SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) — When Australian tenpin bowler Josh Small marches into Ramat Gan Stadium for the July 13 opening ceremony of the 18th World Maccabiah Games in Israel, he will be completing a journey his father started at the ill-fated Games in 1997.
Small, now 19, was just 7 when his father, Greg, died after the makeshift bridge collapsed as the Australian team was walking toward the opening ceremony of the 15th Maccabiah on July 14, 1997.
Scores of Aussies were sent plunging into the polluted waters of the Yarkon River.
Greg Small, 37, and Yetty Bennett, 50, died at the site; Warren Zines, 54, and Elizabeth Sawicki, 47, died weeks later.
Josh and his younger sister, Rebecca, were staying at their aunt’s house in Queensland while their parents were attending their first Maccabiah.
“I was watching TV at the time, and all of a sudden it popped onto the news [of the disaster] and it was too late for my auntie to prevent us from seeing it,” Josh recalls. “The next thing I know I was on a plane to Sydney. The rest is a blur.”
His mother, Suzanne, who suffered a dislocated shoulder, five breaks in her ankle, swelling around her heart and emotional trauma that continues to this day, told JTA, “I rang my sister-in-law in Queensland from the hospital and I asked them not to tell the kids.
“She said, ‘It’s too late, they’ve seen it on it TV.’ My daughter was only 5. She asked, ‘Does that mean my daddy is not coming home?’
“Josh said Kaddish for 12 months when he was 7. He said, ‘It’s my daddy and I will say it.’ ”
Now, a dozen years later, Josh is continuing the legacy of his father, the Australian team’s No. 1 bowler in ’97.
“It inspired me to bowl,” he said of the Maccabiah tragedy. “I want to continue what my father did. I’d like to go there, compete and finish what he started.”
Josh will join Australia’s team of more than 400 athletes, ranging from a 12-year-old gymnast to an 82-year-old squash player. The team also includes golfer Roy Vandersluis, 62, who is competing at his ninth consecutive Maccabiah Games — a record the Maccabi World Union believes has never been surpassed since the so-called Jewish Olympics began in 1932.
It wasn’t until Josh received a phone call from the team manager that his position was confirmed.
“Through my performances I thought to myself I had a good chance, but until I got the phone call I was unsure,” he said.
“I’m feeling pretty excited. It’ll be sad but a good thing to do.”
It will be Josh’s first time competing at a Maccabiah, although he joined his mother, sister and survivors of the other victims at the emotional memorial service in Israel at the 2005 Games. He has been asked to speak at the official memorial service at the site of the disaster on July 10.
While he says he was virtually “born in a bowling alley,” it was only after the ’97 Games that he started taking tenpin more seriously. In tournaments he wears his dad’s red pants and his shirt from those Games, with the name “Greg” on the front and the surname “Small” on the back.
Although many of the survivors have moved on, some still harbor ill will toward the World Maccabi Union because of its ongoing employment of Yoram Eyal, who was chairman of the organizing committee of the Games and the man who commissioned the bridge.
Eyal served six months community service for his part in the disaster, and he remains the general manager of the Kfar Maccabiah village and on the World Maccabi Union executive.
“He will be never be forgiven as long as I have breath in me,” Suzanne said. “The man can rot in hell.”
Four other officials convicted of criminal negligence received jail sentences in 2000. But Suzanne says Eyal “literally got away with murder.”
Eyal, for his part, told Ma’ariv recently that “I received an easy punishment because I was the one who ordered the work and not the engineer. I’ve come to accept it, but it’s still very hard for me to get used to the anger of the families.”
Suzanne says the “flashbacks and nightmares still come and go.”
“I’m in constant pain in my back and shoulder. I still have the occasional panic attack; I have medication with me all the time,” she said. “You just don’t know when something is going to happen.”
But Suzanne says her heart will be “pounding with excitement” when she sees her son march into the stadium on July 13.
“I wouldn’t miss that opening ceremony for anything,” she said. “It would have been absolutely beautiful to have father and son together. It’s always emotional to go back to the site. It’s like I’m visiting my husband’s grave because that’s where it happened. I think of my husband every day every single day.
“But this is Josh’s time to shine. I’m very proud and very anxious. Josh always had a goal to follow in his dad’s footsteps. He’s a natural in bowling; he had no privileges. His dreams have finally come true.”
Josh says he just wants to go to Israel and compete.
“Winning a medal,” he said, “would be a bonus.”