Five-time Olympic champion, Hungarian gymnast Ágnes Keleti, reached her 100th birthday. Not only one of the most successful Hungarian athletes, she is the oldest living Olympic champion who also had a great part in the development of Israeli gymnastics following her emigration.
She started gymnastics at the age of four and soon established her name in the sporting world, as twelve years later she won her first national title.
Representing Hungary, she eventually won ten Olympic medals including five gold medals, three silver, and two bronze, and would likely have gained more if historical circumstances would have allowed.
FactBorn to a Jewish family as Ágnes Klein, she had difficulties surviving the World War. She was expelled from her gymnastics club in 1941 for being Jewish and was forced to go into hiding to survive the war. After she had heard rumors that married women were not taken to labor camps, she married fellow gymnast István Sárkány in 1944 (eventually divorcing in 1950). She survived the war by purchasing and using identity papers of a Christian girl and working as a maid in a small village.
Although she was considered a top prospect for the Hungarian team at the 1940 Olympics, and later for the London 1948 games (which she had to miss due to an injury), she eventually got the chance to compete at the Olympic Games for the first time at the age of 31 in the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, where she emerged as a gold medalist for the first time, additionally collecting one silver and two bronzes. In Melbourne 1956, she bagged four more golds (another Hungarian record ever since), and at 35 she became the oldest female gymnast to win an Olympic title. She is still Hungary’s most-decorated female Olympian and only three male Olympians have actually garnered more Olympic titles.
Ágnes Keleti is also considered to be one of the most successful Jewish Olympic athletes (among those with Israeli citizenship, only swimmer Mark Spitz collected more medals than Keleti). After her emigration following the Melbourne Olympics (similarly to a number of Hungarian athletes, she decided not to return to Hungary due to the Soviet invasion), she also had an indispensable role in the development of Israeli gymnastics.
Keleti has lived in Hungary since 2015. Since its introduction in 2004, she is one of the 12 “Athletes of the Nation.” Her other awards include membership in the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame and the Israel Prize in 2017. Interestingly, an asteroid (Asteroid 265594 Keletiágnes, discovered by Krisztián Sárneczky in 2005) was also named after her.
On the occasion of her birthday, it was announced that Újpest’s renovated gymnastics hall would be named after her, just like the Israeli artistic gymnastics championships. She also received the International Fair Play Committee’s (IFPC) International Fair Play Career Award.
featured image via Tamás Kovács/MTI