Jews put Olympic feet to the mettle

According to The Shengold Jewish Encyclopedia, the Jews of biblical Israel “did not show the passion for sports which the ancient Greeks and Romans did, although some Jews were noted gladiators.”

Imagine bringing home your trident, net and helmet and trying to break it to Mom that you “made the team.” The probable response: “With that stylus-neck of yours? When the Etruscan boys turn you into lion meat, don’t come crying home to me.”

The encyclopedia goes on to note that “in post-biblical times and almost to the 19th century, Jews did not have many opportunities to participate in sports.”

In fact, even in the 20th century, when large swaths of Europe disenfranchised Jews, one of the first actions taken was to boot Jews off Olympic teams and out of athletic clubs.

So, we can argue about why there are so few standout Jewish athletes until the sociologists come home. The knee-jerk explanations revolving around Jewish emphasis on education, Torah study, violin lessons and societal exclusion don’t account for Jewish entertainers’ huge presence on the stage and screen, and they certainly don’t cover Jewish mobsters founding Las Vegas.

So, we’ll have to wait for the panel discussion.

But while the first thing almost anyone thinks of when the terms “Jewish athletes” and “Olympics” are juxtaposed is the tragedy at Munich, Jews have netted more than 300 medals since the first modern Olympiad in 1896.

In other words, give us credit for more than being victimized.

Virtually any book, essay or article about Jewish athletes must, at some point, delve into a list of the all-Semitic stars.

So, obligatorily, there are the ones you know (Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, Mark Spitz), the ones time has forgotten (Benny Leonard and Barney Ross, for example, two pomade-headed boxers of the teens and ’20s), the ones you’ve never heard of because they weren’t that good (Andy Cohen, anybody?) and the ones that surprise the hell out of you (according to several sources, Johnny Weissmuller — that’s right, Tarzan! And he won five gold medals in the 1920s).

After culling through endless books of Jewish “superstar” athletes, we’ve learned a few things:

• While some of the world’s best athletes have been Jews, Jews are not some of the world’s best athletes.

• A successful Jewish athlete is a rarity but not a novelty.

• There are more Jewish athletes than you’d think (like Tarzan).

The Olympics are a great way to combine love of country and competition without bloodshed or the wearing of armbands. It’s a chance to get excited and talk loudly about the triple jump as if you knew anything about the sport or will give it a single thought in the ensuing four years.

So, if a Jew brings home a medal this month, good! Just don’t celebrate as if it’s never happened before. Because it has. And it will again.