Keleti, Ágnes (1921—)
Keleti, Ágnes (1921—)
Jewish-Hungarian gymnast who won four gold medals at the Melbourne Olympics at age 35. Name variations: Agnes Keleti. Born in Budapest, Hungary, on January 9, 1921; father perished in the Holocaust; married; two children (b. 1963 and 1965).
Returned to competition after World War II and won ten all-around Hungarian championships; won bronze medal in all-around, portable apparatus—teams, bronze medal in uneven parallel bars, silver medal in all-around team, gold medal in floor exercises in Helsinki Olympics (1952); defected to the West after the Hungarian uprising (1956); won silver medal in all-around team, silver medal in all-around individual, gold medal in all-around, portable apparatus—teams, gold medal in uneven parallel bars, gold medal in floor exercises, and gold medal in balance beam at the Melbourne Olympics (1956); eventually settled in Israel where she was a gymnastics coach.
Ágnes Keleti's life reads like an uplifting novel. She was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1921, into a Jewish family. At age 4, she began training in gymnastics. In 1936, at age 15, she joined the VAC (Fencing and Athletic) Sports Club, the only Jewish club in Hungary; one year later, she won the first of her national titles, and her eyes were set on the 1940 Olympics. But a World War replaced the Olympics of 1940. Keleti's career was abruptly ended when Hungary became an ally, then a puppet state of Nazi Germany, and the Keleti family went into hiding.
In 1944, when the Nazis occupied the nation, Keleti's father and other close relatives were sent to Auschwitz where they perished. Her mother and sister were saved by the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued many Jews from the Nazis. After he placed them in a "Swedish house" in Budapest, Keleti was on her own. She bought false Christian identity papers from a Christian girl and spent the war working for a German general who was stationed in Budapest. She smuggled the general's leftover food to her sister and mother once a week.
When the war ended, Keleti returned to gymnastics and her Olympic dream, winning a Hungarian title in 1946 on the uneven bars. At the Central European Gymnastics championships held in 1947, Keleti was the star. At the time, she was a student working for the equivalent of a masters degree in physical education which she received in 1950; in all, she would win the all-around Hungarian championship ten times. But three days before the 1948 Olympic competition began in London, Keleti, now 24, tore a ligament in her ankle and could not compete. She could only watch on crutches as the Hungarian gymnastic team came in second behind the women of Czechoslovakia.
In 1952, as the Helsinki Olympics approached, Keleti turned 31. "I didn't really think I could win anything, but I [would be] getting a chance to see the world," she said. By the end of the Games, Keleti had stunned herself along with everyone else. She returned home with an Olympic gold medal for the floor exercises, a silver for the combined-team competition, and two bronze medals for hand apparatus-team and uneven parallel bars. Two years later, at the 1954 World championships, she won a gold medal in the uneven bars and was a member of the squad which won the team exercises with portable apparatus.
Having fulfilled her dream, Keleti continued to work out, but much of her time was now spent training new Olympic hopefuls. She had no plans for the 1956 Olympics—to be held in November–December in Melbourne, Australia—but events in Hungary began to change all that. That spring, Keleti faced an enormous decision. The Communist government had been supportive of her as an athlete. "Hungary gave me everything," she said.
The Communists were very interested in sports for political reasons. It gave them, they thought, much prestige. They could win the population over. It didn't bother them that I was Jewish. There was no discrimination by the regime. I worked so hard so I could see the world. Sport was the best way to achieve that.
The likelihood of seeing the world outside Hungary began to evaporate. Because of a freedom movement in her nation, the Soviets were cracking down. So at age 35, Keleti tried out for the Hungarian Olympic team once more; to every-one's astonishment, she made the cut. If the crackdown grew worse, Keleti was in a position to escape.
For a few weeks in the late summer and early autumn of 1956, it appeared that Hungary
might be able to undergo a peaceful transition to a reform regime, a process taking place at the same time in Poland. By October, Hungary was in the throes of massive discontent. Reformers within the Communist regime rallied behind Imre Nagy, who had headed a moderate regime from 1953 through 1955. Pressure for peaceful change was transformed into a national revolution with strong anti-Soviet and anti-Communist overtones on October 23, when a crowd comprised mostly of students was fired on by secret police units. Nagy became prime minister, pledging to extend democratic rights, raise living standards, and create a more humane form of socialism. The "Freedom Fighters" now controlled the streets.
On November 4, Soviet forces attacked Budapest, rapidly crushing the disorganized Hungarian attempts at armed resistance. The Hungarian population remained sullenly defiant, a general strike was declared, and over 200,000 refugees fled to the West over the Austro-Hungarian border.
Two weeks after the initial revolt, Keleti and members of the Hungarian team arrived in Melbourne. Because of the Hungarian invasion by the Soviets, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland withdrew from the games in protest, but Hungary was determined to compete. In the midst of the chaos, Keleti continued her amazing career. That year in Melbourne, she became the oldest gymnast to win a gold medal in Olympic history, and she won four of them: in the floor exercise, the balance beam, the parallel bars, and the combined exercise-team. She also won silver medals in the combined and combined exercise-team. Ironically, her chief rival had been Larissa Latynina of the Soviet Union who won the individual all-around gold. Ágnes Keleti now had an Olympic career total of ten medals.
While still in Australia, Keleti had to choose to stay or defect. At the end of the games, she, as well as several of her colleagues, defected. Her sister was living in Australia; later her mother joined her daughters. In June 1957, Keleti accepted an invitation for citizenship in Israel.
At the Maccabiah Games in Israel in 1957, Ágnes Keleti did not compete, though she did give special performances. Once established in her new country, she devoted her time to developing national gymnastic teams; she was still coaching in Tel-Aviv as of 1995. Keleti married an Israeli in 1959, and when she was 42 she had a son. When she was 44, she had another son. "They didn't believe I could win a gold medal when I was 35 and I won four," she said. "My children were just two more gold medals."
Greenspan, Bud. 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History. Los Angeles, CA: General Publishing, 1995.
Slater, Robert. Great Jews in Sports. Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publishers, 1983.
Karin L. Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia