Nothing is impossible

A joke that usually gets a laugh claims that the smallest book in the world is the book of Jewish athletes.  There is a kernel of truth to this. Throughout centuries of diaspora, Jewish people were banned from taking part in anything that would suggest equality with their gentile neighbours  – and that included sports. And even if they could take part, sport – being a fleeting profession where ageing dictates a short career – was not regarded as an important life investment. Hence Jewish people have tended to favour the likes of mind over “matter.”

That said, Jewish sporting history is marked with both the extraordinary and the heroic. Agnes Keleti, who after spending the Shoah hiding in the Hungarian countryside, won 10 medals in gymnastics at the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games. Shaul Ladany, a Belgrade-born race walker and two-time Olympian who holds the world record in the 50-mile walk, survived the concentration camps, immigrated to Israel and incredibly also survived the terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics –  those same games where Mark Spitz, the American Jewish swimmer took home seven gold medals. Spitz’s success was surpassed only four decades later when another Jewish swimmer, Michael Phelps, claimed eight golds in China. 

There may not be masses of world-class Israeli athletes, but masses of Israelis enjoy armchair sport. After most of us were glued to the TV during the soccer Euro contest, we turned our attention to Tokyo and derived a good measure of satisfaction from success in Judo and even a first ever gold medal in gymnastics. The medals were not the only thing that caught our eye, so too did the billboards in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities upon which the mighty sportswear group Adidas chose to promote their products under the headline “Impossible is Nothing,” using the Orthodox marathon runner Beatie Deutsch, an American Jewish immigrant. The Adidas campaign promoted diversity by showcasing Deutsch and athletes from all over the world.  But for Deutsch, it was so much more. She hope her devotion to Judaism caught the eye of those looking at the advert. 

Nothing is impossible, is also a motto of her life. Deutsch only took up running five years ago and in doing so, sped into the annuls of Israeli sporting history. She sprang to fame due to the fact that she was seven-months pregnant when she ran the Tel Aviv marathon. She did it wearing Orthodox “modest attire,” a headscarf, an elbow-length shirt and a knee-length skirt. Three years later the Haredi mother became the Israel national champion and qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, ranking among the top 80 women runners in the world. 

But when the games were postponed due to Corona and later rescheduled, the women’s marathon was moved from a Sunday to a Shabbat. Refusing to break the Shabbat, Deutsch embarked on a campaign to convince the Olympic committee to move the race back to a Sunday. But it was neither here nor there. Ultimately when the new date was set for the games, athletes had to re-qualify anyway.  Even though she ran a new personal record in England, the competition was hard and Deutsch was pipped at the post. 

Deutsch has a refreshing outlook on “success.” She sees the disappointment of not qualifying as the way HaShem shows the world that sometimes you don’t reach the goals you set and the necessity of needing to deal with things when they don’t work out as planned.  That’s what real success is. She knows her time will come for running because her personal best record is the same qualifying time needed for the World Championships which will take place in 2022. And for Deutsch, even before taking a step, one of the successes of her life, is that patience has paid off: the race won’t take place on a Shabbat.