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 Opinion Pieces
 
Maccabiah Games 2017: Australian Team Farewell

Published: Sunday, 21 May 2017
Author: The Hon Josh Frydenberg MP
Publication: Australian Jewish News

I remember it like yesterday, July 14 1997, it was early evening; there was buzz like no other. The Australian team assembled outside of Ramat Gan Stadium as we prepared to march in the opening ceremony of the 15th Maccabiah Games.

I was in the tennis team and so too was my father who was playing in the veterans. I said, “Dad why don’t we shuffle up the front and be among the first to walk into the stadium?” He replied that his team mates had decided to group in the back so that they could get the full view of the Aussies up the front. He asked me to join them, which I did. It was a fateful decision for over the next hour a terrible and unforgettable tragedy occurred, when the makeshift bridge over which out athletes were walking collapsed into the contaminated Yarkon River.
 
Four Australian Maccabiah athletes lost their lives following the events of that day and so many others were badly injured. Greg Small, 37, Elizabeth Sawicki, 47, Yetty Bennett, 50, and Warrren Zines, 54, were all wonderful people who were taken from this earth too early. In an accident that should never have happened.

I remember the panic as my Dad who was a surgeon and many others tried to help their fellow athletes from the water. The following hours were harrowing as word spread among the 40,000 people in the Ramat Gan Stadium that something bad had occurred outside, leading family and friends running out of the stadium to find out more about their loved ones.

Looking back on those events it was surreal to think that the opening ceremony continued with light shows and dancing in front of the Israeli President Ezer Weizman, while people were struggling for life following the bridge collapse.

As the scale of the tragedy became clear and Australians kept vigil at the hospital over subsequent days, there was much discussion as to whether the Maccabiah Games itself should go ahead. The decision was taken to proceed and I’m glad it did, for the Maccabiah is a celebration of sport and the strength of the international Jewish community often in the face of real adversity.

Maccabiah is a remarkable event that dates back to 1932 before the establishment of the state of Israel and at a time when Jewish athletes in the Palestinian mandate had limited opportunities to compete. Indeed in 1938 the Maccabiah Games were cancelled because the British were so concerned about Jewish migration to Palestine.

Today the Maccabiah Game is the third largest sporting event in the world. Nearly 10,000 athletes from 80 different countries participate in 40 sporting events from swimming to soccer to athletics to archery. It is so wonderful that Australia is sending the largest team to the games behind the United States and Argentina with 574 athletes and officials.

The size and quality of the delegation is a real tribute to the leadership at Maccabiah Australia led by Barry Smorgon, the head of delegation Tom York and so many others. It reflects the fact that Maccabiah is Australia’s largest grass roots Jewish community organization with 6000 plus members and 35,000 supporters.

I say to the athletes, you are the lucky ones for you have an opportunity to visit Israel and compete at an elite level all at the same time. You may even bump into Rio Olympic Games gold medallist, American swimmer Anthony Ervin, who I understand like 9 times Olympic gold medallist Mark Spitz before him is bringing his world class skills to this year’s Maccabiah Games.

Congratulations on your achievement. Being selected for the Australian team is no small feat, and I’m sure your family and friends are very proud of you. As an Australian it is a great honour to represent your country, but as a proud Jew it is a particularly special honour to do so in Israel.

Enjoy the experience, soak up the vitality, the history and the diversity of Israel and use it as an opportunity not just to bond even tighter with your existing friends and team mates, but to make new acquaintances too. Who knows, the friendships you strike up at Maccabiah may be ones that last you a lifetime.

Seize the chance, rejoice in it, but most of all remember those who have come before you. In particular Greg, Elizabeth, Yetty and Warren four fellow Australian athletes who so tragically lost their lives in 1997 and who’s passing we commemorate today. Their legacy is yours; their spirit is with you, so travel safe and do us all proud.

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