Maccabiah: Let the games begin


The evening skies of Ramat Gan were lit up by fireworks as the 18th Maccabiah Games Chai were officially opened at the National Stadium.

The 50,000 stadium was far from capacity but in the region of 8,000 competitors and officials made this the biggest ever Jewish Olympics.

It was all a far cry from the first Maccabiah in 1932. With Israel President Mr. Shimon Peres, and the PM, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, guests of honour, the two-hour spectacle opened with 200 illuminated bicyles entering the stadium.

Hundreds of blue and white balloons were released before Shimon Peres was given a police-escort drive into the auditorium. He was greeted by officials from Maccabi World Union before hundreds of local scouts carried in Israel flags.

The delegation then filtered into the stadium with Uzbekistan's four-team squad first in.

Team USA made history as the largest travelling delegation of more than 900. The were also healthy contingents from South Africa and Canada while there was a special cheer for Team GB, led in by World Cup winner Sir Bobby Charlton. He walked close to flagbearers Jo Ankier, David Kyte and Michael Bibring.

The crowd fell into silence for prayers dedicated to Israeli soldiers held in captivity including Gilad Shalit. Sir Bobby then took his place in the VIP box alongside Ehud Olmert, another Manchester United fan.

Israel basketball legend Tal Brody said the Maccabiah oath before football referee Alon Yefet pledged spirit and friendship during the competition.

Jeanne Futeran, President of Maccabi World Union and of the International Maccabiah Committee, thanked participants from "six continents for the magnificent welcome". She said: "During these troubled times we arrive together for sport. Together we go forward in the name of Israel. Am Israel chai."

Prime Minister Netanyahu said: "Welcome to Israel. This is your country, this is your home. So after the Games come back and make it your home."

The flame lighting ceremony featured elite athletes Daniel Brenner, Alexandr Shakil, Israeli Paralympic medallist Inbal Pizarro and rower Yasmin Finegold passing the Maccabiah torch in a relay. The final leg was run by American seven-time Olympic medallist Jason Lezak who ignited the giant torch to officially open the Games.

The ceremony was concluded by a hearty rendition of Hatikva followed by a closing speech from Peres.

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