Who remembers Alfred Hajos-Guttman? He was the Mark Spitz of his day — 1896.
At the first modern Olympic Games, in Athens, the Hungarian swimmer won two gold medals, in 100-meter and 1,500-meter freestyle.
Jewish athletes won eight more medals at the inaugural Games, starting a sporting tradition that continues until today.
Though not known for their brawny prowess, Jews have brought home the gold — and silver and bronze — from virtually every Olympic competition. Some of the winners were genuine stars, like Spitz and gymnasts Mitch Gaylord and Kerri Strug. But most labored in obscurity.
Several soon-to-be-known Jewish athletes will be part of the American team in Sydney for the Summer Games that begin today. Athletes are not identified primarily by their ethnicity, so it is difficult to definitively determine who are the Jews who will be running and leaping and throwing for the red, white and blue.
The Jewish members of the American team include runners Adam Goucher and Deena Drossin, soccer players Jeff Agoos and Sara Whalen, shot-putter Andy Bloom, fencer Cliff Bayer, triathlete Joanna Zeiger, equestrian Margie Goldstein-Engle, gymnast Alyssa Beckerman and swimmers Scott Goldblatt and Anthony Ervin. Ervin, an African American, has a Jewish mother.
Some of the athletes with compelling stories, like Ukrainian-born swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg, an emerging swimming champion, are profiled here.
Outside of the U.S., there is heightened Jewish interest in the 2000 Olympics. Israel, which won its first-ever medal eight years ago in Barcelona, has its sights on more victories. On the roster of the host Australian team are a few Jewish athletes; the Jewish community of Sydney is opening its arms and its homes to hundreds of visitors.
The usual questions greet the athletes in Sydney: Will the expected stars perform up to expectations? Which sports will produce this year’s unsung heroes? Who will be the Alfred Hajos-Guttman of 2000?
Swimming Lenny Krayzelburg: Golden Boy
What if Oleg and Yelena Krayzelburg hadn’t left Odessa in 1988 because the Russian army was fighting in Afghanistan and they didn’t want their 13-year-old son Leonid drafted in a few years?
What if they hadn’t moved to Los Angeles? What if their son, his name Americanized into Lenny, hadn’t enrolled at Santa Monica City College, whose swim coach recommended the émigré to the swim coach at the University of Southern California?
Krayzelburg doesn’t ask those questions. “I’m not a person who looks back at the past,” he says. That’s because the immediate future occupies Krayzelburg. At 24, the holder of four world records in the backstroke, he is favored to win three, maybe four, gold medals as a member of the U.S. team.
Pressure? Of course, acknowledges Krayzelburg, who starred at USC. But, he says, “I have to keep things in perspective. I’ve experienced things not a lot of Americans would.”
Like being picked for an elite youth team at 9 in his native Ukraine. Spending 12 hours a day, six days a week in the pool. Being called anti-Semitic names by schoolmates “a few times” and fighting back. Leaving his homeland as a teen. Coming to America and not knowing a word of English.
“I learned it in school,” Krayzelburg says, with the trace of an accent.
The medals and trophies he brought from Odessa are stored in a box in his Los Angeles apartment. “I don’t have enough room” to display them all, he says. One day he will — “when I become rich.”
A USC graduate with a degree in finance, he signed a six-figure endorsement degree with Speedo sportswear in the biggest contract made by the firm with a not-yet Olympian. At 6-2, 180 pounds, with chiseled good looks, he was named one of “the 50 most beautiful people in the world” by People magazine.
His contract calls for Speedo to bring his parents and younger sister to Sydney to watch the Olympics. “My family has been the biggest part of my success,” Krayzelburg says.
He took a circuitous route to stardom. In L.A. he went to Fairfax High School, which didn’t have a swim team. To keep in shape and earn some money, he worked as a lifeguard. Krayzelburg practiced at Santa Monica City College and later at the Westside Jewish Community Center.
One day he introduced himself to Stu Blumkin, the college’s swim coach. Krayzelburg wanted to join the team. Fairfax High doesn’t have a swim team, Blumkin thought. How fast can this guy be?
Fast enough to set a national junior college record within a year.
Blumkin called Mark Schubert, his colleague at USC and coach of the 2000 Olympic men’s swimming team. Schubert agreed to a tryout; Krayzelburg won a scholarship.
