If the Jewish stereotype is that members of the tribe are known more for their scholastic than sporting aptitude, it's worth noting that Jews have actually been competing – and winning – from the very first modern Olympiad. From Athens in 1896 and Berlin in 1936 to Tel Aviv in 1968 and Sydney in 2000, Jewish athletes (and one prophetic German doctor of note), have, through thick, thin, Nazism, Communism and terrorism, not only excelled, but even molded, the world’s greatest sporting movement, in both its Olympic and Paralympic manifestations.
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From the pool and the rink to the beam and in between, here are 14 unforgettable moments from over a century of exalted competition:
1. Athens, 1896: A Jewish gold rush at the Games of the I Olympiad
Resurrecting a glorious ancient Greek tradition, the first Olympic Games of the modern era saw 311 athletes from 13 countries compete in 42 events across 9 sports. 5 Jewish athletes won 10 medals, including eight gold. Two of the gold went to Hungarian freestyle swimmer Alfred Hajos-Guttmann, and a further five were clinched by German gymnast cousins Alfred and Felix Flatow, both of whom later were murdered in the Holocaust.
2. Amsterdam, 1928: A tale of five Judeolympic matriarchs
In a strikingly similar tale of triumph and tragedy, Jewish women did their tribe proud in the very first Olympiad to admit females. In front of an ecstatic home crowd, five Dutch Jewish gymnasts – Estella Agsteribbe, Ans Polak, Judikje Simons and Elka de Levie – along with their non-Jewish team members emerged triumphant in the team combined exercises. In another demonstration of female Jewish athletic might, Canadian sprinter Fanny Rosenfeld took home a gold in the 4X100-meter relay. Tragically, all but one of the Dutch Jewish gymnasts perished in the Holocaust, along with their Jewish coach, Gerrit Kleerekoper.
3. Lake Placid, 1932: Speedy New Yorker wins first Jewish Winter Olympic gold
Opened by FDR in the small upstate New York town of Lake Placid, the III Winter Olympiad witnessed a Jewish speed skater from the Bronx, Irving Warren Jaffee, win two gold medals in the 5,000 and 10,000-meter races – tying for first in total individual medals won at the Games. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Jaffee was actually on the brink of winning gold in the previous games in St. Moritz, yet missed out when the referee controversially cancelled the 10,000-meter competition that the Jewish skater was leading due to thawing ice.
4. Mandatory Palestine, 1933: The Zionist quest for auric glory begins
Numbering fewer than 200,000 people, the Jewish residents of Mandatory Palestine nevertheless had big dreams when they founded their own National Olympic Committee in 1933, 15 years before independence, and nearly two decades before Israel’s historic Helsinki debut.
5. Berlin, 1936: Hitler eat your hate out! Jews win 10 medals at the Nazi Games
Amid seas of swastika flags and Nazi salutes – not to mention a prohibition on “full-blood” German Jews from participating – sporty Semites defiantly shined at the Berlin Summer Games. Thirteen people identifying as Jewish or of Jewish descent competed, winning 10 medals in all, including a gold by Hungary’s Gyorgy Brody, considered one of history’s greatest water polo goalies. Along with African American sprinter Jesse Owen’s epic feats on the track, Jewish success in Berlin proved just how flawed Hitler’s racial eugenic theories were.
6. Buckinghamshire, 1948: Holocaust refugee fathers the Paralympic movement
After fleeing his native Germany for England in 1939, one Jewish neurologist by the name of Ludwig Guttmann started a veritable sporting, and wider social, revolution when he organized the 1948 International Wheelchair Games, considered the precursor to the Paralympics. Featuring javelin and archery competitions for wheel-chair bound patients on the grounds of Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Dr. Guttmann deliberately staged the event to coincide with the London 1948 Summer Olympics in the belief that disabled people too should be able to compete for sporting glory.
7. Helsinki, 1952: Hallelujah - the Jewish state makes its Olympic debut
Having established its national Olympic committee in 1933, boycotted the Nazi Games in 1936, and then being prevented from competing in London in 1948 by hosts Great Britain, it was in the Finnish capital that the State of Israel finally made its Olympic debut. There they marched, 26 athletes, divers, swimmers, shooters and basketball players, triggering a wave of celebration back home. Yet those hoping for more miracles were disappointed – the historic team left empty-handed, their lack of success even precipitating a government commission of inquiry! Others may argue that just them being there, flying the Star of David, was victorious enough.
