension.

Lenny Krayzelburg, a backstroke swimmer who won three gold medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, chose to compete at the Maccabiah instead of going to the 9th world swimming championship in Fukuoka, Japan.

"I think one of the things Lenny always wanted to do was go to the Maccabiah Games," said Penny Taylor, the head of the US delegation at Fukuoka.

Mr Krayzelburg set a Maccabiah record for the 100-meter backstroke in preliminary trials on Sunday.

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17 Jul 01 | Middle East
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