Community Sports News

Jewish Achievements at the Olympic Games

25 November 2015
When I mentioned to Jonathan Birin that I would be speaking at Limmud on Jewish achievement at the Olympic Games he laughed at me. Then added sarcastically “Are you intending to speak for three minutes or do you think you can you draw it out to five?”

Published with permission – presentation by Bernard Katz at Limmud, August 2015.

This image of poor Jewish achievement in sport is reinforced by amongst others the author Chaim Bermant, who in his book “The Jews”, referring to Jews in sport wrote: “There is but one sport in which the Jews have figured prominently, horse-racing and there, of course, the horses do the running.” But Jonathan Birin and Chaim Bermant and almost everyone else are wrong. When one thinks about Jewish achievement in sport one cannot do so by reference to our Lithuanian heritage of shetl’s and yeshivas.

It is a myth that Jews are underachievers in sports. The Olympic Games is testimony to that. Jewish achievement at the Olympic Games has been “prolific.” I have seen four lists of Jewish Olympic medallists of which Paul Taylor’s seems the most thoroughly researched. He lists 250 Jews who between them have won in excess of 400 medals. The modern Olympic Games have been held 27 times so this averages out at in excess of 15 medals per Games. Jews have won gold medals at every one of those 27 Olympiads. Having said that, many of the medals include those won in team sports, such as fencing, water polo, gymnastics and relays. But still compare that achievement to a sports mad country like South Africa.

An important matter which needs to be addressed in a talk of this nature is the determination of who is a Jew. The Halacha has a very strict definition but as my father responded to someone questioning the Halakhic Jewishness of Joel Stransky, “When a man kicks the winning drop goal in the world cup final and his father is Jewish, he is Jewish.” Paul Taylor’s list seems to follow this inclusive approach. And after all this is Limmud not Sinai Indaba. For the four most significant Jewish Olympic medal winners this inclusive definition is in any event academic.

Most of you will be familiar with Harold Abrahams of Chariots of fire fame, Mark Spitz, Kerri Strug and Aly Raisman but that is the tip of the iceberg. For this talk I have selected a few of the more significant and memorable achievements and personal stories.

Jewish Olympic medallists have been dominated by Hungarians, Eastern Europeans and Americans.

Hungary: Between 1908 and 1968 Jewish Hungarians won 80 Olympic medals. Fencing was the pre-eminent Jewish sport and before World War II Jewish Hungarians won 17 gold medals in fencing which is almost half the total won by Hungary in that period. Anti-Semitism in Hungary often took a confrontational form and it was common for young men to challenge each other to fencing duels. Thus a Jew with fencing skills had a means of responding to threats and insults. Theodor Herzl was an accomplished fencer. But Jewish Hungarians excelled not only in fencing but also in swimming, water polo, gymnastics and wrestling. World War II, the Holocaust and the Communist oppression of Jews in Hungary after the war has wiped out this brilliant sporting legacy

Eastern Europe: After World War II most of the great Jewish Olympians came from Eastern Europe – mostly from the Soviet Union but also one particularly exceptional Polish athlete. These athletes featured particularly in athletics and gymnastics. Unfortunately this legacy also seems to have come to an end.

America: Jews have contributed to the American Olympic success for over 100 years. During the last 40 odd year’s Jewish achievement at the Olympics has gravitated to the USA where the contribution of Jews to American Olympic success has increased. The sports in which Jews have particularly excelled have been swimming and gymnastics.

At the Second Zionist Conference in 1898, Max Nordau appealed to Jews to become involved in sport and physical fitness. Nordau’s call for “muscular Judaism” was answered by the Maccabi movement. By the beginning of World War I over 100 Maccabi clubs were in existence in Europe. The largest of these clubs – Ha-Koach of Vienna, Bar Kochba of Berlin, and Ha-Gibor of Prague became well known for their outstanding teams.

But by the time of Nordau’s appeal Jews were already competing successfully in sports. The first of the modern Olympic Games was held in Athens in 1896 and was a very successful event for Jewish athletes who won nine gold medals. By comparison the USA which headed the gold medal table won 11. The Hungarian Arnold Guttman was 18 at the time of the Athens Olympics. He had taken up swimming five years earlier after his father had drowned in the Danube. In 1896 the swimming events, together with rowing and sailing were scheduled to take place in the sea, which even by the standards of 1896 was a peculiar choice of venue. Conditions on the day were so stormy that the sailing and rowing events were cancelled but remarkably the swimming went ahead. Guttman was entered for all three swimming finals, the 100-metres, 500-metres and 1200-metres freestyle which were all scheduled for the same day. The 100-metres was the first final and Guttman later recalled “The icy water almost cut into our stomachs” but he nevertheless won gold and so became the first swimming gold medallist in Olympic history. He later joked that his winning time of 1 minute 22 seconds (which compared to the world record of 61 seconds) was nothing to brag about.

