Where Muslim, European nations compete

The 21-nation Mediterranean Games open Friday night in Spain.

Abigail Guerrero, a Spanish weightlifter, knows that tough competition will come from the Turkish women. But she's looking forward to Mediterranean Games for other reasons. "These two different cultures come together," Guerrero says. "It's a lovely thing."

The Mediterranean Games, a 10-day gathering that opens here Friday night, will bring 3,500 male and female athletes from 21 countries to compete for 1,300 medals in 24 sports. These games are not the Olympics, yet they reflect the same ideals of camaraderie and - perhaps more important - carry a political meaning this year that transcends the competition itself.

More than 40 years old, the quadrennial Mediterranean Games were designed specifically to bring together the Muslim and European countries surrounding the Mediterranean basin. The 2005 Games hold special significance. They are the first to be held since Sept. 11, the Iraq war, the terrorist bombings in Casablanca and Madrid last year, and the EU controversy over Turkey's possible future in the Union.

These Mediterranean Games offer, many hope, an arena in which Muslim and Western countries can come together in sport rather than in conflict. Mohammed Taher Pacha, an Egyptian, founded the games in 1951, largely to diminish the hostility that had divided the region since the birth of Israel three years earlier.

Half a century later, athletes come from Morocco, France, Bosnia, Libya, Italy, Turkey, and 15 other countries, to compete both in sports seen in the summer Olympics as well as some uniquely Mediterranean ones, like boccie ball.

An array of carefully planned cultural activities will accompany the sporting events, including a ritual of unity in which children from around the region will pour waters from their home countries into a single container.

For Spain, which has not hosted the competition since 1955, the Games hold particular significance. With the announcement of the host city for the 2012 Olympics expected July 6, Spanish government officials are aware that the Mediterranean Games, which end July 3, offer a valuable last chance for Spain to champion its bid for the Olympics.

According to the Organizing Committee's estimates, roughly a billion euros have been spent on the 2005 Games, and the city of Almería has - in addition to renovating 20 sporting venues - built nearly 10 more.

The host city will face an array of challenges as it stages such a large-scale event. Organizing Committee Head Juan Megino, who earlier this week asked his fellow Almeríans for "calm and a little bit of patience," identifies security and transportation as his chief concerns. More than 3,000 police and 1,000 healthcare workers have been hired to ensure safety, a multilanguage emergency phone number has been installed, and fleets of buses will bring visitors to the Games' different venues.

The Games' greatest threat, however, may come from natural rather than human sources. Powerful nighttime winds regularly buffet the Almerían coast and may interfere with the events. And during the past week, temperatures throughout southern Spain have soared into the high 90s. Jaime Lissavetsky, Spain's secretary of state for sports, nevertheless remains convinced that this city of 180,000 will rise to the challenge.

Mr. Megino notes that the "Games have the power to bring the two shores [of the Mediterranean] closer. It's a very tense time, but we hope that through sports we can soften that tension." And Pep Gatell, artistic director of La Fura del Baus, the company that choreographed the 1992 Barcelona opening ceremonies, has made clear that the opening ceremony here will have a global reach.

"We've attempted to give Almería a universal image - not restricted by a particular history, but rather as a recreation that reflects what, thanks to the Mediterranean Sea, has been a very important fusion of different cultures," he says.

As part of this effort, organizers have begun referring to international visitors as "the Mediterranean family." And Almería will host a summer camp that brings together Muslim and European children to live and play for the duration of the Games.

The primary international exchange will, of course, occur between the athletes. In track and field, all eyes will be on the Moroccans, whose men have won the 10,000-meter race in the past four Mediterranean Games (a Moroccan woman won the 2001 competition as well). Several NBA players, including Hidayet Turkoglu of the Orlando Magic, and Mehmet Okur of the Utah Jazz, both from Turkey, are interrupting their off-season to compete for their national teams.

Spanish spectators will closely follow the performances of their own distinguished athletes, including F.C. Barcelona's team handball star goalie David Barrufet, local women's handball player Soraya García, and Olympic medalist racewalker Paquillo Fernández.

Just a day before the Games begin, one of those Spanish athletes says she has a chance for silver in both the "clean and jerk" and the "snatch" weightlifting competitions. But whether she medals or not, Abigail Guerrero has embraced the larger spirit of these games. "You learn so much in these intercultural competitions," she says, "not just about sports, but about life."

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