Behind a dazzling display of fireworks and with the help of a star-studded cast of Israeli entertainers, some 7,000 athletes, coaches and officials from 52 countries kicked off the 17th Maccabiah Games on Monday night before an estimated crowd of 40,000 screaming fans.
The opening ceremony at the Ramat Gan National Stadium - replete with a torch-lighting, a march of delegations and speeches by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Moshe Katsav - pounded home the innate message of the games: The international teams on hand for the quadrennial occasion did more than represent their countries; they came to Israel as members of the Jewish people.
"Good evening to you all," boomed Sharon - in his characteristic deep voice - behind bullet-proof glass. "Welcome to Israel! Welcome home!"
Sharon's speech, which came after a two-hour parade of each country's team - the delegations entered the stadium in alphabetical order, albeit in Hebrew, so Uruguay marched around the track before Azerbaijan did - extolled the importance of the games in demonstrating Jewish unity. In his closing remarks, the prime minister extended an open invitation to all the non-Israeli athletes on the field.
"I wish you all success in the games," said the premier. "I hope that by the next Maccabiah, you will make aliyah to the Jewish homeland and be a part of the Israeli delegation."
At that point, the audience erupted in applause as competitors from the United States, Britain, Italy and scores of other countries proudly waved Israel's colors.
But the evening's festivities were also tempered by sadness.
At the beginning of the program, the event emcees, speaking in Hebrew, English and Spanish, announced the previous day's death of an Israeli Maccabiah official, as well as the canceling of the traditional torch relay from the Tomb of the Maccabees in Modi'in to Ramat Gan.
Further on, the stadium's lights went dark while the facility's two large television screens flickered images of candles for a Yizkor ceremony honoring the Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, in addition to the Australian athletes who died after the collapse of a bridge spanning the Yarkon River at the 15th Maccabiah Games in 1997. While somber instrumentals filled the stadium with sound, members of the audience took out small flashlights provided to them upon entry and turned them on, bathing the crowd in tiny points of light.
No other delegation received as loud an entrance as Australia, except for Israel, which as the host nation arrived last.
The evening's more colorful honors, on the other hand, appeared to go to none other than the United States, which followed a handful of cheerleaders in orange skirts, and Brazil, whose delegation's exuberant members, after filing into their place, broke rank and climbed to the top of the podium at the middle of the field. After security guards dispersed them, they ran in zig-zag lines, grasping their country's flag.
Those in the stands exhibited similar raucousness. Some of the loudest fans came from Great Britain, who after repeated blows of a whistle would shout, time and time again, "England!"
Family members and friends seemed to dominate the audience, although a good number of Israelis turned out for the occasion, some wearing their army uniforms and running through the stands while singing popular Hebrew tunes.
In an interview the day before the event, Louis Moyerman, the Philadelphia-based manager for the American team, said that while the athletes came to win - the competition's motto is "Live, Love, Win" - some 4,000 participants were embracing each other as friends instead of adversaries.
"Everybody's a sportsman, everybody wants to win, but already they're exchanging badges and hats and shirts," said Moyerman, whose own children are competing in the games. "The camaraderie people have [means there's] more to the results than just a gold, silver and bronze."
At the stadium, Israel's president summed up the real meaning of it all: "The Maccabiah symbolizes our being one people, one large family," said Katsav. "You represent the Jewish people throughout all the generations here tonight."