Magazine article Moment

Wrestling with the Ghosts of Olympics Past: With the Wmter Olympics Set to Open in Sochi, Russia, in February, Moment's Josh Tapper Talks to David Wallethinslcy, Author of the Complete Book of the Olympics and President of the International Society of Olympic Historians

Magazine article Moment

Wrestling with the Ghosts of Olympics Past: With the Wmter Olympics Set to Open in Sochi, Russia, in February, Moment's Josh Tapper Talks to David Wallethinslcy, Author of the Complete Book of the Olympics and President of the International Society of Olympic Historians

Article excerpt

* Why aren't American Jewish Olympians, such as swimmer Mark Spitz, as revered as other American Jewish athletes, like Sandy Koufax or Hank Greenberg?

Forgetting about Jews, one of the problems with Olympic sports is that they happen once every four years, and people don't notice the athletes. An athlete can ride a wave for a few weeks, and one or two will become famous, but it's very difficult. It has more to do with the short attention span of the American sports fan.

* From the 1948 Games through the 1950s, most of the Jews winning medals came from European countries. What accounts for this, as well as for the dearth of successful American Jewish Olympians at that time?

In America, I think it's about Jews finding their way in other fields. They didn't move into sport as much after World War H. But in communist countries, like Hungary and Poland, those governments were seeking out athletes. Whatever discrimination happened in other fields was overlooked in sport at the end of the war. Those countries saw success in the Olympics as a matter of national pride; the person's ethnic background was not important. So we get sprinter Irena Kirszen-stein-Szewinska of Poland--she won seven medals in five different events between 1964 and 1976. Then there's Agnes Keleti, a Hungarian gymnast. During the Holocaust, she bought the papers of a Christian girl and used them to survive. When the war was over, she was discovered and later became one of the great women gymnasts of the early 1950s.

* The terrorist attack at the 1972 Games in Munich casts a long shadow over the Jewish Olympic experience. How significant are those games for Jews?

It's very big, not just for Israelis but for all Jews. There are a couple ways of looking at it. There was a smuggle over trying to get the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to hold a moment of silence on the 40th anniversary in London, at the 2012 Summer Olympics, which they didn't want to do. But what concerns me is that there are elements within the IOC that simply don't want anything negative out there. At the Olympic Museum in Lausanne [which opened in late December after a 23-month renovation] there will be no mention of Munich. Why? It's something that happened at the Olympics, but it's not part of the Olympics.

* Decisions like those seem to inflame longstanding accusations that the IOC as an institution is anti-Semitic, dating back to Henri de Baillet-Latour, who was president from 1925 to 1942 and was friendly with the Nazis, and Avery Brundage, who opposed a boycott as head of the U. …

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