JERUSALEM — Marred by a tragic accident four years ago, a scaled-down version of the Maccabiah Games, the so-called Jewish Olympics, opens Monday night amid tight security in a region torn by months of violence.
The event received its first security scare before dawn, when Israeli police found the bodies of two Palestinians who reportedly died while assembling a bomb a half-mile from Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium, site of the opening ceremony. The explosive apparently detonated prematurely.
Police were investigating whether the stadium was the bombers' target, said Jerusalem Police Chief Mickey Levy. More than 1,000 police will guard athletes and spectators at the opening ceremony, to be attended by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"Our forces are spread all over Jerusalem," Levy said. He said buses transporting the athletes will be inspected and escorted, and helicopters will watch over the stadium.
Almost 10 months of violence has led many countries to cut back the size of their delegations to the Games, which are held every four years. They have been held 15 times previously and canceled only once, in 1939.
More than 3,000 athletes from more than 40 countries are competing in 26 sports. But the number of participants is several thousand fewer than in previous Maccabiah Games.
The most prominent athlete is American Lenny Krayzelburg, a backstroke swimmer who won three gold medals at the 2000 Olympics.
"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," American athlete Jonathan Vaknin told Israel radio.
But Harold Gotlieb, the security officer for the South African delegation, said that organizers had promised his team an armed escort when they traveled by bus, and that hasn't happened.
Yaacov Sandler, chief of security for the games, said it was impossible to provide an armed escort to every delegation all the time. But he insisted that athletes would receive more protection than the Israeli public.
"Because we often supply buses for the delegations on short notice, we can't provide armed guards to every bus. We then consider sending the buses without armed escorts if they drive through low-risk areas," Sandler said.
At the last Maccabiah Games in 1997, tragedy struck at the opening ceremony when a small footbridge collapsed as the Australian delegation was approaching the stadium for the opening ceremony.
Four Australians were killed and dozens were injured when they plunged into the Yarkon River, near Tel Aviv.
The 67-member Australian delegation, which includes 35 members from the 1997 team, held a memorial service Sunday at the site of the bridge collapse.
A stone monument with the names of the four Australians stands near a new wooden bridge that has been built across the river. Banners reading, "We love you," and "We're sorry," were hung in tribute to the four who died.
"Coming back here gives a new perspective to life," said basketball player Carl David, who also was a member of the Australian delegation four years ago. "We are here to honor those who did not come back with us last time."