RAMAT GAN, Israel (Jul. 15)
Instead of preparing and competing, athletes at the Maccabiah Games spent the day after a fatal accident trying to make sense of a tragedy they were convinced was avoidable.
An air of mourning was palpable at Kfar Maccabiah, the games’ official headquarters, where many of the athletes — some of them weeping — tried to come to terms with the tragedy that occurred as the opening ceremonies got under way.
At least three members of the Australian team died and dozens of others were injured — some critically — when a pedestrian bridge collapsed at the Ramat Gan stadium, plunging scores into the river below.
It was the moment that Jewish athletes from around the world had dreamed of and trained so hard for, the moment they would march into Israel’s largest stadium to usher in the 15th Maccabiah Games.
But instead of entering the stadium to the cheers of 50,000 fans, the 5,500 athletes competing in the games were faced with a tragedy.
Although the Maccabiah management decided not to cancel the opening-night program — a decision that has sparked a heated debate among politicians and citizens — it did decide to halt the games for 24 hours.
Gathered Tuesday at Kfar Maccabiah, the Australian team, which bore the brunt of the casualties, wrestled with the question of whether to withdraw from the games or continue.
President Ezer Weizman personally urged the Australian delegation to compete in the games, as did some of the members of the 10-pin bowling team, which lost two of its teammates in the tragedy.
Ultimately, however, the decision was left up to the individual athletes, some of whom were in neck braces or bandages.
“We aren’t a team sport, and if anyone feels they can’t compete, put up your hand,” an Australian tennis coach told his group, which was seated in a circle on the grass.
Not a single hand was raised.
“It would be easy for us to just go through the motions, but that’s not enough,” tennis player Joshua Frydenberg told his teammates.
“We have to focus harder and support each other. We’re not doing this for ourselves anymore, but for our team. We’re doing it for Sasha.”
He was referring to 15-year-old Sasha Elterman, a member of the junior tennis team, who was in critical condition at a Tel Aviv hospital.
After the votes were taken, Harry Procel, the Australian team manager, said the consensus was to go on.
“I think it was a very brave decision,” he said.
Procel said that in the time since the accident, the Australian delegation had received hundreds of phone calls and dozens of faxes of support from concerned Israelis and from the other delegations.
Procel said he was touched by the fact that all 50 delegations to the games were attending a memorial service Tuesday evening.
Although a few of the athletes privately expressed anger over the decision to continue the glitzy opening-night ceremonies after the tragic accident occurred, the brunt of their anger was directed at the people who built and approved the temporary ramp that collapsed as the first delegations — from Australian and Austria — were about to enter the stadium.
“I’m sad and I’m angry,” said Randall Braunfeld, a 21-year-old wrestler from Philadelphia. “It’s a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened.”
“Just look at how the bridge was built,” said Braunfeld’s teammate Jeff Liberman, of Boston. “Seeing it after the fact, I can’t see how people were allowed to walk on it, it was so flimsy.”
Liberman said that although he and most of his fellow athletes want to compete, “it’s tough. Everyone will be competing in the names of the victims and their families. All the fun has gone out of the games.”
Said Barbara Barend, a 23-year-old tennis player from Holland, “We’re relieved that no Dutch athlete was injured, but we can’t have any joy.
“It was especially terrible because our juniors were at the beginning of the parade and we thought some might be hurt. It was 15 minutes before they ran back to us, screaming and crying. We’re still in shock.”
Those in the worst shape were those who were on the bridge when it collapsed.
“Some members of the Austrian team were on the bridge, so we’ve been affected very much,” said Karl Gustavo Edinger, the Austrian tennis coach.
Although he sustained only bruises, Edinger said a few of his teammates remained hospitalized with broken bones.
While the older competitors were upset, Edinger added, “it’s the juniors, the teenagers, who are in shock.
“We’ve decided to take them to the Western Wall this afternoon. We hope that will give them some comfort.”
His voice suddenly catching, Edinger paused. For a few minutes he cried silently, unable to speak.
Finally, he said, “The accident happened at the worst possible time, just when things were getting started. Our hearts were pumping because in one more minute we were going into the stadium.
“We lost the biggest moment of our lives,” he said.