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Inspiration in Olympic-sized Hurdles for Israeli Athletes

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AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

At the end of a recent webinar “Israel’s Olympic Heroes; Past, Present and Future,” Israeli Olympic marathon runner Beatie Deutsch shared a beautiful and inspiring thought relevant to running, the Olympics, and the holiday season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  

Running is the greatest metaphor for life. Wining a marathon is not just about being the first, or getting a medal, but showing up and getting the most out of yourself, doing the best you can possibly do.”

She shared one of her most challenging marathon experiences, running in Tiberias where she finished in 2:32, qualifying her for the Olympics.  When Beatie crossed the finish line, other than qualifying for the Olympics, she knew she had given every bit of herself and, as hard as it was, she felt great.

Israel’s Olympic Heroes; Past, Present and Future,” brought together three Israelis connected through the Olympics, each of whom would have been in Tokyo this year, but in different roles.  Beatie Deutsch of course would have been running the marathon, attending the Olympics for the first time.  Ori Sasson would have been attending his second Olympics, having brought home a bronze medal in judo from Rio in 2016. And Ankie Spitzer, the veteran among them, has attended nearly every Olympics since 1972, the fateful year in which her husband, Andrei, Israel’s fencing coach, was murdered by Palestinian Arab terrorists at the Munich games.

Occurring the week of the anniversary of the Munich massacre, the program sought to remember the victims and celebrate the current Olympians’ achievements.   They shared some of the unique challenges, specifically as Israelis and Jews competing in an international arena.   While qualifying for, much less competing in, the Olympics is challenging enough, being an Israeli Olympian entails extra challenges.

Ankie Spitzer’s challenges are unmatched. She joined her husband in Munich that summer, and left to return to their ill infant daughter who was being cared for in her native Holland. By the time she returned to Munich, Andrei had already been kidnapped by the Palestinian Arab terrorists, and murdered hours later.  Amid recounting the horrors of the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes, she still shared inspiring thoughts.  

She beamed recounting Andrei’s interaction with the Lebanese Olympic team, and how he approached them in friendship, days before his murder. She shared the drama and significance of bringing 14 children of the murdered athletes to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics to have a positive experience, and their encounter with the Palestinian Arab team. One might think these were sad occurrences, but one would be wrong.   She is hopeful and inspiring, with one main challenge and goal to be realized: having the International Olympic Committee get beyond politics and observe a minute of silence in memory of the 11 Israeli athletes.

Because of the indelible scar of Munich, all Israeli Olympians attend a memorial to the 11 victims of the Munich massacre before departing to the games every four years. That’s where Ankie and Ori Sasson became friends. Ori has as huge a heart as he is a judoka (100 kilo class). He’s easy to get to know and very likable when you do.  In the webinar, you’ll see Ori proudly sitting in front of dozens of medals from previous international competitions.  

As much as he’s a world class athlete, Ori is, sadly, “best known” for something that happened on the way to his bronze medal in Rio.  He faced an Egyptian competitor who Ori felt was nervous and uncomfortable. Ori beat the Egyptian handily.  But when it came to the end of the match, the Egyptian refused to shake Ori’s hand because he’s Israeli, and left the mat without bowing, a cardinal sin in judo.  Ori explains that experience with sadness in his heart, and wishes it never happened.  He also was once slated to compete against an Iranian who withdrew from competition rather than face off against an Israeli.  Later he saw his would-be competitor crying.  Ori’s professionalism is above politics.  His empathy and humanity shine in his hopeful and inspiring message.

None of the Israeli athletes made it to Tokyo this year in what would have been Israel’s largest Olympic team ever. That was due to the pandemic and not unique to athletes from any nation.  However, Beatie Deutsch had already decided to withdraw from the competition before.   As a runner, she faced other hurdles.   After qualifying for the Olympics to become the first Orthodox Jewish woman to represent Israel in this sport, her race was moved to Saturday, the Sabbath. Shabbat. Per the biblical prohibition of doing any form of work on Shabbat, Beatie was left with no choice but to withdraw because she was not going to compromise her religious values and observance to compete.  As she noted, the important things she has in this world are not her medals but her actions.  

Which brings us back to this season. Beatie is adamant that all the accolades are not what motivate her, but her standing with God.

In an inspiring message for the High Holiday season that’s meaningful as a runner but relevant to us all, Beatie observed that just like she finishes her races with every bit of energy to do the best she can, this is a time in which we come before God and say, “God, I want to take advantage of everything in this world.  I want to become the best version of what I can possibly be. That’s what I am here for, and that’s why you should give me another year of life in this world because I’m going to maximize my potential.”

The obstacles that these Israeli Olympians have faced are unique, but we all face challenges on a personal level.  Their messages and examples are models for us today—becoming the best version of what we each can be.  Whether one observes these High Holidays according to Jewish tradition or not, it’s an inspiring message for us all.  

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