One Runner Dies, 12 Seriously Injured in Tel Aviv Marathon

Cause of 29-year-old man's death unconfirmed; Tel Aviv municipality expresses condolences, defends decision to hold event; dozens suffer from heatstroke, dehydration; heat soars as high as 35 degrees Celsius by 8 A.M.

A 29-year-old man died and at least 12 runners were seriously injured in the Tel Aviv marathon Friday morning as temperatures soared, reaching as high as 35 degrees Celsius by 8 A.M., part of an anticipated heatwave that caused organizers to postpone the full marathon until next Friday.

The man who lost his life was participating in the half-marathon. The cause of his death has not been confirmed.

Dozens suffered from heatstroke as thousands participated in the race. A total of 50 participants were treated on the spot in a tent set up by Magen David Adom rescue services, mostly for heatstroke and dehydration, while 32 were taken to a nearby hospital, some unconscious and on respirators.

“The heat was so intense that many runners switched to a walking pace," said Vered Yeshula of Ramat Gan, who participated in the half-marathon. "At the 18 kilometer mark, I saw a man stretched out on the ground with paramedics attending to him.”

Another witness, photographer Ben Shalish, said he saw a man faint. Police raised his legs, Shalish reported, "but it took quite a while before the paramedics arrived." At many points along the course, he said, organizers were spraying water on runners to cool them off.

"People who are feeling unwell continue to arrive, people who are dehydrated and are being treated on the spot," said Magen David Adom spokesperson Zaki Heller, adding that he hoped people will feel better and be able to go home soon.

Officials at Tel Aviv Municipality said that they made the right decision in holding the Marathon, despite the hot weather that was forecasted.

“This was a tragic event, but we acted correctly as a municipality,” Municipality Director General Menahem Leibe told Haaretz.

“After hearing the forecast, we consulted with several agencies, led by the Health Ministry. Dr Boaz Lev, the deputy director general at the ministry consulted with physiologists, with the forecast being for temperatures that were even higher than those that developed today. Their unequivocal recommendation was to cancel the full marathon and keep the half-marathon, ensuring it ends by 9:30 A.M. This is exactly what we did,” he explained.

After Friday’s tragedy, the Municipality circulated a letter that Leibe received last Tuesday from Dr Lev. “In view of the forecasted high temperatures and heat stress the Ministry recommends, after consulting physiologists specializing in heat stress, that the full marathon be cancelled. All events should end by 9:30, since conditions after that time can be life-threatening.”

When Leibe was asked if it wouldn’t have been better to cancel the entire event he replied that “decisions are made before, not after, an event. The professionals were in agreement with the decision that was taken. The Ministry consulted all the relevant professionals in this area, with a clear recommendation by which we abided.” 

He added that the municipality would draw conclusions from the tragedy, but did not commit to holding the event earlier next year. This date for the marathon is set in coordination with the Athletic Association.

Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai responded to the death of the runner, expressing "deep sadness" and extending his condolences to the participant's family. "I wish a speedy recovery to other runners injured in the race," he said.

Huldai said the municipality would "conducting in-depth investigations into the incident and draw the required conclusions and lessons. We will fully cooperate in any other investigation of this matter."

He also reiterated that meetings were held with professionals ahead of the race, and that the municipality decided to hold the race on the basis of recommendations by senior health authorities. "That is why the full marathon was cancelled and other events started earlier [than they were originally scheduled for]. The half-marathon was held under conditions which were reasonable, according to all the professional opinions at hand," he said.

The Tel Aviv municipality’s spokesperson’s office expressed deep regret over the death of the marathon participant. “The municipality followed the guidelines of the Health Ministry and Ichilov Hospital, who advised us to cancel the full marathon and to let the half-marathon race proceed. The runner who died started out at 6 A.M. and required medical attention at 8 A.M. According to the meterological services, the heat intensity at that time was low.”

MK Dov Khenin (Hadash) reprimanded the Tel Aviv municipality for its decision to hold the race, saying, “this tragedy could and should have been avoided."

Attorney Reuven Ladiansky, a Tel Aviv city councilman and head of the green movement “Let Live,” has called for a government-appointed investigative committee to look into the circumstances leading to the runner's death.

“The negligent conduct of the Tel Aviv municipality has led, for the second time since 2011, to the death of a runner," Ladiansky said. "I extend condolences to his family, and send my wishes for a speedy recovery to others who were overcome by the heat.

"I’m shocked by the fact that despite warnings of intense heat and directives from the Health Ministry, the municipality went ahead with the race for commercial motives, endangering participants. I call on the prime minister to set up a commission of inquiry that will look into the decision-making processes and into the conduct of City Hall and, if necessary, file charges against those found responsible.”

In addition to the half-marathon, the 10-kilometer race, the 4.2-kilometer race and the children's, inline skating and handcycle races took place as scheduled.

Starting times for the races were moved up due to the heat.

The first race started at 5:25 A.M. The organizers said that some 35,000 people took part in the various races this year, with about 180,000 spectators cheering them on.

The full marathon next week has been relocated to Hayarkon Park, instead of throughout the city's streets. 

Tomer Appelbaum
Daniel Bar-On