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The Forgotten Olympians

The Forgotten Olympians

In Olympic years, some People of the Book become people of the backstroke, the clean-and-jerk, and the high hurdles.
The Games, Summer and Winter, serve as a showcase for the best athletes, Jewish and non-Jewish. From A (Ruth Abeles) to Z (Eli Zuckerman), names like Mark Spitz and Kerry Strug are in the record books as well as Jewish history texts.
Beginning with 10 medals won by Jewish athletes at the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, Jews have been a steady presence at the international competition.
With the 2004 Summer Games starting in Athens on Aug. 13, in the coming weeks The Jewish Week will highlight some of the notable Jewish members of the U.S. Olympic team and some outstanding Israeli Olympians.
Here, in the first of a two-part retrospective series, we look at some interesting — and in some cases little known — Jewish Olympians.
At the start of the 20th century, what is known today as the long jump was known as the horizontal jump, and Meyer Prinstein was known as the world’s best. Prinstein was born in Poland and came to the United States in 1884. A graduate of Syracuse University and a lawyer, he held world records and was a member of three Olympic teams. At the 1900 Summer Games in Paris, Prinstein qualified for the long jump finals, but was persuaded by his Christian teammates not to take part in the competition on a Sunday, the Christian Sabbath. He was still awarded the silver medal in the event, and won the triple jump. He won a total of five Olympic medals.
New York’s Irving Jaffee won two speed skating gold medals at the 1932 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., but the third one he earned was the most memorable. Jaffee led after several 10,000-meter heats in 1928 in St. Moritz, Switzerland, before the temperature rose and the ice became unskatable. The Norwegian athletes, his only competition, departed, and Jaffee received a gold medal that was later withdrawn. During the Depression he pawned his medals. The pawnshop went out of business and his medals were never found. Jaffe later served as winter sports director at Grossinger’s, organizing popular barrel jumping contests at the Catskills resort.
Harold Abrahams was immortalized in the 1981 Oscar-winning film “Chariots of Fire,” but the British sprinter had earned fame by winning the 100-meter dash at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. He also participated in the 1920 Games in Antwerp. Part of an athletic family — his brother Sidney represented Great Britain in 1912 as a long jumper — Abrahams raced as a protest against anti-Semitic stereotypes of unathletic Jews. Six months before the 1924 competition he hired a personal coach, becoming the first British amateur to do so. Proper British society disapproved, but Abrahams had the last laugh on British society — as a lawyer he became a sports administrator, serving as chairman of the British Amateur Athletic Board.
Lili Henoch of Germany, a world-class shot putter and discus thrower, would have been part of her country’s 1924 Olympic team in Paris, but Germany wasn’t invited. As punishment by the Allies for being an “aggressor” nation in World War I, Germany and Austria were barred from the 1924 competition. Henoch and her 66-year-old mother were deported to the Riga ghetto in Nazi-occupied Latvia in 1942, and were murdered in a Einsatzgruppe mass killing by a German army mobile killing unit.
As a member of Finland’s track-and-field team in Paris in 1924, Elias Katz won a gold medal running the anchor leg on the 3,000-meter cross country team. Then he won silver in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Invited to join the Bar Kochba Jewish sports club in Berlin in 1924, he left Germany in 1933 because of anti-Semitism. Katz immigrated to Israel, where as a trainer and sports manager for the Maccabi organization, he was chosen to coach the country’s track team in the 1948 Games. In December 1947, while working as a film operator at a British army camp near Gaza, he was murdered by Arab terrorists.
There’s a statue in Amsterdam commemorating the feats of Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won four gold medals at the 1948 Olympics in London, earning the title “The Flying Housewife.” Blankers-Koen was a track-and-field star who had competed at the Berlin Games in 1936 and survived the Nazi occupation of Holland. A mother of two, she had trained in secret before coming to London at 30. Too old, said the critics, despite her six world records. Then Blankers-Koen won the 100- and 200-meter runs, the 80-meter hurdles and a sprint relay. Some 40 years later she met Jesse Owens, the American star of the Berlin Olympics. She began to introduce herself.
“You don’t have to tell me that,” Owens said. “I know all about you.”
Alain Calmat, a world-class figure skater, won a silver medal at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, b ut he made his mark in Jewish athletic history four years later at the Games in Grenoble, France, when he was selected to carry the torch and light the Olympic flame during the opening ceremonies. He was the first Jew — and the only one, as far as is known — with that singular honor. Calmat (real name Calmanovich) also competed in the 1956 Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. Later he became a surgeon, France’s minister of youth and sports, and a member of the French Parliament.
War canceled the 1940 Summer Olympics and postponed gymnastics training for Agnes Keleti. She survived the Holocaust by posing as a Christian maid in a village in the Hungarian countryside. Her father died in Auschwitz; her mother and sister went into hiding, saved by Raoul Wallenberg. After the war Keleti qualified for four Games — 1948, when an injury caused her to miss the competition; 1952, when she was already 31 years old; and 1956. She won a total of 10 medals, making her the most successful female Jewish Olympian in history. Her five gold medals all were earned after she turned 30 — an Olympic record.
The Soviet Union invaded Hungary during the 1956 Games, and Keleti made aliyah, getting her mother and sister out of Hungary. In Israel she became a physical education instructor.
About a dozen deaf athletes have participated in the Olympics; one was Jewish. Vyacheslav Skomorokhov was among the world’s best hurdlers, taking part in the now-defunct USA-Russia track meets and reaching the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. A medal winner in the World Games for the Deaf, he was a closet Jew, living in the Soviet Union at a time when few ambitious Jews would admit their ethnic background. Skomorokhov spent his time, according to one biographer, “hanging around with sleazy individuals. Sadly, Skomorokhov was reportedly assassinated several years ago in a bar — details are sketchy but it was understood that the Russian Mafia did him in.”
Larry Brown, the peripatetic coach who recently led the Detroit Pistons to the NBA title, is the only U.S. male to both play and coach basketball in the Olympics. A standout at the University of North Carolina, he was a member of the U.S. championship Olympic basketball team in 1964, scaling a fence to watch the swimming finals. He served as assistant coach on the gold medal-winning team in 2000. This year he is the head coach. Brown, who played in the old American Basketball Association for five seasons and represented the United States in the 1961 Maccabiah Games, was inducted two years ago into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
Next week: Connections between the Olympic Games and the Holocaust.

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