Mar 2001 Journal

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For the record


Unlike accountancy, law and medicine, serious sport is not one of the occupations proverbially favoured by Jewish mothers for their exceptionally gifted sons. It may therefore come as something of a surprise that from 1896 to 1996, no fewer than 402 Olympic medals have been won by competitors who were Jews and Jewesses, as well as heroic representatives of the countries under whose flag they had entered the Games. A further seven can be added to this total for Sydney 2000.

Dr Paul Yogi Mayer MBE, 88, sportsman, writer, teacher and youth worker, traces the history of the Olympic Games in the context of Jewish participation and contribution – ‘Jewish’ not only in the relatively narrow sense of religious persuasion, but also in the wider sense of ethnicity, minority status and, since 1948, nationhood.

Beginning with the 1896 revival of the Olympics in Athens (where Jews accounted for 14 medals), he offers a fascinating insight into each of the subsequent Games, both from a general, as well as a personal, point of view. Assessing the first six events held until the First World War interrupted the sequence, he concludes that, significantly, for Jews, success in “modern sport represented a means of individual and social advancement.” On the other hand, political prejudice and social discrimination survived the war years in sport as well as other spheres, as illustrated by the story-line of the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire.

A detailed discussion of the Berlin Games of 1936 constitutes one of the highlights of Mayer’s study. As an authoritative eyewitness, he represents a well-documented account of the historical background as well as the events before, during and after the Games. He interprets the significance of the happenings at the time - and in the light of the subsequent course of history - with clarity and precision. Perhaps the most poignant part of this chapter is the story of Helene Mayer, the ‘non-Aryan’ silver medallist who is pictured standing to attention giving the Nazi salute.

According to Dr Mayer, the London Games of 1948 were characterised by the fact that Jewish participation had, not surprisingly, sunk to a very low level. This downward trend was, however, reversed by ‘a new beginning’ in the United States and the new State of Israel, as well as “in other countries to which German Jews had emigrated.” Unfortunately confidence in the future was shaken to the core by the events in 1972. As the author points out, the Munich Games of that year were “of particular importance for Germany as well as for Jewish competitors.” They also became the scene of “the most horrific incident in the history of the Olympic games” when 11 Israeli athletes were brutally murdered by Arab terrorists. The Games went on and many Jews won medals, including the American swimmer Mark Spitz, whose career, in the course of which he broke several world records, began as a 15-year-old in one of Israel’s Maccabiah Games. Spitz’s name appears, together with the names of all the other Jewish medallists - from the German swimmer Alfred Flatow, Athens 1896, to the French canoeist Miryam Fox-Jerushalmi, Atlanta 1996 - in the skilfully presented table of relevant data appended to the text.

An English version of the book, now in preparation, will deservedly widen its appeal. 
David Maier

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