Subscribe To our E-Newsletter
Samson’s Army: The Jews of the Olympic Games
The Upcoming Maccabiah Games, the so-called Jewish Olympics, remind us that we Jews are more than artists and scientists; we are also fine athletes. After all, Samson was an athlete as was King David, and we think of those heroic Maccabees, for whom these Jewish games are named, as athletes. The term “Jewish jock” is neither a joke nor an oxymoron.
Jews have excelled in all sports, including Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax (baseball); Sid Luckman (football); and Dolph Schayes (basketball). The list is vast. But the focus here is on those who made their mark in the Olympic Games.
The achievements date back to the beginning of the modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. There, Jews won eight of the 43 events that took place. Since then, over more than a century, Jews have won about 200 Olympic gold medals and more than 400 medals overall. In those first games, Alfred and Gustav Flatow, German cousins, won five of the gymnastics events and Hungarian Alfred Hajos-Guttmarm and Paul Neumann of Austria became the first Olympic swimming champions. In 1904, Samuel Berger of the United States became the first Olympic heavyweight boxing champion.
Harold Abrahams, name is unfamiliar until we recall he was the British Olympic sprinter in 1924 made famous by the film Chariots of Fire. Also in 1924 Jackie Fields (aka Jacob Finkelstein) was the youngest Olympic boxer to win a gold medal and Sam Mosberg recorded the fastest knockout in Olympic history. William Bachrach coached USA swimmers to 23 Olympic gold medals during the 1920s, including five for Johnny Weissmuller, who became the quintessential Tarzan of the movies.
In 1928, Fanny Rosenfeld, considered the best all-round female athlete in Canadian history, won gold and silver in track and field. She also won tennis championships and excelled in basketball, softball and ice hockey. A Canadian postage stamp honors her accomplishments.
Fencer Endre Kabos won a total of three golds in Los Angeles in 1932 and Berlin in 1936. Later incarcerated in a Nazi forced labor camp, he escaped, then died fighting with the Hungarian underground and is considered a Hungarian national hero. Gymnast Agnes Kileti was saved from Auschwitz by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Then, because the 1940 and 1944 Games were canceled (due to World War II) and he had an injury at the time of the 1948 games, Kileti did not get to compete until the 1952 Olympics at age 31. Still, she won 10 Olympic medals (five of them gold).
The USA’s Henry Wittenberg won 300 consecutive matches as a heavyweight wrestler, including Olympic gold in 1948 and silver in 1952. American featherweight weightlifter Isaac “Ike” Berger, who won one gold in 1956 and silvers in 1960 and ’64. He was the first athlete to set a world record in Israel and then became a cantor.
Hungarian Irena Kirszenstein, a track star, won seven Olympic medals, including three golds in the 1960s and ‘70s and now serves as a member of the International Olympic Committee. Another Hungarian, Idiko Ujlald-Rejto, born profoundly deaf, competed as a fencer in five Olympics, from 1960 to 1976, winning seven medals, including two gold.
More recently, Kerri Strug locked down a gold for the 1996 USA’s women’s gymnastics team by completing a magnificent final vault despite running with painful torn ligaments in her left ankle. Swimmer Dara Torres competed in six Olympics, winning 12 medals: four within each of the three medal categories.
Many see the most triumphant Jewish Olympic moment as when Ally Raisman, captain of the 2012 gold medal-winning U.S. women’s gymnastic team, performed the floor exercise to “Hava Nagila.”
While many other Jewish Olympians have come and gone, swimmer Mark Spitz still holds the record, having won seven golds in 1972. All told, he completed his Olympics career with 11 medals, nine of them the gleaming gold.
Herbert Weinberg, a native of Philadelphia who now lives in Colorado, covered 14 Olympic Games, primarily for ABC Radio Sports. For information on his power-point presentation, “The Jewish Olympic Odyssey,” email: [email protected]