If a Hollywood scriptwriter had provide you with the extraordinary story of Agnes Keleti – the world’s oldest Olympic champion, who celebrated her one hundredth birthday on Saturday – as a chunk of fiction, they certainly would have been advised to rein it in. Fleeing the Nazis, surviving the Holocaust with a false ID, and later escaping the Soviet clampdown on Hungary? Competing in a primary Olympic Video games aged 31 earlier than happening to win extra medals than anybody else in Melbourne 4 years later? After which, only for good measure, passing her century bursting with a uncommon vitality and unquenchable zest for all times? It appears like magical realism. But it was all true.
“These 100 years felt to me like 60,” Keleti mentioned, as she celebrated with a cake with fireworks fizzing from it and a smile so extensive it may have lit up Budapest. It served as an prompt pick-me-up, particularly in these grim and monochrome instances.
A brand new guide about Keleti hails her because the Queen of Gymnastics – one thing she modestly describes as “an exaggeration”. Hardly. Regardless of lacking three Olympics in her prime, she received 10 medals, 5 of them gold, and remains to be the oldest gymnastics gold medallist ever. Because the Worldwide Olympic president, Thomas Bach, acknowledged when providing congratulations, her haul may have been far larger.
Having received her first nationwide title at 16, she was anticipating to compete on the Tokyo Video games scheduled for 1940. As a substitute she was expelled from her gymnastics membership for being Jewish and compelled to enter hiding. “I managed to purchase the identification papers of a Christian lady, she was across the identical age as me,” she mentioned in a current interview. “In Hungary, all of the Jews had been required to put on a yellow star for identification however I refused. With my false papers I managed to flee to the nation. I stayed in a distant village and located work as a maid.”
Lots of her household weren’t so fortunate. Her father and uncles had been among the many 550,000 Hungarian Jews killed through the Holocaust, though her mom and sister survived due to the assistance of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Historians have recognized 46 Olympic athletes who died in Nazi focus camps, together with 13 at Auschwitz. What number of extra potential stars had been additionally murdered?
A ligament damage meant Keleti additionally missed out on the London Video games in 1948. But at 31, an age at which most athletes are hanging up their leotards, she received 4 medals in Helsinki in 1952 – together with a gold on the ground. After which, staggeringly, she turned probably the most profitable athlete on the Melbourne Video games with six medals, 4 of them gold, on the age of 35.
What made Keleti’s achievement much more extraordinary was that she was dealing with the Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who went on to turn into probably the most adorned girl in Olympic historical past with 18 medals, and competing to a backdrop of the Hungarian rebellion being crushed by the Soviet Union.
As David Goldblatt notes in his authoritative guide, The Video games, the Hungarian and Soviet groups had shared a ship from Europe to Melbourne and combating had begun on board because the course of the rebellion turned clear. That then spilled into the pool when the nations met within the water polo quarter-finals. A number of fights broke out above and beneath the water and within the last minute of the sport, which Hungary received 4-0, considered one of their gamers was hit so exhausting that he cut up his forehead, which then bled profusely. Understandably Keleti determined to not return to Hungary, discovering asylum in Israel, the place she coached their Olympic staff.
Maybe surprisingly she is barely the tenth oldest Olympian nonetheless alive, with the Uruguayan sailor Félix Sienra, who competed on the London 1948 Video games, as a result of flip 105 subsequent week. Remarkably, there are additionally three athletes who competed on the Berlin Video games in 1936 nonetheless with us.
The oldest, the American swimmer Iris Cummings, turned 100 final month. Not solely was she an unimaginable athlete however she additionally flew 18 several types of navy plane within the second world battle.
But what number of know her story – or these of different girls stars from a bygone age?
Most of us have heard of the Magical Magyars, the Hungary staff who famously beat England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953, as an example. However Keleti, who competed when girls’s sport was usually an afterthought, stays comparatively unknown.
By the way the superb Oldest Olympian web site tracks these nonetheless alive and notes deaths of former stars. There was a flood of them not too long ago, together with the passing of Invoice Nankeville, who represented Britain within the 1500m on the 1948 and 1952 Summer time Video games and was a giant rival of Roger Bannister.
“Lately he has turn into identified to many as ‘Bobby Davro’s dad’,” Athletics Weekly famous after his loss of life aged 95. “However for these conversant in his middle-distance working exploits he was one of many legendary figures of British athletics and the comic Davro was merely ‘Invoice Nankeville’s son’.”
Fortunately Keleti, who was additionally an achieved cellist who performed professionally, stays in good well being. When a movie crew visited her a few years in the past, she greeted her interviewer with a bone-crunching handshake earlier than demonstrating her gymnastic prowess.
That mentioned, her physician has not too long ago suggested her to keep away from performing full leg splits. “I really like life,” she mentioned, explaining her longevity. “Well being is the essence. With out it, there may be nothing.”