If a Hollywood scriptwriter had come up with the extraordinary story of Agnes Keleti – the world’s oldest Olympic champion, who celebrated her 100th birthday on Saturday – as a piece of fiction, they surely would have been told 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 first Olympic Games aged 31 before going on to win more medals than anyone else in Melbourne four years later? And then, just for good measure, passing her century bursting with a rare energy and unquenchable zest for life? It sounds like magical realism. Yet it was all true.
“These 100 years felt to me like 60,” Keleti said, as she celebrated with a cake with fireworks fizzing from it and a smile so wide it could have lit up Budapest. It served as an instant pick-me-up, especially in these grim and monochrome times.
A new book about Keleti hails her as the Queen of Gymnastics – something she modestly describes as “an exaggeration”. Hardly. Despite missing three Olympics in her prime, she won 10 medals, five of them gold, and is still the oldest gymnastics gold medallist ever. As the International Olympic president, Thomas Bach, acknowledged when offering congratulations, her haul could have been far higher.
Having won her first national title at 16, she was expecting to compete at the Tokyo Games scheduled for 1940. Instead she was expelled from her gymnastics club for being Jewish and forced to go into hiding. “I managed to buy the identification papers of a Christian girl, she was around the same age as me,” she said in a recent interview. “In Hungary, all the Jews were required to wear a yellow star for identification but I refused. With my false papers I managed to escape to the country. I stayed in a remote village and found work as a maid.”
Many of her family were not so lucky. Her father and uncles were among the 550,000 Hungarian Jews killed during the Holocaust, although her mother and sister survived thanks to the help of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Historians have identified 46 Olympic athletes who died in Nazi concentration camps, including 13 at Auschwitz. How many more potential stars were also murdered?
A ligament injury meant Keleti also missed out on the London Games in 1948. Yet at 31, an age at which most athletes are hanging up their leotards, she won four medals in Helsinki in 1952 – including a gold on the floor. And then, staggeringly, she became the most successful athlete at the Melbourne Games with six medals, four of them gold, at the age of 35.
What made Keleti’s achievement even more extraordinary was that she was facing the Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who went on to become the most decorated woman in Olympic history with 18 medals, and competing to a backdrop of the Hungarian uprising being crushed by the Soviet Union.
As David Goldblatt notes in his authoritative book, The Games, the Hungarian and Soviet teams had shared a boat from Europe to Melbourne and fighting had begun on board as the course of the uprising became clear. That then spilled into the pool when the countries met in the water polo quarter-finals. Several fights broke out above and below the water and in the final minute of the game, which Hungary won 4-0, one of their players was hit so hard that he split his brow, which then bled profusely. Understandably Keleti decided not to return to Hungary, finding asylum in Israel, where she coached their Olympic team.
Perhaps surprisingly she is only the 10th oldest Olympian still alive, with the Uruguayan sailor Félix Sienra, who competed at the London 1948 Games, due to turn 105 next week. Remarkably, there are also three athletes who competed at the Berlin Games in 1936 still with us.
The oldest, the American swimmer Iris Cummins, turned 100 last month. Not only was she an incredible athlete but she also flew 18 different types of military aircraft in the second world war.
Yet how many know her story – or those of other women stars from a bygone age?
Most of us have heard of the Magical Magyars, the Hungary team who famously beat England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953, for instance. But Keleti, who competed when women’s sport was often an afterthought, remains comparatively unknown.
Incidentally the excellent Oldest Olympian website tracks those still alive and notes deaths of former stars. There has been a flood of them recently, including the passing of Bill Nankeville, who represented Britain in the 1500m at the 1948 and 1952 Summer Games and was a big rival of Roger Bannister.
“In recent years he has become known to many as ‘Bobby Davro’s dad’,” Athletics Weekly noted after his death aged 95. “But for those familiar with his middle-distance running exploits he was one of the legendary figures of British athletics and the comedian Davro was simply ‘Bill Nankeville’s son’.”
Thankfully Keleti, who was also an accomplished cellist who played professionally, remains in good health. When a film crew visited her a couple of years ago, she greeted her interviewer with a bone-crunching handshake before demonstrating her gymnastic prowess.
That said, her doctor has recently advised her to avoid performing full leg splits. “I love life,” she said, explaining her longevity. “Health is the essence. Without it, there is nothing.”