The current world champion in the 100 and 200 meters, he was named 1999 Swimmer of the Year by USA Swimming. To prepare for the Games, Krayzelburg swims 10 miles a day, six days a week, in the USC pool, and spends two more hours a day in the weight room — the training regimen he learned in Odessa. “The reason I am what I am today,” he says, “is what I learned as a young kid.”
“This is my life now,” Krayzelburg says. “This is the greatest country in the world — you don’t have to worry about [serving in] war.”
Raised under communism, he and his younger sister, Marsha, had no Jewish education. In Los Angeles, the family goes to synagogue once a year, on Yom Kippur.
Though Krayzelburg is asked to appear at the occasional Jewish function, there are few Jews cheering at his meets, few ethnic requests for autographs. “I’m a little bit surprised,” he says. “Not a lot of Jewish fans know about me.”
In 1996, a year after the Krayzelburgs became naturalized Americans, Lenny tried out for the U.S. Olympic team. He didn’t qualify. “I wasn’t ready in ’96,” he says. “It wasn’t my time.”
Eventually, Krayzelburg wants a career in public speaking and business — and a place on the 2004 Olympic team. “I thank I can get better,” he says.
All of this because a coach in Odessa saw that Krayzelburg had a great backstroke two decades ago.
“What if I hadn’t been an athlete?” he says. “I think about that a lot.”
Jason Lezak: California Sprinter
Jason Lezak says he was “no different than the average guy” growing up in Southern California, with a pool in the backyard. His parents, to teach him to swim, “threw me in when I was a baby.”
By 5 Lezak was in his first competitive race, in a small pool. “I didn’t have a clue,” he says, noting that he kept meandering into the lane markers.
A year later he was winning age-group races.
At 24, he is a 6-foot-4-inch, 205-pound nationally ranked freestyler and former national record holder. The business/economics graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara has qualified for the 400-meter freestyle relay at Sydney.
Lezak, who lives in Irvine, Calif., attended the 1984 Summer Olympics in nearby Los Angeles. It inspired him, he says, to make a future Olympic team. “I thought I could do it.”
A high school All-American in water polo, he did well through high school and college in several national swimming meets, including two Junior Maccabi competitions — “I came home with a lot of gold medals.” But Lezak did not emerge as a bona fide Olympic contender until the 1998 Summer Nationals, where he won the 100-meter race and tied for second in the 50-meter sprint. “I was kind of shocked,” he says.
With an endorsement contract from Speedo, he has spent the last two years in training with the Irvine Novaquatics team. After Sydney, more training: Lezak, who has never visited Israel, wants to compete in the 2001 Maccabiah Games. With his background, he won’t have to enter a qualifying meet to make the U.S. team, he’ll just have to submit his times.
In High Gear
Nicole Freedman began bike riding at 5 and went on family bike excursions/picnics at 10 (“I liked the ice cream part”), but she didn’t take up serious biking until 21. Burned out by being a middle-of-the-pack middle-distance runner at Stanford University, she biked to improve her running.
She soon did better in bike races than in track, her sport of choice since high school in Wellesley, Mass. Goodbye running, hello biking.
After some success on the cycling team at Stanford, where she was an urban studies major, Freedman started competing on the national circuit, soon becoming an elite racer. At 28, she is an Olympian.
Four years after she finished 10th in the Olympic trials, Freedman won the qualifying event in Jackson, Miss., for the 2000 Games by a bike length. Only the first-place finisher was assured a position on the U.S. squad.
Winning the Trials was a vindication for Freedman, who works part-time for a San Francisco-based Internet sports marketing site (she needs a flexible schedule for her 300-350 training miles a week). She lives in a van, a 1978 Ford Econoline, in a friend’s driveway in Palo Alto, Calif. (She saves rent money and pays off her student loan.)
“It’s a tradeoff,” she says — middle-class respectability for athletic honors. “I do a calculation each year.”
Even if she wins in Australia — competitors from France and the host country are the early favorites — big-time endorsements are not likely, she says. Not for a biker.
“Very few people recognize me,” says Freedman.
Sometimes she gets e-mail messages from other Jewish bikers. They’re happy to discover a landsman with the same avocation — especially a world-class Jewish biker. “It’s really rare,” Freedman says.
Fencing, Judo Tamir Bloom, Gil Offer:
A Cousins’ Reunion One of the focuses of Olympic interest in Israel will be a ninetysomething grandmother who lives in Jerusalem. Pola Waldman has two grandsons who will be competing in Sydney.
