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1878: Jumping Jew Who Would Set Olympic Record Is Born

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Myer Prinstein in action in the long jump during the 1904 Summer Olympics, in St. Louis, Missouri.
Myer Prinstein in action in the long jump during the 1904 Summer Olympics, in St. Louis, Missouri. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

December 22, 1878, is the birthdate of Myer Prinstein, a Polish-born jumping Jew who competed for the United States in three Olympic Games in the early 20th century, and brought home four gold medals, in the long jump and the triple jump. Although Prinstein’s name faded into obscurity before his posthumous induction into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1982, at least one of his Olympic records, for the long jump, held for almost 90 years.

Mejer Prinsztejn, as his name was originally spelled, was born in the small town of Szczuczyn, in Russian-ruled Poland, and emigrated with his family to the United States in 1883. His mother was the former Judes Rubinsztejn, who became “Julia” in America, and his father Jankeil Prinsztejn, later Jacob.

After a brief stay in New York City, the family, which eventually had nine children, of which Myer was the third oldest, moved upstate to Syracuse, New York. There they lived in the heavily Jewish seventh ward, where Jacob worked as a grocer and baker. The family was involved with Temple Society of Concord, the city’s historic Reform congregation, founded in 1839.

Myer attended Syracuse High School. It was there, and at the local YMCA, that he began competing in track and, when he arrived at Syracuse University in 1897, as a law student, he had already won several Amateur Athletic Union titles as a long jumper.

Meeting in Paris

At Syracuse, it seems like Prinstein, who became the track team’s captain, competed in just about everything: not just the long and triple jumps (known at the time as the broad jump and the hop, step and jump, respectively), but also in the pole vault and the major sprinting events.

Myer Prinstein, a Polish-born jumping Jew who competed for the United States in three Olympic Games in the early 20th century.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Prinstein’s principal rival during his college years was Alvin Kraenzlein, a jumper from the University of Pennsylvania, with whom he exchanged titles several times before they met at the Paris Olympics, in 1900.

At Paris, all the finalists in the long jump event were Americans. Because some of them were prohibited by their church-affiliated schools (including Syracuse, a Methodist university) from competing on Sunday, the Christian sabbath, they all agreed to absent themselves from the finals.

Fortunately, the Olympic rules at the time allowed for results from the semi-final heat to be factored into the standings, so that any of the jumpers was still eligible to win on the basis of his best Saturday jump.

Come Sunday morning, when Prinstein joined his Gentile teammates at church services, Kraenzlein, a non-Jew, showed up at the Racing Club de Paris – despite his agreement not to do so – where he had six uncontested jumps. His best result was one centimeter ahead of Prinstein’s top jump from the previous day, earning him the gold, and Prinstein the silver.

Fueled by rage?

When Prinstein learned what had happened, he challenged Kraenzlein to an on-the-spot rematch. When Kraenzlein refused, Prinstein attacked him, landing a punch on his nose before being restrained by his teammates.

The next day, Prinstein took the gold medal in the triple jump, setting a new Olympic record. Four years later, at the St. Louis Olympics, he won the gold in both events, both on the same day, a feat that has not subsequently been repeated.

He also took the gold in the triple jump at the 1906 Intercalated Games in Athens, a one-time event that was meant to fall midway between each summer Olympiad.

Prinstein earned a liberal-arts degree from Syracuse in 1901 and his law degree the following year – though not before setting a university long-jump record that remained unbroken for the next 88 years. His long jump win at St. Louis was also a new Olympic record, and his triple jump win there was the last time an American would win the gold in that event for 80 years, when Al Joyner took home the medal from Los Angeles.

Prinstein set up a law practice in Queens, New York, where he also opened stationery and real-estate businesses. He continued competing in track and field, now under the sponsorship of the Irish American Athletic Club.

Myer Prinstein died of a heart attack on March 10, 1925, at age 46. He left behind his wife, Henrietta, and a nine-year-old son, Elsner.

A poster advertising the 1904 Olympics in which Myer Prinstein would make such a splash as a jumper.Credit: Wikimedia Commons