8. Melbourne, 1956: Gold Down Under for a true blue Jewish heroine
In the first Olympiad held in the Southern Hemisphere, another Jewish gymnast – not to mention holocaust survivor – joined the Judeolympian pantheon by becoming the most successful athlete at the Melbourne Games. Having won a gold, a silver and two bronze medals in Helsinki, Budapest-born Ágnes Keleti took it up a notch four years later, clinching four gold and two silver, taking her Olympic medal total to 10. Yet the jubilation soon turned to trepidation: during the Melbourne Games, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, prompting Keleti to seek and receive asylum in Australia. Then, choosing the Promised Land over the Lucky Country, Keleti made aliyah a year later, and while she never won another Olympic medal, she did become coach of the Israeli national gymnastics team, and, now aged 93, still calls Israel home.
9. Tel Aviv, 1968: Israel hosts its very own games
Just a couple of kilometers south of Keleti’s abode, and by a stroke of historically delicious fate, Israel hosted its very own Paralympics in the same year that it celebrated its 20th birthday as an independent state. The games were scheduled to be held in Mexico City, host of the 1968 Summer Olympiad, yet when the Mexicans cited technical difficulties, the Israelis raised their hands – their offer accepted by none other than Dr. Guttmann himself. 750 athletes heralding from 29 countries competed in facilities in Ramat Gan on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, and little Israel placed an impressive third overall, garnering 62 medals, including 18 gold. As of Beijing 2008, Israel ranks 14th in the world for Paralympic medals won, with an amazing 124 gold, 124 silver and 132 bronze in its collective trophy shelf.
10. Munich, 1972: Mark Spitz blitzes
Four years later, soaring pride turned to bloody horror. And though the Munich Olympics of 1972 will forever be stained by the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes, the aquatic feats of American Jewish swimmer Mark Spitz so too remain etched into the world’s memory. Protected by U.S. marines and flown home as soon as he had finished his winning spree, the famously mustached Spitz amassed a then-unprecedented seven gold, smashing the world record in each victory to become one of the most successful Olympians of all time, not to mention the Judeolympian with the most gold medals ever.
11. Barcelona, 1992: Judo duo win Israel’s first Olympic medals
After wondering in the wilderness for a full forty years, the plucky Jewish state finally won an Olympic medal when Tel Avivian Yael Arad clinched silver in the Judo half-middleweight event at the Barcelona Summer Games. Dedicating her achievement to her Olympic compatriots slain two decades prior, Arad’s success was followed by another judoka, Oren Smadga, who took home a bronze. The Japanese martial art soon became a popular sport in the land of krav maga and beach bats/matkot, and other Israeli judoka champions soon emerged, among them the likes of Arik Ze’evi.
12. Lillehammer, 1994: Lone Skater – Israel makes its Winter Olympics debut
More known for its copious sand and perennial sun, it took Israel 42 years after independence to compete in its first Winter Olympiad. Walking into the cold Norwegian night with the blue and white flag in his glove-ensconced hands was one solitary Israeli athlete, Misha Shmerkin, an Odessa-born figure skater who finished sixteenth in his event. In Sochi, could one of Israel’s five athletes end its twenty-year winter of medal-less discontent?
13. Sydney, 2000: Beverly Hills mom becomes most medalled Jewish Olympian
In what then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch declared the “best games ever,” another American Jewish swimmer, Dara Grace Torres, cemented her place in sporting history by becoming the most successful Jewish Olympian when measured by total medals. Having already won four medals, including two gold, in three prior Games, Torres outdid herself in Sydney, where, as the oldest member of her team, she bagged two gold and three bronze. Coupled with three silvers in Beijing 2008, Torres’ haul of twelve Olympic medals surpasses fellow Judeolympian titans Mark Spitz and Agnes Keleti by one.
14. Athens, 2004: Finally, a summer gold of Israel’s own, back in the place where it all began
108 years after the Olympic Hymn rang out across Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens, the call of Hatikvah graced the auditory canals of a Summer Olympiad. A sun-kissed Sabra had finally delivered: windsurfer Gal Fridman triumphed in the men’s Mistral One Design, a climax that seems splendidly fitting given the country’s beach-loving nature, not to mention the English translation of Israel’s first and only Olympic gold medalist’s first name – ‘Wave.’