Tuesday, August 5, 2008
The Observant Jewish Olympian
Israeli Olympic athlete kicks boys but keeps kosher
Israeli Taekwondo delegate to Beijing, native of Ramallah-adjacent settlement Bat-El Gaterer keeps Shabbat, settles for kosher instant food, staying focused on her mission to take home Olympic medal
Moriah Zeltser Volshtein
Published: 08.05.08, 07:56 / Israel Jewish Scene
In between their Taekwondo matches, the opponents take a breather and fill up on a protein bar that will keep their energy level high for the next confrontation. Having no time to sit down for a proper nutritious meal, this serves as their only source of energy. But while her opponents munch on their bar, Bat-El Gaterer, the only Taekwondo delegate to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, adds hot water to her kosher instant noodle cup made in Israel.
It’s not that Gaterer has a poor taste in food. It’s just that it’s so hard to find a kosher protein bar, and if it means she has to make do with a cup of instant noodles full of MSG, than that’s what it’ll be. That’s how it goes when you’re the only religious contestant in the entire Israeli Olympic delegation.
Gaterer’s coach, Noa Shmida, wished to clarify what may seem to the average reader as a curious jest: “Athletes keep a very strict dietary regime, which is even more critical when the type of sport requires measuring and calculations of muscular mass.
"Bat-El arrives at the competitions after having consumed junk food such as those instant foods, which have an affect. As someone who is in charge of her nutrition, I regret that she cannot consume healthy food – but she has her own faith and will not compromise.
“However, she has not only succeeded in her field and made it into the Olympic Games, but is the only representative of that field (Taekwondo) from Israel. That’s a huge accomplishment.”
Gaterer’s uncompromising nature reaches far beyond kosher matters. Her coach recalled a Taekwondo competition held in Belgium for which the Israeli delegation scraped to find a single hotel room close to where competition was held so that Gaterer wouldn’t have to walk all the way there on Shabbat.
But she still got out of bed at four in the morning for fear she wouldn’t wake up on time, only to realize she had turned off her cell phone and had no clue what time it was. She couldn’t take the elevator or leave the room because both required operating electrical devices on Shabbat. So she sat in her room waiting for he coach Shmida to pick her up. Though she had slept only three hours, she fought in five rounds and took the third prize.
On Taekwondo and boys
Taekwondo is a Korean martial art primarily based on footwork. In its competitive version, it is a kicking match awarding one point for kicking the rival in the stomach and two points for hitting him in the head. After three rounds of two-minutes each, the one accumulating the highest point score is the winner. Eight years ago, Taekwondo became an official Olympic sport, and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games is the second time Israel sends a Taekwondo delegate.
Twenty-year-old Gaterer grew up at the Kochav Yaakov settlement not far from the West Bank city of Ramallah. At the age of nine, she registered for a street fighting class and her coach suggested she focus on footwork. Recognizing her potential, he referred her to the Achi-yehuda Dojang club and its team in Jerusalem. Gaterer began learning Taekwondo when she was 12 and hasn’t stopped kicking since. While studying at the girls’ seminary in Ofra, she also started training with Israel's national team.
“Everyone at seminary accepted it (Taekwondo practice) and supported me,” said the Olympic delegate.
And they didn’t have a problem with you practicing with boys and wearing pants on TV?
“The only reason for practicing with boys is the simple fact that there are more of them on the team.”
But isn’t it problematic for you in terms of “negiah” (banned physical contact with the opposite sex)?
“No. It’s a kicking match. I don’t see it as problematic.”
What about practice or competitions held on Saturday?
“There’s no practice on Saturday. And my Olympic matches don’t fall on Saturdays. We checked it.”
But if they were holding Saturday competitions, would you have given up on Beijing?
“I compete on Saturdays,” Gaterer answered frankly. “I don’t see a contradiction. I don’t drive to the competitions, they’re no a monetary prizes, the referees are gentiles. The only issue is food and I bring hot (instant) cups because there’s no kosher food.”
Geterer’s coach admitted religious observance makes it hard for religious athletes to get ahead. “But despite the obstacles, Bat-El manages to reach the highest levels. Her advantages make up for the disadvantages religion poses. Because she is so unspoiled and believes in herself, and due to her unique character, she succeeds and wins – even if she had to walk a few good kilometers to get to the match.”
Gaterer failed her first attempt to qualify for the Olympic Games. She sought to reach one of the first places in the Taekwondo World Championship, but only came in fifth. Later on she made up for it by taking the Bronze Medal at the Taekwondo European Championship – and a ticket to China. She hopes to further surprise her fans in the Olympic Games.
Could you imagine representing Israel in the Olympic Games?
“I didn’t even dream of it, but when I started training I got to like the idea. Not to mention the fact that I once thought of becoming a pilot or an astronaut.”
What are your chances to win a medal?
“I hope for the best.”
Does practicing Taekwondo changed you or are you just as observant as before?
“I am just as religious as I was before.”
And you never contemplated quitting it (religion) for career’s sake?
“Never. At first it was really hard to incorporate the two, but I did it.”