Where Are They Now? / Israel's Most Celebrated Track and Field Star

As the Maccabiah comes to a close, Haaretz talks to Olympic athlete Esther Roth-Shahamorov, the woman who put Israeli sports on the world map.

Leora Eren Frucht
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Leora Eren Frucht

A few weeks ago, Esther Roth-Shahamorov sat in the stands of a north Tel Aviv stadium hoping that the Israeli record she set for the 100-meter sprint four decades ago would finally be broken.

It wasn’t.

“There is an element of prestige for me personally in the fact that my record still stands,” says the first Israeli athlete to reach the finals of an Olympic event. “But I am embarrassed that in 40 years we, as a country, haven’t been able to break that record. It’s a blow to the state of Israeli sports.” 

The woman who burst onto the world stage in 1972 at the infamous Munich Olympics – where she set the as-yet unmatched Israeli record of 11.45 seconds for the 100-meter-sprint – is, at 61, still running.

Not for medals, but for the sheer love of it.

On this particular day she is on the treadmill, her long dark ponytail bobbing as she works out at a gym in Ramat Hasharon, where she lives.  On other days, she opts for tennis, swimming, weights, cycling, folk dancing -- you name it; if it requires moving the body, she does it. And when Roth-Shahamorov says she “can’t imagine a life without sports,” it’s more than mere words.

After developing a hereditary kidney disease, a few years ago, she was faced with an excruciating choice:  Drop sports entirely or opt for a kidney transplant that would either cure or kill her.  

“I knew I would rather die than live a life without sports, which anyway would be like a slow death,” says Roth-Shahamorov , who had watched her own mother wither away on dialysis for 15 years.

Three months after undergoing the transplant, in Europe in 2009, she was up and quite literally running again. 

Sports, she says, has been her therapy, helping her heal from life’s crises, especially the tragedy of Munich.

That is when she lost her coach, who had discovered her at age 14 and had been like a father to her ever since. Amitzur Shapira and 10 other members of the Israeli delegation were killed in the Palestinian terror attack at the Olympic village and subsequent botched rescue operation. “Suddenly he was gone, the dream shattered.” And with it, she adds, went her innocence and belief in the spirit of the Games. “The Olympics were no longer about accomplishments, but about murder -- so what was I doing there?” 

At the zenith of her career, the 20-year-old track and field star returned to Israel, broken, and retired from competitive sports.

It was her fiancé, gymnast Peter Roth, who cleverly used sports to help her heal, she says. “He knew that if you are in a crisis you can either go to a psychologist or get it out of your system through sports. Peter encouraged me to just jog around our neighborhood. I couldn’t go to any of the places where I had trained before because I would see my coach’s face.”

Two years later,  Roth had become her husband and new coach, and Esther had returned to the competitive track with a renewed sense of purpose. “I was determined to compete as a way of memorializing my coach [Shapira] and giving my country something to be proud of.”

In 1974, just months after giving birth by Caesarean section, she took home three gold medals from the Asian Games, held in Tehran. Her next goal was the 1976 Montreal Olympics. 

The couple and their newborn son lived in a small room at the Wingate Institute of Sports, near Netanya. While their baby lay in his carrier at the edge of the running track, she recalls, “I would run and Peter would hold a stopwatch in one hand and a bottle of baby formula in the other.”    

In Montreal, she became the first Israeli athlete to reach the finals in any Olympic event, finishing sixth in the 100-meter hurdles.

Roth-Shahamorov won widespread admiration for her phoenix-like comeback. In 1999 she was awarded the Israel Prize for her contributions to sports.

“Among the recipients were people who had spent their whole lives studying one molecule, or helping humanity, and then there was me --  who runs fast,” she says with typical humility. “Eventually, I understood that what people admire about athletes is the qualities that they themselves wish they had – particularly, the single-minded determination.”

Asked who her own heroes were, Roth shrugs. “I had none -- who was there for me to emulate? Every time I ran I set a new record,” she says with an earthy laugh.

Today she teaches physical education at a Ra’anana junior high school. She has two grown children -- Yaron, a former fencing champion, and Michal, a composer and musician.

Her husband, Peter, died suddenly of a heart attack in 2006; she mentions him many times in conversation. “I was fortunate to have had two people in my life –  Peter and Amitzur – who devoted their lives completely to my success, neutralizing their own pursuits for the sake of mine.”

Roth-Shahamorov , who grew up in a religious home in a poor neighborhood of south Tel Aviv – “modest in every sense of the word,” she calls it --  has never let fame go to her head. Even when she won a medal she wouldn’t bask long in the limelight. “I would step down from the podium, put the medal in my bag right away and move on to the next thing.”

She shuns publicity. You won’t find her on a reality show, or endorsing sports gear. In many ways this no-nonsense woman, with no makeup, munching corn on the cob while sitting on the lawn of the recreation center, rather than in its chic cafe, hasn’t changed much over the years. “When asked in elementary school what I wanted to be when I grew up I always said a physical education teacher – that was my dream. It still is – and I’m living it.”

Esther Roth-Shahamorov.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
The memorial ceremony at Lod Airport after the Munich Olympics.Credit: AP
Esther Roth-Shahamorov, the 1976 Montreal Olympics.Credit: AP