Home Perspectives Features Jews at the Olympics: Flatow to Fridman, Spitz to Shpitzik

Jews at the Olympics: Flatow to Fridman, Spitz to Shpitzik

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1998 German stamp honouring the Flatow cousins, Alfred and Gustav

In a few weeks, the focus of the world will be on Rio as athletes prepare to compete at the Games of the XXXI Olympiad. Here are some well-known Jewish names, some who deserve to be well known, and a couple who deserve their relative Olympic obscurity.

One of the stars of the first modern games was Alfred Flatow of Germany, who brought home three golds and a silver for excellence in gymnastics in 1896. Alfred won two of those golds with his cousin Gustav Flatow in the team horizontal bar and team parallel bars competitions. Despite their religion, the Flatow cousins were honoured 40 years later at the Berlin Olympic Games.

But as the Jerusalem Post points out, the Flatows’ Olympic achievements could not save them as Nazi power grew. In 1933, Alfred was banned from his gymnastics training club, in which he had been involved for 46 years. He was eventually deported to Theresienstadt where he died of starvation in December 1942. Gustav fled to Rotterdam in 1933 and went into hiding with his family, but informants turned them in. He also died of starvation at Theresienstadt, in January 1945.

Both were “finally commemorated by the German sporting establishment in 1996, when the German Gymnastics Association began awarding the Flatow-Medal in ‘remembrance of the persecution of Jews in the German Federation of Gymnasts from 1933 to 1945.’” The following year, the city of Berlin renamed a street at its Olympics sports complex, Flatowallee (Flatow Boulevard).

Haaretz.com has an excellent assortment of 14 “Judeolympic Milestones” including:

Amsterdam, 1928 – At the first Olympics to allow female competitors, Dutch gymnasts – including five Jewish athletes – won gold in team combined exercises. This article adds another sobering coda: “Tragically, all but one of the Dutch Jewish gymnasts perished in the Holocaust, along with their Jewish coach, Gerrit Kleerekoper.”

Lake Placid, 1932 – The third Winter Olympics were the first to see a Jewish competitor win gold. That honour goes to Irving Warren Jaffee, a speedskater from the Bronx, who actually won two firsts – in the 5,000- and 10,0000-metre races.

Munich, 1972The United States’ Mark Spitz was the first athlete to win seven gold medals in a single Olympic Games. What made Spitz so great? Watch him in action.

Spitz was protected by U.S. marines and was flown home as soon as he finished competing. His wins came after the tragedy when Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 members of the Israeli Olympic delegation. To learn more about the massacre, I recommend a comprehensive section put together by Sports Illustrated to mark the 30th anniversary of the killings. (Click on the gold triangle to get the table of contents.)

Israel first sent a delegation to the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 but it wasn’t until Barcelona in 1992 that Yael Arad and Oren Samdja took home the country’s first medals – both for judo. Israel’s medal count now stands at seven – three for sailing, three for judo, one for canoeing – with sailor Gal Fridman winning the country’s first gold in Athens in 2004.

Nothing beats the pride on Fridman’s face as the first notes of Hatikvah were played in Athens. In a lovely article, Time magazine’s Jeff Chu called the gold medal win – three decades after the Munich murders – “Israel’s Olympic Healing.”

London 2012 – Finally, a couple of  “Israelis” who never made it to the podium – or to the Olympics at all. The problems began when the Olympic Committee of Israel (OCI) unveiled “Shpitzik,” a smiling cactus-shaped torchbearer decked out in a natty blue-and-white tracksuit. Unfortunately, the folks at Israeli Educational Television felt that Shpitzik resembled their 1970s era character, “Kishkashta.” (Imagine Bert – of the Muppet’s Bert and Ernie – except that he’s green and has cacti sprouting from his ears.) The matter was referred to the Tel Aviv District Court, which ruled in favour of veteran Kishkashta and put Shpitzik out of the running – literally.

In a bid to find a successor to Shpitzik, Israel’s Olympic committee then set its eyes on “Baby Bamba.” If you’ve ever dined on Bamba, Israel’s popular peanut-based snack food, you would have noticed a cartoon character on the package – a smiling, single-toothed baby bedecked in a diaper. Hand Baby Bamba a lit torch – and have manufacturer Osem hand over an undisclosed fee – and presto, you have a new Olympic mascot.

Public outcry over the commercial character’s new role forced the OCI to retire the baby character as an Olympic symbol. The result: Israel had no mascot that summer – neither Shpitzik nor Baby Bamba – to inspire athletes to go Swifter, Higher, Stronger. I’m not sure if there’s a connection, but Israel won no medals that year.

The above, obviously, is a highly selective list. If you’d like to pore over something more comprehensive, then head over to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, which lists the medal count for every Jewish Olympian from Athens 1896 to London 2012.

Contact Mark Mietkiewicz via email here.