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Oldest Living Olympian Survived Holocaust to Win Gold

Oldest Olympian
Agnes Keleti, at 100 the oldest Olympian, survived the Holocaust and went on to win four medals at the 1952 Summer Olympics in  Helsinki. Credit: Róth Tamás/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

The oldest Olympian, gold medal-winning gymnast Agnes Keleti, who survived the Holocaust to go on to win at the 1952 Olympics, has a message for the athletes at the Tokyo Games — “Do not concentrate on the winning, but do it out of love.”

The 100-year-old athlete — who can still do a split — somehow was able to survive the worst that life could offer her, is an indefatigable optimist, adding “You’ve got to love life and always look at the good side.”

According to the spry centenarian, who survived those dark years by assuming another identity and working as a maid, that philosophy in a nutshell is the secret to 100 years of life.

Keleti is not only the world’s oldest living Olympic champion, but a survivor of the worst that humanity has to dish out, refusing to relinquish her dream of Olympic glory despite the horrors of the Second World War.

Oldest Olympian refused to give in to despair, unending hardships

In sharing her wisdom in an interview with Olympics.com, the Hungarian athlete says her positive attitude toward life has taken her through the incredible lows and highs of a life lived to the fullest, despite all obstacles.

At sixteen, in 1937, the gifted young girl won her country’s national gymnastics championships; she then pinned her hopes on achieving gold at the next Olympics.

The coming world war would put an end to her dreams, however, deferring them — but not ending them.

After Hungary was invaded by Germany, all the Jewish people in the country were targeted for extermination. Keleti knew she, like all other Hungarian Jews, was no exception to that rule.

While all her other family members were sent off to concentration camps, Keleti was able to escape, finally getting her hands on some false identification papers that allowed her to pass as a Christian.

Survival during the war years

She got through the years of the war by working as a maid in a village out in the country. After the war, she discovered that her mother, and sister survived, but her father and other relatives had been killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

But instead of giving up on humanity, Keleti steadfastly returned to her dream, refusing to give up on that as well.

As she explained, she once again set her sights firmly on taking part in the next Olympics after the War, to be set in London in 1948.

In yet another setback that might have caused a fainter heart to give up on her dream completely, Keleti suffered a ligament injury that ended her London hopes. This would mark  not the first, nor the second, but the third Olympics that she would miss, since there were no Games held in 1940 or 1944, during the War.

Convinced that she still had the talent and that she could compete with the best in the world, at the age of 31 Keleti made the Olympic team for Hungary, setting off for Helsinki, Finland.

“Bring the best out of yourself”

The average age of all her competitors at that Olympics was 23.

She won not only the gold medal that she had so longed for, but one silver, and two bronzes as well.

Amazingly, Keleti wasn’t yet done. Full of determination to add to her Olympic glory — and her pile of hardware — she was chosen to represent Hungary again at the Melbourne Games in 1956.

She added another six medals at those Games, besting the exquisite Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina — four of which, incredibly, were gold.

With a total of ten medals, Keleti ranks 29th in the world amongst all the Olympic medalists who have ever competed.

Asked by interviewers which of all her medals is her most favorite, Keleti says that her very first is the one that means the most to her.

Oldest living Olympian says “Do it out of love”

“My favorite is the floor exercise gold medal,” she states.

“It’s my favourite one because the floor exercise is the place where I do what I want, and I can be myself.”

Unlike those gymnastic events which are highly structured, the floor exercise most closely resembles dancing, and the athletes can engage in routines that show their expressive talents to the full.

Naturally, her first gold medal also came at the end of an extraordinarily difficult time in her life, proving to herself and the world that she would triumph over any obstacle set before her.

Her life became more difficult after that period as political tensions grew in the Soviet satellite state, and Keleti sought asylum in Australia. She ended up emigrating to Israel in 1957, eventually becoming the coach of Israel’s national gymnastics team.

She imparted her wisdom to the athletes there, she recalls, emphasizing that “lots of repetition brings results!”

With 100 year’s worth of wisdom gleaned from living through the worst and the best that life has to offer, Keleti says that yes, she does have some advice for the young people who are competing in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

“The best advice,” Keleti relates, “is not to deal with the circumstances: where you are, how does it look, what the weather is. But to bring the best out of yourself.

“Not to concentrate about the winning… but to do it out of love.”

After a life that has spanned one hundred years, Keleti says that her favorite historical memory is that of men landing on the moon.

She still follows gymnastics closely and has a special place in her heart for the American gymnast Simone Biles, who has already gone down in history, winning gold at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

“I would love to see her have more exercises named after her,” Keleti says of the preternaturally talented Biles, who already has four such distinctions. There is no greater honor in the world of gymnastics.

“I hope for her that everything she has planned will get realized in this Olympics,” Keleti says.

The life of Agnes Keleti is the very definition of the power of perseverance and dogged determination in the face of almost unimaginable hardships.

Her dedication to focusing on the best in life and competing in the Olympic spirit of hope is living proof that it is possible for anyone to not only survive but to love life, despite tremendous adversity.

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