An Olympic-Size Embarrassment

“Israel’s Olympic Shame.” So read the heading of an article by an Israeli columnist. My heart sank, fearful that some terrible scandal involving Israeli Olympic athletes had surfaced. What could it be? Attempted bribery of officials? Use of illegal enhancement drugs? Blatantly immoral behavior?

Answer: None of the above. The great shame was that the Israeli Olympic athletes were coming home without winning a single medal — not a gold, not a silver, not a bronze. Intoned the writer: “Israel must get serious about its sports program, or we will continue to be embarrassed in the international arena.” He called for a government investigation. Personally, however, I breathed a great sigh of relief that the headline was simply another ludicrous manifestation of the secular Israeli ideal: to fulfill Imitatio Goyi — imitation of the West.

It’s not that I don’t like sports. I do, have participated in them in the past, and though I am not a fanatic (long term for “fan”), es chata’ai ani mazkir hayom (Bereishis 36:9). I confess that I am still interested in my home town teams. But one has to put things into their proper niche. It is nice when your home team wins, and it might have been a transient source of some national pride ifIsrael had won a medal or two. But whether your team wins or loses does not reflect on your country for good or for ill.China spends billions to train their athletes for the Olympics and they win many medals, but they still remain cruel totalitarian states which imprison and torture their own citizens if they dare criticize their (unelected) leaders. They spend billions for they know that since in the eyes of the world winning is everything, the world will overlook who they really are.

Our values are topsy-turvy. Moshe Rabbeinu long ago warned us about being a dor tahapuchos — an upside-down generation (Devarim 32:20 ).We have not changed much. Given the choice of: A) winning a gold for volley ball and swimming and basketball, or b) winning a gold for the most deeply learned, the most devoted to service of G-d and man, the most sincerely religious, the most honest, the most generous — which would you choose for Israel? For those who realize that we are a holy people who, to use Thoreau’s felicitous phrase, “march to the beat of a different drummer,” the choice of “b” is obvious, for it reflects the ideal of being “ohr lagoyim — a light unto the nations.” For others, who want Israel to be “kechal hagoyim,” just another country that happens to speak Hebrew instead of Greek or Italian, it is a much closer call.…

Let the world point to us in derision and say, “Look at them, they won no Olympic medals.” Better this than to point to us in derision and say, “Look at them. Can this unspiritual nation be the same ones to whom the Torah was given at Sinai?” That would truly be an embarrassment.

By all means, let there be a government investigation — but into issues like the violence in secular Israeli schools, or into Israel’s pell-mell slide into Western-style materialism. Yes, sports are fine, athletics have their place, and the Olympics do celebrate peerless physical discipline and ability; but long after the medals turn into dust and rust, the tefillos of the coming Yamim Noraim — the overall coronation of Our Creator as our King, and the specific “kosveinu b’sefer hachaim — inscribe us in the Book of Life” — head the list of things which really matter in the destiny of a nation. See Zechariah 4:6, where neither chayil (might), nor koach (strength) are on that list.

There is an old Yiddish expression to describe a truly mortifying experience: “A shandeh un a charpeh — a shame and a humiliation.” It is not a shandeh to finish last in track and field. It is only a shandeh if one’s people finishes last in spiritual commitment and dedication. And the biggest shandeh of all — because of the distorted values it reveals— is the idea that not winning in the Olympics is a national shandeh.

May we be blessed with a year of continuing spiritual growth and faith, plus a deepened awareness of what to be ashamed of and what to be proud of.

This article first appeared in Mishpacha.

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6 comments to An Olympic-Size Embarrassment

  • Jewish Observer

    “It’s not that I don’t like sports. I do”

    - Thanks you for the enjoyable article. Regarding your fondness of sports, I cannot help but wonder if that includes sledding, a sporting activity through which your esteemed brother R Aharon and R Aharon Lichtenstein shared a warm experince in their youth

  • Allan Katz

    We also had our Olympics in the Beis Hamikdash, but Chazal soon realized that competition is a bad thing

    The original system for determining which kohen
    would be privileged to perform any of the sacred
    services in the Beis Hamikdash went like this:
    A call was issued asking for volunteers. If there were
    more than one, they were told to race up the 32-cubit
    ramp leading to the altar. The first to reach the top four
    cubits of the ramp won. In case of a tie, all the kohanim of
    the family unit on duty gathered and a lottery was conducted.
    This system was eventually abandoned due to the following
    incidents: First there was the case of the kohen
    who became so incensed seeing his competitor reach the
    finish line first that he drew a knife and stabbed him to
    death. As terrible a tragedy as it was, this did not yet lead
    to an abandonment of the system since it was viewed as a
    one-time aberration of an individual, and not indicative of
    any general risk. In a later race, one of the kohanim accidentally
    pushed a competitor off the ramp, causing him to
    break a leg. Once the Sages saw that there was a general
    danger involved they abandoned the race system in favor
    of a lottery.

    Unfortunately we have something worse than the Olympics , we have brought competition intothe classroom, rank kids against each other , and another kid’s success becomes an obstacle to mine. Instead of promoting cooperative learning in the spirit of Pirkei avos , teachers promote competition – this is learning – al m’nat le’kanter

    shana tova to you all

  • observer

    You picked a doozy of an example, with China. It’s a shame you didn’t expand on it. It’s not just that the medals that the Chinese athletes win don’t reflect in any way on the moral standing or decency of the country or its government. It’s that the medals are paid for by the total dehumanization of the athletes. Are you aware, for instance, that one of the gold medalists has had minimal education, has not live at home since she was a child but at a special government run training camp, and has been so removed from her family that she was not told of the death of her grandmother or the life threatening illness of her mother, to keep her “focused” on her “real job”. And, once she’s done winning medals, she’ probably be left to starve, as has happened to other Chinese Olympians.

    No thanks!

  • Jewish Observer

    “of promoting cooperative learning in the spirit of Pirkei avos , teachers promote competition …”

    … also in the spirit of Pirkei Avos, which lauds kin’as sofrim

  • Allan Katz

    J.observer ,
    firstly children are not sofrim – see Dr Benzion Sorotzkin’s article – check his website – on the dangers of rewards and competition
    2 kin’as sofrim is about emulating or striving to achieve greatness being inspired by others, but this is far from the competitive spirit where the other’s success is an obstacle to my success, being number one, beating the other – we want all to be ne’vi’im, we want all to be successful and are there to learn chavrusa with the ‘ competition’

  • Allan Katz

    Also check out Alfie Kohn’s book – No contest – the case against competiton. even in business the people who are focused on cooperation and helping others do better

    and as far as sport goes -after winning 7 gold medals -1972 Mark Spitz reported -’ I became sick of myself . I never knew how far down somebody could drop, especially after being up so high ‘.
    winning does not satisfy us – we need to do it again and again ,it becomes an addiction

    Roger Federer said – if he did not love the game so much , he would quit

    winning has its cost as well

    So the focus on sport should be for its intrinsic values -for enjoyment , how much more so learning

    parents and teachers should also look into cooperative games rather than compeetitive ones