Suffering from exhaustion after this 100-metres swim Guttman withdrew from the 500-metres event (which was won by Paul Neuman, an Austrian Jew) but later swam in the 1200-metres. He had learnt from his earlier experience and this time he coated himself with grease to retain heat and provide buoyancy. Three boats took the competitors out to sea to the start and after the starter’s gun the swimmers followed the course which was marked by a series of hollowed-out pumpkins back to the shore. Conditions were treacherous and waves of twelve feet were reported. Guttman later wrote, “the boats left the competitors to the mercy of the waves, rushing back to the finishing line to inform the jury of the successful start”. It crossed his mind that if he developed cramp he would have little chance of survival, “My will to live completely overcame my desire to win.” Conditions were so bad that boats were sent back from the shore to recover competitors who were too exhausted to continue. Guttman, again won gold and finished almost three minutes ahead of the second placed swimmer. Guttman was a versatile athlete and won the national Hungarian title in athletics in 100-metres, 400-metres hurdles and discus and represented Hungary at soccer. He qualified as an architect and in 1924 won his third Olympic medal – for architecture (for the design of a sports stadium).

By the time Hitler came to power in Germany, Berlin has already been awarded the Olympic Games for 1936. The hosting of the Olympics in Berlin became a controversial issue with America threatening to boycott and the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) considering withdrawing Germany’s stewardship unless it provided evidence that Jews were being given a fair chance of competing for Germany. Germany responded that large numbers of Jews – they gave the figure of 21 – had been selected for special training and would be included in the team if merited.

Helene Mayer was foremost of the names on this list. She was a fencing prodigy – Germany’s best female fencer and one of its most famous athletes – and a national hero. At the age of 13 she had won the German championship and at 17, an Olympic gold medal. She was tall and blond, the epitome of the Nazi “Aryan” ideal (which I suppose attested to the fact that she was half Jewish – her father was Jewish). When Hitler came to power she was living in America and received a letter expelling her from her club which would have precluded her from competing at the Olympics. Her subsequent inclusion in the team has been viewed by some historians as critical in staving off the boycott. As it transpired she was the only Jewish athlete to compete for Germany in 1936. The contest between Helene Mayer and Ilona Elek (from Hungary who won the gold medal) has been said to be perhaps the most dramatic fencing competition in history. Ellen Preis the Austrian came third. All three medallists were Jewish.

But it was what followed that gave Helene Mayer her notoriety. On the winner’s podium she gave an enthusiastic Heil Hitler salute. Although every German medallist also gave this salute she reputedly did so with added enthusiasm. Mayer’s action has troubled commentators who consider her an enigma and found it difficult to provide a coherent account of her attitude towards Germany and the Nazis. Though as a child she attended synagogue she did not as an adult strongly identify with Germany’s Jews. Perhaps the most coherent explanation came in a letter she wrote to her German teammates a few months later after she had returned to America “Here in America the press has made the [German] Olympics look extra bad…I know I would like to return to Germany, but there’s no place for me there now….I love Germany every bit as much as you do and I feel as German as you do!” When the war broke out, one of her brothers, a physician and a strong Nazi sympathizer tried to enlist but was rejected on account of being Jewish but was never detained. An uncle was sent to a concentration camp and never returned. Mayer was liked in America and in 1940 became an American citizen. She was later diagnosed with cancer and in 1950 returned to Germany and married a wealthy German. Two years later at the age of 43 she passed away.

Twelve years later, in London in 1948 when the Olympic Games were resumed after the war Ilona Elek, now 41 successfully defended her gold medal and Preis her bronze. In Helsinki in 1952, Elek, now 45, won the bronze medal. Elek is considered to be the greatest of all the Hungarian Jewish fencers.

In 1936, the German high jumper Gretel Bergmann also received a letter from her club expelling her and as a result moved to London where she was hoping to compete in the Olympics for Great Britain. However with the potential American boycott she was pressured to return to Germany with the threat that failure to do so would result in her family being punished. Bergmann became part of the window dressing to counter the argument that Jews were being excluded. A month before the Olympics Bergmann equalled the German high jump record and yet two weeks later she was informed by letter that her performances in training had been judged inadequate and that she would not be representing Germany at the Games. Had Bergmann been able to reproduce her best performance it would have won her the gold medal. But if Germany prevented Gretel Bergmann from winning a gold medal it may have saved her life. After being informed that she would not be competing she left Germany vowing never return and moved to the America.

The different treatment of Mayer and Bergmann has interested commentators. Some say that the situation of Mayer was of a much higher profile given her athletic status before the Games and American involvement in her case which would have made her exclusion far more damaging.