Tamir Bloom, 28, of Millburn, N.J., is an epee fencer on the American team. Gil Offer, 24, is a judo competitor from Israel who lives in Beit Yitzchak, a moshav near Netanya.
The first cousins, who have not seen each other in a decade, will be reunited in Australia, and Waldman is kvelling.
“She’s so proud,” Offer says. “That’s the main thing she’s living for — her family.”
A native of Czestachowa, Poland, she came to Palestine before World War II and worked as an interior decorator.
Not a sports fan, she will watch her grandsons on Israeli TV.
The first matches for Bloom and Offer are Monday. “The same day, the same hall,” Offer says. Bloom is scheduled for the morning. “Probably I will see him” in action, says Offer, who starts competing in the afternoon. “I think it will give me motivation — he probably will win the gold [medal].”
Bloom, a medical student at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan, is the top-ranked American epee fencer, a three-time national champion and member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. Offer has been Israel’s top judoist in the 73-kilo (160 pounds) weight category for five years.
“We are in connection all the time,” Offer says. He first envisioned seeing Bloom in Australia while watching the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta on television. “I knew I could be in Sydney. It was my dream.”
Offer made the Israeli squad in April; Bloom qualified for the U.S. team a month later. Offer says Bloom called him with the news.
The cousins plan to get together in the Olympic Village during breaks from training. Some schmoozing, “maybe some video games,” Offer says. More relaxing after their events are over. “I told him the first drinks are on me.”
Offer, whose familial Olympic story has been covered by the Israeli media, will call his grandmother from Sydney with a personal report on her grandsons’ results.
No Israelis are entered in Bloom’s fencing event. There is a top-ranked American in Offer’s judo weight-class.
For whom will Bloom cheer if cousin and teammate meet on the mat?
“I hope for me,” Offer says with a laugh. “If not I will kill him. Family is the most important thing.”
Behind The Scenes
All Signals Clear Elly Libin began thinking about the Sydney Olympics in 1995, a year before the Summer Games in Atlanta. He’ll probably go to Sydney for a few days next week. But he won’t watch any of the competition.
Instead, Libin will spend his time in a broadcast control room, his eyes on a bank of TV screens and electronic monitoring devices.
As president of BroadComm Inc., a high-tech firm based in Cedarhurst, L.I., Libin ensures that the televised coverage by NBC and the scores of international networks is received glitch-free around the world.
Hired by the Sydney organizing committee, he works with computer models to keep the electronic signals sent by television and radio networks, security agencies and other sources from jamming or canceling each other. There are thousands of signals, carried over fiber-optic cables and the Internet, bounced off satellites and relayed by transmitters.
“Hundreds of broadcasters will come to the Olympics, and each will have their own requirements,” says Libin, who has made three previous trips to Sydney to coordinate the transmissions. He’s already been to Salt Lake City, Utah, in preparation for the 2002 Winter Games.
A 41-year-old resident of Woodmere, he studied at Yeshiva University and MIT. Libin has supervised the coverage of U.S. political conventions (this summer’s was his fifth set), presidential inaugurations (“I’ve met most of the politicians”), NFL games (he once tripped while lugging equipment across the field during a game and was reprimanded by the league), and a Talmud siyum in Nassau Coliseum (an Orthodox Jew, he was “finally … in the majority” on the job).
Libin, who formerly worked at NBC and has done consulting for the American government and several Central American countries, is a recognized expert in wireless communications. “There are very few people in this particular niche,” he says.
To prepare for the Atlanta Games, he traveled back and forth over a hundred times, he says. Libin was in a nearby hotel when a bomb went off in the Olympic Park one Friday night. There was a knock at his door — he was needed to manage the operations and communications desk. He walked to the broadcast center and advised the technicians — a non-Jewish assistant did the duties that would be a violation of Shabbat. He had his tallit and siddur brought to him the next day.
“I stayed in the technical operations center for two days,” he recalls.
The other Shabbat in Atlanta Libin stayed at a hotel seven miles away. Another knock — another problem. He walked the whole way, “in the heat of the day,” a car crawling alongside, offering drinks of water.
Three days in Sydney to see his plans carried out will be enough; two weeks would be too much time away from his family. “I’ve seen enough opening ceremonies and fireworks,” he says.
At the end of each Olympics, Libin says there’s always a big party for the broadcast crew that he attends. But this year he’ll be in Woodmere watching the closing ceremonies on TV.
“Then,” he says, “we begin the operations phase for Salt Lake City.”