meA Hollywood screenwriter had made up the extraordinary story of Agnes Keleti, the world’s oldest Olympic champion, who celebrated her centenary on Saturday, as a piece of fiction, they would surely have been told to control it. Fleeing from the Nazis, surviving the Holocaust with a false ID, and then escaping Soviet repression in Hungary? Competing in the first Olympics at age 31 before winning more medals than anyone in Melbourne four years later? And then, just in case, spend your century brimming with rare energy and insatiable enthusiasm for life? It sounds like magical realism. Yet it was all true.
“These 100 years seemed like 60 to me,” Keleti said, celebrating with a cake that sparked fireworks and a smile so wide it could have lit up Budapest. It served as an instant boost, especially in these bleak, monochrome times.
A new book on Keleti hails her as the Queen of Gymnastics, something she modestly describes as “an exaggeration.” Barely. Despite missing three Olympics in her prime, she won 10 medals, five of them gold, and remains the oldest gymnastics gold medalist in history. As the International Olympic President Thomas Bach acknowledged in congratulating him, his loot could have been much greater.
Having won her first national title at age 16, she hoped to compete in the Tokyo Games scheduled for 1940. Instead, she was expelled from her gymnastics club for being Jewish and forced into hiding. “I managed to buy the identification papers of a Christian girl, she was about the same age as me,” he said. in a recent interview. “In Hungary, all Jews were asked to wear a yellow star to identify themselves, but I refused. With my false papers I managed to escape to the field. I stayed in a remote town and found work as a maid. “
Many members of his family were not so lucky. His father and uncles were among the 550,000 Hungarian Jews killed during the Holocaust, although his mother and sister survived thanks to the help of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Historians have identified 46 Olympians who died in Nazi concentration camps, including 13 at Auschwitz. How many more potential stars were also killed?
A ligament injury meant that Keleti also missed the London Games in 1948. However, at age 31, an age at which most athletes hang their leotards, he won four medals in Helsinki in 1952, including one gold on the court. And then amazingly, she became the most successful athlete at the Melbourne Games with six medals, four of them gold, at the age of 35.
What made Keleti’s achievement even more extraordinary was that she took on Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who became the most decorated woman in Olympic history with 18 medals, and competed against a backdrop of the crushed Hungarian uprising. by the Soviet Union.
As David Goldblatt points out in his authoritative book, The Games, the Hungarian and Soviet teams had shared a ship from Europe to Melbourne and the fighting had begun on board when the course of the uprising became apparent. That then spilled into the pool as the countries met in the water polo quarterfinals. Several fights broke out above and below the water and in the last minute of the match, which Hungary won 4-0, one of their players was hit so hard that he broke his forehead, which then bled profusely. It is understandable that Keleti decided not to return to Hungary and seek asylum in Israel, where he trained his Olympic team.
Perhaps surprisingly, she is only the 10th oldest Olympian still alive, with Uruguayan sailor Félix Sienra, who competed in the 1948 London Games, turning 105 next week. Surprisingly, there are also three athletes who competed in the Berlin Games in 1936 still with us.
The oldest, American swimmer Iris Cummins, turned 100 last month. Not only was she an amazing athlete, she also flew 18 different types of military aircraft in WWII.
However, how many know her story, or those of other female stars of a bygone era?
Most of us have heard of Magical Magyars, the Hungarian team that beat England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953, for example. But Keleti, who competed when women’s sport was often an afterthought, remains relatively unknown.
By the way, the excellent Oldest Olympic website track down those who are still alive and take note of the deaths of former stars. There have been a host of them recently, including the passing of Bill Nankeville, who represented Great Britain in the 1500m at the 1948 and 1952 Summer Games and was a great rival to Roger Bannister.
“In recent years, many have known him as ‘Bobby Davro’s father,'” Athletics Weekly noted after his death at age 95. “But to those familiar with his middle distance racing feats, he was one of the legendary figures in British athletics and comedian Davro was simply ‘Bill Nankeville’s son.’
Fortunately, Keleti, who was also an accomplished cellist who played professionally, remains in good health. When a film crew visited her a couple of years ago, she greeted her interviewer with a crushing handshake before showing off her gymnastic prowess.
That said, your doctor has recently recommended that you avoid performing full leg splits. “I love life,” he said, explaining its longevity. “Health is the essence. Without it, there is nothing. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism