Jewish Journal


September 14, 2000

Olympic Moments

Jewish athletes have a history of competition filled with tragedy and triumph.


Jason Lezak, a freestyle swimmer from Irvine.

Jason Lezak, a freestyle swimmer from Irvine.

That Jews have been prominent in the history of ancient and modern sport, and specifically the Olympic Games, should not come as a surprise. We tend to forget that one of the sparks that ignited the Maccabbees' revolt was - as the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius recorded some 2,000 years ago - that some high priests in Jerusalem's Holy Temple neglected their holy duties and instead, exercised in the nude, Greek style. Josephus also recorded that Herod the Great [Herod The Wicked, to some], King of Judea, saved the ancient Olympic Games from bankruptcy by endowing them with gifts and revenues upon which "he was generally declared in their inscriptions to be one of the perpetual managers of those games."

The involvement of Jews in athletics during the late 19th century coincided with their rise in the ranks of the middle class in Europe and the United States. Participating in sports was just another way by which the Jewish middle class pursued its social and psychological integration and assimilation.

In 1896, one of the men who helped usher in the modern Olympic Games was Dr. Ferenc Kemeny, a Hungarian Jew. Dr. Kemeny became one of the most ardent supporters of Pierre de Coubertin, the romantic French aristocrat credited with the establishment of the modern Olympic movement. While his Jewishness was not pertinent at the time, it became so when he and his wife committed suicide rather than be forced to wear the yellow star that identified Jews during the Holocaust.

Similar tragic fates awaited the first two German Olympic champions, Alfred Flatow and Felix Flatow (not related). After winning several gold medals in gymnastics during the 1896 games in Athens, Alfred Flatow died in Auschwitz, Felix Flatow, in Theresienstadt. As a former Olympic medalist, Felix Flatow received a special invitation from the Sportfuhrer, Hans von Tschammer und Osten, to the opening of the Nazi Olympic Games in 1936. He courageously declined. His rationale: Since he was excluded from his sport club by the Nuremberg Laws, he should not participate in the Olympic celebrations either. Among the modern games, the Berlin Olympics of 1936 generated perhaps the most pregame controversy. To placate American and world opinion, the Nazi sports authorities felt pressured to organize training camps for Jews. Among those invited to train there was half-Jewish fencer Helene Mayer, living comfortably in California at the time. Eventually, all Jews, even European record-holding high jumper Gretel Bergman, were excluded from participation in the Games. Mayer and another half-Jew, ice hockey player Rudi Ball, were included on the German team as tokens, averting an American boycott. Mayer, who ironically exemplified a statuesque Aryan blonde, raised a few eyebrows with her Nazi salute on the victory stand as she received a silver medal. She shared the stand with two other half-Jewish fencers: Ilona Elek of Hungary who won the gold and Ellen Preis of Austria, who took the bronze. There also were several other Jewish fencers in Berlin who won medals. Among them was Endre Kabos, winner of two gold medals for Hungary. He later died in the Holocaust.

The most heated debates about the Berlin Games raged in the United States, where a boycott was supported even by the U.S. ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, and Consul General George Messersmith. Despite their strong objections, the American team participated. The only two Jews on the U.S. track team, Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman, were replaced in the 4-by-100-meter relays with two African-American athletes, Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. Glickman continues to believe that an anti-Semitic coach was behind the switch.

Another tragic anecdote involves the Polish fencer Roman Kantor, who had taken part in the 1936 games, and Nazi Gen. Reinhard Heydrich, an avid fencing aficionado. The feared head of the Gestapo provided Kantor with money and travel papers after the Jewish athlete fled from the Soviet occupation zone in 1939. His story ends, like so many of his contemporaries', in the Majdanek Nazi concentration camp.

It is easy to see that, of all the Olympic events, fencing might be considered the ultimate Jewish sport. It is not an exaggeration to say that Jews won more medals in Olympic fencing - based on their representation in the general population - in the first half of the 20th century than any other ethnic group. Hungarian Jewish fencers were especially dominant in the Olympics, winning a total of 20 medals. Ivan Osiier, the leader of Copenhagen's Jewish community, garnered a silver medal in Stockholm in 1912. He holds the record for participating in more Olympic Games - seven - than any other athlete.

The exact number of Jews participating in the Olympic movement as athletes, coaches, referees and officials may never be known. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, more and more former athletes are willing to reclaim their Jewish heritage.

There are many records held by Jewish Olympians. Two outstanding Jewish gymnasts, Agnes Keleti from Hungary and Maria Gorochovskia from the Soviet Union, amassed 18 medals in the 1952 and 1956 Games. Keleti defected from the Melbourne Olympiad after the revolution in Hungary and made aliyah to Israel, becoming its national coach. Gorochovskia, on the other hand, had to wait until the collapse of the Soviet empire before making aliyah. Among other heroes, we all remember and cherish the exceptional performance of Mark Spitz in Munich, winning the most medals (seven) anyone ever garnered in one Olympics.

But Spitz was not the only Jewish swimmer of note in the history of the Games. Alfred Hajos, who was dubbed the Hungarian Dolphin by the admiring Greeks, won two gold medals in the first Olympiad in 1896.

The Olympic Games have influenced Jewish sport on many levels. Among the most important contributions was the establishment of the Maccabiah Games, modeled after the Olympics. The idea of a Jewish Olympiad was raised as early as 1912 in Germany. But World War I interfered with the movement's realization.

As a world event, no other festival showed all the beauty, hypocrisy and tragedy of the Games than the 1972 Munich Olympics. The shadows of Palestinian terrorists and their victims are etched into the consciousness of the world. These images remained when Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, announced at the Munich Games the dictim: "The Games Must Go On." And, so, the Games have gone on for the Jews. And it is somehow comforting, and poetic justice, that two young Israelis, Yael Arad and Oren Smadja, won Israel's first Olympic medals four years ago in such an "un-Jewish" sport as judo. They and others are this year anticipating writing a new chapter to the long history of Jews and the Olympic Games, a saga filled with tragedy and triumph.

George Eisen wrote this article for the Baltimore Jewish Times.

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