Two Sides of the Same Coin

This week the most dominant bicyclist in the sport’s long history will confess on a national forum viewed by tens of millions of people that his success was due to cheating. Compounding this fraud is that Lance Armstrong’s admission comes after a decade of vehement denials and retaliatory libel lawsuits he filed against accusers, all of which he won.

Last week the statistically- greatest pitcher and the greatest batter ever to play baseball were each denied the highest individual honor a baseball player can achieve: Induction into Cooperstown, Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

These men were the greatest ever to perform their respective skills. Dear Reader, don’t worry, this will not be an exposition on sports or athletes: I have not come to praise this trinity of titans but to bury them. These supposed heroes not only have “feet of clay” but mighty arms juiced with super-oxygenated blood or steroids (specifically, P.E.Ds. — Performance-Enhancing Drugs) in violation of the rules, and that is why they stand outside their sports as cautionary tales that cheaters never prosper. Their public humiliation is a deserved punishment for their crime of betraying the public, specifically, our nine-year-old son Dovid.

My job now is to engage in some damage control and restore a measure of faith lost by Dovid.

Daily, my wife and I are tasked with the challenge of communicating the ideals we value to Dovid and our eight-year-old daughter Sima.  Since experience is the best of teachers, I draw many of the lessons I teach them from education I received on the fields of baseball and rugby where I spent a great deal of time before beginning yeshivah in my 20s.

Needless to say, I rely primarily on the greater lessons learned after entering yeshivah from my rebbeim, but it helps when talking to my children if I put it on a wavelength they understand, and for Dovid, that channel is sports.

Many of the lessons I learned in sports were applicable in yeshivah and in life, most notably focus, endurance, patience and effort. I found the success story in yeshivah was just like the success story in sports, l’havdil, or for that matter in any pursuit. Success was dependent more on effort than on talent; perseverance and perspiration rather than preternatural ability. I teach these lessons diligently to our kids when we sit at home and when we walk on the way, when I lay them down to sleep and when I awaken them for school. Basically, all the time.

Certainly there exists the confluence between sports and “role models.” Let me tell you about two examples of convergence of sport and true values to emulate: Estee Ackerman and Akiva Finkelstein.

Estee, an 11-year-old whose story was covered by Jewish news sources recently, is America’s fourth-ranked table tennis player in the 8-to-11 age bracket. Despite training months for this (the 2012 U.S. National Table Tennis Championships), she withdrew from the competition because the final match fell on Shabbos. Her father described her decision, saying, “She had a Shabbos-over-sports moment.”  Match point.

Akiva is 18 years old and Israel’s youth boxing champion in his weight class, therefore qualifying for the 2012 Youth World Boxing Championship held in Armenia last November.

To participate in his scheduled Saturday night fight, regulations required Akiva to be weighed that morning, Saturday morning — Shabbos morning. Tournament officials could not be persuaded to postpone the weigh-in until Saturday night.

Akiva had been training for this particular tournament for years. When confronted with the choice of climbing the scale on Shabbos or giving up the match to keep Shabbos, his response to the international collection of coaches and officials assembled was simple: “I’m not getting on the scale. I can’t do it.”

Sidenote to Akiva’s Shabbos in Armenia: Akiva, an honor student in limudei kodesh, went with his father to the city’s only shul for Shabbos services. No one had prepared the Torah reading. Akiva stepped up to the bimah and leined. Knockout.

Tonight, when I put Dovid to sleep quoting Pirkei Avos, I will rhetorically ask him, “Who is the strong man?” My answer will spare him tales of fallen heroes and instead regale him with true tales of Jewish greatness, including Jewish athletes who contributed in their own way to kiddush Hashem: a Jewish boxer who sacrificed to keep Shabbos, and a young female table-tennis player who did likewise.

Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children.  He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com