Jews, Israel and the Olympic Games; triumphs and tragedies

‘Cohnipedia’ is the online feature by Editor-in-Chief Emeritus  Robert A. Cohn, chronicling St. Louis’ Jewish  history. Visit Cohnipedia online at

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

As the Summer Olympics are underway in Rio de Janeiro, a flood of memories of Jewish and Israeli ties to the quadrennial international sports competition come to mind.

For Jewish fans of the Olympic Games, a superb way to brush up on both Jewish and Israeli involvement in the competition are with two books, both published in 2004: the comprehensive “Jews and the Olympic Games” by Paul Yogi Mayer and “Jews and the Olympic Games: The Clash Between Sport and Politics” by Paul Taylor.

Mayer is a native of Germany who had been active with the German-Jewish youth movement. After evading arrest during the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, he eventually managed to escape to England with his wife and baby son in May 1939. He served in the British army during World War II, and later he director of a program to support survivors of the concentration camps.

Mayer took on the daunting task of researching Jewish participation in all of the modern Olympic Games, from the first modern Games in Athens in 1896 to the Sydney, Australia Games in 2000, and lists more than 400 Jewish medalists.

Even in Athens in 1896, Jewish athletes performed impressively, winning nine medals from 44 events, which Mayer noted “is a ratio which has never since been equaled,” adding, “Had (the Jews) competed as a nation they would have placed fourth in the unofficial national table, ahead of both France and Germany.”

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In 1904, the Games moved to a United States venue for the first time — St. Louis — in tandem with the famous Louisiana Purchase World’s Fair Exposition. Many of the track and field events were held on Francis Field at Washington University.

Among the Jewish standouts at those first U.S.-hosted Olympic Games were Myer Prinstein, who won both the triple jump and the long jump, and Daniel Frank, who finished second in the long jump. American Samuel Berger was only 19 when he won the heavyweight gold medal in the Olympic boxing tournament.

Fast forward 20 years to the Paris Games in 1924, where Jewish participation was dramatized in the award-winning film, “Chariots of Fire.” The film is based on the experiences of the British track star Harold Abrahams, a Jewish student at Cambridge who felt that “there was a measure of concealed anti-Semitism among his tutors.” Abraham was given the run-around by British athletic authorities and had to fight for his participation every step of the way.

Just 12 years later the 1936 Summer Games were hosted in Berlin, the capital of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. That Olympics famously included the incredible U.S. track super-star Jesse Owens, who was African-American. Owens’ winning four medals at those Games undermined Hitler’s “Master Race” theory that his “Aryan” examples of ubermenschen (supermen) would easily vanquish Jewish and black competitors in the Games.

In St. Louis in 1936, a young skating star named Mel Dubinsky was eligible to compete to join the U.S. team. He refused to do so to protest the Nazi regime’s persecution of the Jews, which by 1936 had already turned violent. Later, Dubinsky would continue his championship of Jewish causes as president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, budget committee chairman of the global Jewish Agency for Israel and president of the United Israel Appeal.

 Of course we cannot forget the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, where the Jewish American swimmer Mark Spitz was generating worldwide Jewish pride by winning a then-record number of medals. That joy evaporated when the Black September faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization invaded the Olympic village and took 11 Israeli athletes hostage. The hostages were murdered by their captors when an attempted rescue was underway.

The names of the martyred Israeli athletes were solemnly intoned at Jewish services around the world, read out along with synagogue yahrzeit lists: Mark Slavin, Eliezer Halfin, Ze’ev Friedman, Yacov Springer, Yossef Gutfreund, David Berger, Kehat Shorr, Amitzur Shapira, Moshe Weinberg, Andre Spitzer and Yossef Romano.

And so, during the Summer Olympics that began this week in Rio, let us honor not only the winning Jewish and Israeli athletes in all of the Olympic Games, but take special note of the murdered 11 Israeli champions who were cut down as athletes dying young.