Jeffrey Gurock Discusses the Conflict Observant Athletes Face when Choosing Between their Religion and Competition

When 7-year-old Amalya Knapp took the beam at the New Jersey state gymnastics finals last month, her excellent performance symbolized a far more complicated balancing act.

Although she would have ranked fifth in her age group, eligible for a medal, her individual scores were discounted. She was unable to compete on a Saturday because of her Orthodox Jewish family’s observance of the Sabbath.

“I was upset,” Amalya said, “but my mother told me there are decisions you have to make.”

USA Gymnastics made an effort to accommodate her and let her compete the next day, Sunday, Feb. 13, and permitted her scores to factor into her team’s overall rankings.

But the national governing body held that because she hadn’t competed at the same time as girls of her skill level and age group, her scores — 9.7 on vault, 9.575 floor, 9.5 beam and 8.75 bars — would not count toward individual medals or rankings.

The news disappointed the second-grader, a member of the US Gym team of the United States Gymnastics Development Center in Leonia, N.J. She had placed first in the all-around category in five previous competitions.

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Jeffrey S. Gurock, a professor at New York’s Yeshiva University and author of the book Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports, said Orthodox Jewish athletes or religiously observant athletes of other faiths can only reach a certain competitive level before running into conflicts.

“Can you be fully observant Jew and compete, and also observe the Sabbath? The answer is no,” Gurock said. “America is making it easier, but in the end, if you’re an Orthodox Jew, your religion will trump the sport, and if you want to be fully observant, you’re only going to rise so far unless you can devote 365 days to your sport.”

He said the sports world had increasingly recognized, and embraced, America’s diversity and pluralism compared to decades past.

“It’s still a difficult issue, and if you’re going to be a top-flight athlete, you have to make a choice,” Gurock said. “They’re not going to postpone Wimbledon.”

Other major sporting events have been postponed, however, for religious considerations, Gurock said. It’s the reason major sporting events are rarely broadcast on Christmas Eve or that ESPN and Major League Baseball agreed, after complaints from die-hard Jewish baseball fans, to switch the starting time of a Yankees-Red Sox game on Sept. 27, 2009, so it wouldn’t conflict with the beginning of Yom Kippur.

“Sports is the metaphor, but the real story is how do you live and integrate into American culture and maintain your own tradition,” Gurock said. “It’s a Jewish story, a Muslim story, a Mormon story.” Read full article at