The Daily Telegraph

Respect my faith so I can compete at the Olympics

Orthodox Jewish runner and mum-of-five Bracha Deutsch tells Emma Cluley why she is willing to miss Tokyo


Minutes before the gun to signal the start of the 2018 Jerusalem Marathon, 35,000 runners waited nervously on the start line, shuffling rhythmical­ly from one foot to the other. At the front stood Shadrack Kipkogey, the Kenyan who would go on to win the men’s race. Behind him, barely 5ft tall and dressed in long sleeves, headscarf and a skirt hanging below her knees, stood a petite American-israeli woman.

A little over three hours later, and Bracha ‘Beatie’ Deutsch would be celebratin­g an Israeli national record with her husband, Michael, and their five children. It was only the third time that Deutsch, then aged 28, had run a marathon, and only the second when she was not pregnant.

Two years on and Deutsch is training for the Olympics. Having clocked 2 hr 32 min in January, she is within touching distance of the qualificat­ion standard for Tokyo of 2 hr 29 min 30 sec. But, as a devout Orthodox Jew, there is a bigger barrier to participat­ing than timekeepin­g.

“When I set myself the goal of representi­ng Israel in the Olympics, the marathon was on a Sunday,” she explains. “They then moved all the outdoor distance events to Sapporo and condensed them into four days. The women’s marathon is on Shabbat.”

Shabbat, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, is a day of rest for Jewish people. For Deutsch this means no technology, no distractio­ns and absolutely no running. “There’s no exceptions and I’m 100 per cent committed to it. It’s amazing, we totally disconnect for family time – super powerful, restorativ­e, recharging.”

So far, Deutsch’s attempts to overturn the Internatio­nal Olympic Associatio­n’s decision have fallen flat, despite hoping there might be room for negotiatio­n now the Games have been postponed until 2021.

“I wrote to them to see if there was a possibilit­y of switching the marathon with the race walk [on

‘I don’t think the world needs to bend over for me but the Games are meant to be about diversity’

Friday]. So far, they’ve not been very receptive.”

What surprised her was the apparent lack of considerat­ion. “I don’t think the world needs to bend over backwards for me because I have my religious values, but the Olympics is meant to be a unifying event for people from all types of background­s – it’s about diversity. In a time when everyone is trying to be more accepting and accommodat­ing of gender, race – everything – I feel like they should be more tolerant.”

Deutsch is not the first of her faith to encounter these hurdles. Estee Ackerman missed the 2016 US Olympic team table tennis trials for the same reason, whilst Tamir Goodman – once dubbed the “Jewish Jordan” by

Sports Illustrate­d magazine – declined a basketball scholarshi­p to top-ranked University of Maryland and subsequent­ly missed out on winning the NCAA title, to attend somewhere that would accommodat­e his religious practice.

Deutsch was born in New Jersey to “very encouragin­g and openminded” ultra-orthodox parents, and recalls being active as a child. “I loved exercise and moving my body but the community I grew up in, there weren’t team sports for girls – the opportunit­ies didn’t exist. I did gymnastics but stopped when I was 12 as there was no modest option to continue. That was a normal thing.”

Deutsch has long conformed to her faith’s strict standards of modesty; substantia­l body coverage and nothing skin-tight. With few sport alternativ­es available, structured exercise was put on the back burner. Emigrating to Israel aged 19, she met and married her husband. But it was both a will to regain a level of fitness and a family tragedy that prompted her to start running. In 2017, her husband’s cousin, 14-year-old Daniella Pardes, took her own life after struggling with anorexia. Determined to help others who were suffering, Deutsch began using running to raise funds for a project in her name: Beit Daniella, is now a rehabilita­tion facility for adolescent­s with eating disorders and other psychiatri­c illnesses. “Every race I run, I have Beit Daniella on my shirt,” she says.

From the off, Deutsch showed natural ability at the distance. From running 3hr 27min on her first attempt, in Tel Aviv, to completing a marathon the following year despite being seven months pregnant with her fifth child. Her breakthrou­gh on the internatio­nal scene came this January, winning what she called her “miracle race”, the Tiberias Marathon, in 2 hr 32 min 25 sec – 10 minutes faster than her previous best and ranking her 76th globally.

“Being a profession­al athlete is just not something our people do,” she laughs. “We’re only just realising how beneficial exercise can be – we’re 10 years behind.

“Yes, the clothing makes it harder for me. I’ve definitely had people curious at how I dress but once I’ve got to share with them the reasons, for the most part they’ve understood.”

Unless, the IOC change their stance, Deutsch will not be able to compete next summer. An IOC spokespers­on said: “While we put athlete considerat­ions first in all decisions, particular­ly health and welfare, we are unfortunat­ely not able to adjust the schedule to the particular situation of each individual athlete.”

Olympics aside, Deutsch’s story is already taking the running world by storm – shattering stereotype­s and breaking new ground for women.

“It’s slow progress and it is going to take time. But I know in 10 years the field could look a lot different. I’m putting myself out there in a way that is totally uncompromi­sing on my values.”

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 ??  ?? Maternal pride: Bracha Deutsch stands on the podium after her ‘miracle race’, runs the 2017 Tel Aviv Marathon while pregnant and with her family (below)
Maternal pride: Bracha Deutsch stands on the podium after her ‘miracle race’, runs the 2017 Tel Aviv Marathon while pregnant and with her family (below)
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