Swimmer Asalla Shahada, center, on the podium with her gold medal.The 17th Maccabiah Games opened this week with a sterling example of Israel’s democratic values. An Israeli Arab teenage girl from the town of Sakhnin became the first gold medalist in this year’s Games with a victory on Sunday in the women’s 200-meter breastroke.

Asalla Shahada, 17, won the race in 2:46.93 after a close battle with Lauren Fox (USA), who trailed behind by 21 hundreths of a second.

“The Maccabiah belongs not only to all the Jews, but also to all the Israelis, and I am a proud Israeli,” Shahada told YnetNews.

The Maccabiah, often called the ‘Jewish Olympics,’ is open to Jewish athletes from around the world, and to all Israeli citizens – whatever their religion.

Shahada’s gold medal is another accomplishment in a chain of Arab sporting successes in Israel. Other examples are Da’a Masrava from Taibeh, who swims for her town’s breastroke youth team, and Doa Saliman-Hativ of Nazareth, who only last week seized a double win in Israel’s Track and Field national championships, taking the 800-meter and 1500-meter races.

The Maccabiah officially opened Monday night in a splash of colors as thousands of athletes from 52 countries filled Ramat Gan National Stadium.

40,000 attendants and 7,000 athletes from five continents were addressed in Hebrew, English, and Spanish.

“Welcome to Israel,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon addressed the crowd and athletes, “welcome home.”

“The Maccabiah symbolizes our being one people, one large family,” said President Moshe Katzav as he officially opened the ceremony. “You represent the Jewish people throughout all the generations here tonight,” he told the congregants.

Israeli pole vaulter Alex Auerbuch carried in his country’s flag. Israel’s only gold medalist, windsurfer Gal Friedman, lit the Maccabiah torch, and Judoist Arik Ze’evi read the “Athlete’s Oath.”

The American delegation, which boasted 700 athletes led by nine-time Olympic gold medallist Mark Spitz, took twenty minutes to lap the Ramat Gan Stadium course.

The 2000-strong Israeli delegation was the game’s largest, and received the loudest reception from the crowd. The games will continue over the next week.