Vancouver 2010: Opening ceremony filled with emotion

Canadian Munich survivor passes on Olympic torch.

February 14, 2010 03:01
4 minute read.
Israel's Alexandra Zaretsky carries the flag durin

israel olympics 311. (photo credit: AP)


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VANCOUVER – Hours before the Parade of Nations inaugurated the Opening Ceremony Friday night, Israel’s three-person team  among those marching, 150,000 people gathered to watch the torch pass its final few kilometers to light the Olympic flame and officially start the 2010 Winter Games.

Earlier, several hundred members of the Vancouver Jewish community gathered to cheer on one of their own, Jewish Federation leader and former Canadian Olympian Karen James.

“It was an amazing experience,” James told The Jerusalem Post after completing her 300-meter course. “It was amazing having my friends and the Jewish community there waiting for me and cheering me on even before I started. It was just such an uplifting feeling.”

And it was an uplift that James needed after her previous Olympic experience left her deeply conflicted about the international sporting competition.

Back in 1972, James was a 19-year-old swimmer when she traveled to Munich to participate in the Olympic Games. After finishing somewhere around 17th or 18th in her race, she headed out that night with some of her fellow teammates. Coming back late, they scaled a fence at the back of the Olympic Village. A few young men who had been hanging around there – clearly not athletes – joined them in climbing over, not a security guard in sight.

The next morning, James woke to the sound of hovering helicopters, tanks and the news that Palestinian terrorists had taken the Israeli team hostage. In the end, they shot all of them.

She can still see the image of a Palestinian gunman standing guard at a window while presiding over the captives and remembers feeling very frightened, particularly because it was Israelis who were victims and “it scared me, being Jewish, that this is something that can happen to us.”

Later, when she realized it was the terrorists who had joined her friends in coming over the fence, she also added a heavy feeling of guilt, though now she noted that “in my heart of hearts I know the terrorists would have gotten in with or without us.”

And at the time, her troubled feelings were compounded when the Olympic organizers decided to go on with the Games.

“It didn’t feel right to me. Eleven people had been murdered by terrorists,” she said.

The result was that her passion for the Olympic spirit – which she described as “building peace through healthy competitive experience sand breaking down barriers” – ended up evaporating.

“All of that was lost for me because of what happened and how I had been an unwitting part of that tragedy.”

James ended up leaving the Munich Olympics early and, as it turned out, competitive swimming as well. When she tried to train the next season, “my heart wasn’t in it – I just couldn’t do it.”

She also pushed away her already distant Jewish faith. It was only much later that she began going to services and getting involved with her synagogue. Yet it was her connection to Judaism that eventually led her back to the Olympics.

In 2006 she was asked to play a leading role for Canada at the Maccabiah, an event which ultimately reminded her of the positive experience that can come from international sporting competition.

Her experience in Munich also surfaced as a result, and for the first time she began sharing her story publicly with the Jewish community.

“Getting it out there [meant] putting some of that guilt out there and maybe let some of it dissipate,” she explained, also recalling the community’s interest and support.

She redoubled her involvement in Jewish life, and now chairs women’s philanthropy for the local federation. Still, James wasn’t convinced she should participate in the 2010 Olympic ceremonies and initially passed up the first chance to apply to participate in the torch relay. But as the flame made its way across Canada, she saw what good it was doing.

“I saw the torch was a really positive thing,” she said. “I just saw what it was doing for our country was incredible. I could see it was very positive and inclusive and unifying.”

And that’s how it ended up feeling for the Jewish community as well. “It was a real statement of her connection with the community and raising her voice about what happened,” said David Berson, a former federation campaign chair who came out to cheer on Karen. “It was electrifying. It was exciting. It was contagious. It was inspiring. It was a really amazing experience.”

Both Berson and James described a similar feeling at the Opening Ceremonies on Friday night, which they also attended. Berson described a “warm” reception for Israel’s delegation, with Israeli flags visible around the spectators’ stands.

The excitement of the moment was clear on the face of Alexandra Zaretsky, who carried the Blue and White flag while a broad smile radiated her face. She and her brother Roman will perform in the ice-dancing competition beginning Friday, while Mikail Renzhin compete in skiing.

When the Israelis entered to cheers, Canadian announcer told those watching that “Yes, there is ice in Israel – in a rink built by Canadians,” referring to the Canada Center ice rink in Metulla.

“I felt proud of the Israelis and proud of us as Canadians,” James said, noting that during her own time holding the torch with the strong Jewish community support behind her, “I felt proud to be a Canadian, but more so I felt proud to be a Jew.”

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