About 40 individual athletes did boycott the Berlin Games including the Jewish American Lilian Copeland, the defending champion in the discus and the South African Syd Kiel. Kiel’s event was the 110-metres hurdles and he had aspirations to win the gold medal. I mentioned this to my father who said that he had met Kiel who practised as a doctor in Cape Town. My father also mentioned that in 1946 Kiel was extremely unlucky to miss selection to the South African cricket team. Many Jews did, however, compete in Berlin and altogether won 16 medals, 10 of which were gold

Attila Petschauer came from an affluent background and had a friendly and outgoing personality. By 1928 he was Hungary’s most admired fencer (and one of the world’s greatest). He was a member of the Hungarian gold medal teams at the 1928 and 1932 Olympics. Among his friends were the Jewish wrestler Karoly Karpati (who won the gold medal in Berlin defeating the German champion in the final in front of an aggressively hostile and partisan crowd) and the gentile horseman Kalman Cseh. In 1944 Petschauer and Karpati were sent to a labour camp where one of the officers was Cseh. Petschauer approached his old teammate and friend but Cseh ignored him and instructed some subordinates to make life difficult for “the Jew.” Karpati takes up the story “The guards shouted: ‘You, Olympic fencing medal winner…let’s see how you can climb trees.’ It was midwinter and bitter cold, but they ordered him to undress, then climb a tree. The amused guards ordered him to crow like a rooster, and sprayed him with water. Frozen from water, he died shortly after.”

Besides Petschauer a number of other Olympic medallists died in the Holocaust. Alfred and Gustav Flatow were cousins who between them won five gold medals in gymnastics at the 1896 Olympic Games. Both starved to death at Theresienstadt. In 1987, after a 47-year battle with local residents the road leading to the Olympic stadium in Berlin was renamed in their honour. Otto Herschmann silver medallist in the 100-metres freestyle in 1896 died in a Polish concentration camp. Two Hungarian gold medallist fencers Oskar Gerde and Janos Garay died at Mauthausen. Helena Nordheim, Anna Polak and Estella Agsterribe were members of the Dutch gold medal gymnastics team at the 1928 Olympics. Nordheim and Polak were gassed at Sobibor and Agsterribe was murdered in Auschwitz.

Eva Szekely was nine when she decided to become an Olympic swimmer. She lived a happy and privileged life in Budapest but in 1941 (at the age of 14) everything changed. Arriving at a national swimming gala she and three other Jewish girls were informed that as “religious undesirables” they were no longer permitted to compete. But there was sympathy for the four Jewish girls and a decision was taken that since the new decree would only become official the next day, they would be allowed to compete for the last time. On the following day a newspaper headline read: “Five records broken in first Jew-free swimming gala”. All five records had fallen to Jewish swimmers. After 1944 conditions in Hungary deteriorated further and after being sent to a labour camp Szekely she escaped and found refuge in a safe house in Budapest. There she maintained her fitness by running up and down the staircase in her five-story building a hundred times a day

After the war Szekely won a gold medal in the 200-metres breastroke at Helsinki in 1952 and silver in Melbourne in 1956. The Szekely family were described as observant Jews and it was a feature of her career that she always publicly acknowledged her religion. In Hungary after the war this proclamation was considered both unusual and brave. Szekely married the Hungarian water polo player Dezso Gyamarti and in Munich in 1972 their daughter Andrea won a silver medal in the 100-backstroke and a bronze medal in the 100-metre butterfly.

Dezso Gyamarti has been described as the greatest water polo player of all time. He represented Hungary at five Olympic Games winning three gold medals, a silver and a bronze. Gyamarti captained Hungary in the bloodiest game in Olympic history – the semi-final between Hungary and Soviet Union in Melbourne in 1956. Three members of the Hungarian water polo team were Jewish. Between the date the Hungarian Olympic team left Hungary and arrived in Melbourne the Soviet Union had invaded Hungary and brutally crushed the Hungarian uprising. The Hungarian players were determined to take revenge in the pool and had resolved to provoke their opponents but to avoid fights. The hostility in the pool was abetted by a partisan capacity crowd containing large numbers of Melbourne’s Hungarian community. It took less than a minute for the first Russian to react and to be ejected to the penalty area. The Soviet frustrations grew as Hungary accumulated a 4-0 lead and the game degenerated into a brawl culminating two minutes from time with one of the Soviet player’s viciously punching the Hungarian Ervin Zador in the face from which blood flowed into the pool. By then the Hungarians in the crowd had had enough and some jumped over the barriers and began throwing missiles at the Russian players. Fearing that the Russian players were about to be physically assaulted the referee blew the final whistle. The following day Hungary beat Yugoslavia to defend their gold medal. Zador, who was not one of the Jewish players in the team, emigrated to America where he became a swimming coach and in the 1960s coached a young Jewish swimmer by the name of Mark Spitz.

