After Death at Tel Aviv Half-marathon, Health Ministry Panel Will Set Standards for 'Extreme' Sports Events

Senior Health Ministry officials say Tel Aviv Municipality unfairly blaming ministry after the runner's death.

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The Health Ministry is establishing an investigative committee to set standards for sporting events, following the death of a runner in the Tel Aviv half-marathon on Friday and injuries to a dozen others.

Senior ministry officials said the city was unfairly blaming the ministry after the runner's death. They said a ministry official had warned the city on Monday about the upcoming heat wave.

The ministry is not required to approve or be involved in sporting events. Its decision to contact the Tel Aviv municipality and ask it to postpone the whole marathon and start the other races earlier - which the city did - came at the ministry's initiative in light of the expected intense heat.

"The Health Ministry did not have any authority to decide on holding or canceling the marathon, and it was not required to approve the event," said a senior ministry official. "If it had not been for the ministry's intervention, it would not have been involved in the event at all. So blaming the ministry is outrageous. Was the ministry supposed not to intervene in light of the anticipated problems?"

The ministry and the municipality each rebuffed efforts over the weekend to blame them for the tragedy, with each insisting it had done what was required, if not more.

Michael Michaelovich, 29, died during the half-marathon, and 12 other people suffered serious heatstroke and dehydration. Eleven were still hospitalized last night, all of them stable. They are due to be released today. The Magen David Adom rescue service treated a total of 80 people for heatstroke and other injuries resulting from Friday's races.

Two years ago, a 42-year-old runner in the Tel Aviv Marathon was hospitalized with severe dehydration and died three days later.

The Health Ministry committee will consider requiring permits for popular sporting events, particularly for "extreme" events like races of 10 kilometers of more, in accordance with the expected weather. The panel will be headed by Prof. Danny Moran, chairman of the ministry's program encouraging a healthy and active lifestyle. The panel is expected to submit recommendations within 90 days.

The committee will also recommended times throughout the year and times of day for extreme events; set regulations for canceling or stopping such events; determine the infrastructure needed such as the distance between refreshment stations and the medical presence; and the procedures for advising participants.

At about 9 A.M., organizers considered stopping the races, but then decided that this was impossible - they were already under way. While the full marathon was postponed to this Friday, all the other races took place, including the 21-kilometer half-marathon and runs of 10 kilometers and 4 kilometers. There was also a special children's race.

Drinking water

Some half-marathon runners said there wasn't enough water available along the route, but municipal officials denied this.

"Our preparation was massive - we laid out an incredible amount of water bottles and drinks - there were 255,000 bottles of water, far more than any standard demands. After the race we had a large surplus of water bottles," said the head of the municipal sports department, Motti Ambram.

"The guides at the gathering points and the starting lines explained to the runners that they had to be careful and drink at every water station, and if anyone felt that their body wasn't functioning as it does every day, they should listen to their bodies and get treatment," Ambram said.

The Tel Aviv municipality insisted that while the Health Ministry had advised it to cancel the full marathon (42 kilometers), it allowed the other races to go forward.

"I feel deep sadness and pain at the death of a runner in the half-marathon this morning and I send my condolences to his family. We will investigate the incident in depth and draw the necessary conclusions and lessons. We will cooperate fully with any investigation conducted," said Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai on Friday.

"With that, it's important to note that before the race there were professional staff meetings with the most senior medical people, and the municipality accepted the recommendations of the medical professionals fully and acted in accordance with them."

The municipality also circulated a letter sent last Tuesday by Health Ministry deputy director general Boaz Lev to city director general Menachem Liebe. "In view of the forecast high temperatures and heat stress, the Health Ministry recommends, after consulting physiologists specializing in heat stress, that the full marathon be not be held," Lev wrote. "All events should end by 9:30 A.M., and efforts should be limited to no more than a half-marathon."

Because of the expected heat wave, the municipality considered postponing all the events to this Friday, but that was impossible because of the visit by U.S. President Barack Obama later this week. A suggestion to start the races even earlier Friday morning was also dropped when experts warned that the runners were liable to get too little sleep.

When asked if it would have been better to cancel the event, Liebe said "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."

The Health Ministry said it had provided a forum of experts to evaluate the city's proposed responses to the expected heat wave. This included leading sports physicians, experts in emergency medicine and public health experts. Officials at the Culture and Sports Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces were also involved.

Michaelovich, a resident of Moshav Menuha in the south, was a major in the Oketz canine unit, left a wife and infant son. His family said he was an experienced runner and in good physical condition.

Runners in Tel Aviv during the half-marathon.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

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