Agnes Keleti was born in Budapest in 1921. After 1944 she managed to buy identity documents of a Christian girl and with the papers escaped to rural Hungary where she spent the war. Her mother and sister survived but her father was sent to Auschwitz. Keleti had already missed out on two Olympics due to the war and a late injury limited her to only a silver medal in 1948. In Helsinki in 1952 she was already 31 and won four medals including one gold and in Melbourne in 1956, (now 35) she won six medals (including four gold) giving her a career total of 11 medals (including five gold) making her one of the greatest gymnasts in history. Like many of her teammates Keleti did not return to Hungary after Melbourne and she and her mother moved to Israel where she established a school for gymnastics.

Maria Gorochovskia represented the Soviet Union in gymnastics and like Agnes Keleti was also 31 in 1952 (they competed against each other). Gorochovskia only competed in one Olympic Games and won seven medals including three gold’s which included the prestigious All-Around individual title. In 1990, Gorochovskia, by then nearly 80, made aliyah to Israel. It was only then that she felt sufficiently comfortable to publicly acknowledge that she was Jewish.

Irena Kirszenstein (after marriage Kirszenstein-Szewinska) was born in 1946 in Leningrad where her Polish parents had fled to avoid the Nazis but after the war they returned to Warsaw. Kirszenstein has been described as the most successful female Olympic track and field athlete in history. She was the first runner to win medals at four consecutive Olympics including gold in 200-metres, 400-metres and 4 x 100 metres relay, silver in 200-metres and long jump and bronze in 100-metres and 200-metres. She simultaneously held world records for the 100-, 200- and 400-metres. After retiring she worked as an economist in Warsaw and in 1998 was elected to the IOC.

The sisters Irina and Tamara Press represented the Soviet Union in the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Both sisters were strongly built. Irina carried her weight well and won gold medals in the 80-metres hurdles in Rome and the pentathlon in Tokyo. Tamara weighed in at 105 kilograms (of pure kosher Jewish beef. Incidentally, Mof Myburgh who played prop for the Springboks around the same time also weighed 105 kilograms). Tamara was a woman of awesome size and strength and won two gold medals in the shot put and a gold and silver in the discus. Between Irina and Tamara they set 26 world records.

The European Championships in 1966 saw the introduction of chromosomal sex testing. The sisters were withdrawn from this tournament with the excuse that they had to go home to look after their sick mother and they never competed again. This has led some commentators to conclude that the sisters may not have been sisters but brothers.

No talk on this subject can be complete without reference to Mark Spitz. After a disappointing Olympics in Mexico City in 1968 where he won “only” two gold medals (after boasting he would win five) he produced in Munich in 1972 at the time possibly the greatest feat by an athlete at a single Olympiad winning seven gold medals all in world record times. Spitz’s other great achievement was four gold medals in 1965 at the Maccabiah Games.

Before the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games the USA had never won the women’s gymnastics team event. In 1996 the vault was the last apparatus and Kerri Strug was the USA’s final competitor. On her first jump she landed badly sprained her ankle and tore two ligaments and scored a poor 9.162. What happened next transformed her from a supporting role into a national heroine. Against her protestations the coach pressured her to go again telling her that “we need a 9.6” This time she stuck the landing and then collapsed in agony but scored a 9.712. The US television version was that Strug, realizing that her team needed one more high score to secure victory, sacrificed herself for the good of the team, but the truth was more complicated. Without Strug’s second vault the USA would still have won although there was a mathematical, albeit almost impossible, chance that the Soviet Union could have won without Strug’s second vault.

Aly Raisman captained the USA women’s gymnastics team to the gold medal in London in 2012 and also won gold for her floor routine played to the tune Hava Nagila. She dedicated her floor exercise program to the 11 Israeli Olympians who were murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Last month Raisman took part in the Maccabiah Games.

To my knowledge Harry Isaacs is the only South African Jew to have won an Olympic medal – a bronze for boxing in Amsterdam in 1928. His semi-final against an American opponent ended in controversy. Isaacs was initially awarded the fight but then a group of Americans stormed the judging tables and the decision was reversed. Isaacs was adamant that the judges had been intimidated into reversing their decision.

The four greatest Jewish Olympian medal winners of all time – Mark Spitz of USA, Agnes Keleti of Hungary, Irena Kirszenstein of Poland and Maria Gorokhovskaya of the Soviet Union are also among the greatest Olympic competitors of all time.

Of the three main sources of Jewish Olympic medallists – Hungary, Eastern Europe and the USA only the USA remains. Hopefully the proud tradition of Jewish achievement at the Olympic Games will continue.

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