Jewish athletes in the Olympics — then and now

Naming a Jewish Olympic athlete is hardly a medal-worthy task. There’s Mark Spitz, Kerri Strug and champion Israeli windsurfer Gal Fridman, to name a few.

But can you name a Jewish Winter Olympic athlete? No, Mark Spitz on skis is not an acceptable answer.

While no Jewish Winter Olympic athlete has ever dominated the competition like Spitz, and the “frozen chosen” cannot match the dozens and dozens of Jewish athletes who compete in the Summer Games, there will be plenty of “People of the Book” on Olympic rosters this year.

And, in truth, there always have been — since way back in the 1932 games, when the United States’ Irving Jaffee captured golds in both the 5,000- and 10,000-meter speed skating events at Lake Placid, N.Y.

In fact, skating — of the figure variety, not speed — has become almost as Jewish a sport as fencing once was (it’s easy to forget the pre-televised days when Hungarian Jews won more than 20 medals in fencing alone prior to World War II).

The world’s premier skater and premier Jewish skater may just be the same person: Russia’s Irina Slutskaya, the reigning world champion and a silver medalist at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Slutskaya has had her share of ups and downs in a distinguished career that has seen her rise to No. 1 in the world rankings in 2002, then miss the world championships in 2003 due to her mother’s illness and a bout of vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels that caused her to miss almost the entire 2003-04 season.

Slutskaya, who visits an aging grandmother in Netanya in the off-season, is noted as the inventor of the double-Biellmann spin with foot change, a skating movement that requires tremendous flexibility.

Hot on Slutskaya’s skates will be Sasha Cohen, world runner-up two years running and a fourth-place finisher at Salt Lake City. A bridesmaid at the U.S. championships for the last four years, she will likely be the Americans’ best chance of winning three straight golds in the event’s history. And since the surprising gold medalist at Salt Lake City was Sarah Hughes, a win by either Slutskaya or Cohen will lead to consecutive gold medals won by Jews.

Emily Hughes, Sarah’s younger sister, managed a third-place finish at the U.S. Olympic trials, which under normal circumstances would have guaranteed her a ticket to Turin. However, she was bumped down to first alternate when Michelle Kwan, a five-time world champion and bronze medalist in 2002, was deemed fit to compete by a panel of judges. Kwan did not compete in any events this season due to injury.

It’s easy to find a minyan at Olympic-level rinks both now and throughout the past few decades.

Oksana Baiul, who competed for Ukraine and won an Olympic gold at age 16 in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994, was unaware of her Jewish roots until 2003, when she was reunited with her Jewish father and grandmother.

When her parents divorced at an early age, Baiul lived with her mother. When she was 13 years old, her mother died and Baiul thought she had been orphaned.

The only male figure skater of note is Dr. Alain Calmat, who won an Olympic silver medal in 1964, and became France’s minister of youth and sports in 1984.

Michael Shmerkin put Israel on the ice skating map by being the first Israeli to compete in a Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, finishing 16th. He also competed at the 1998 Nagano Games, where he came in 18th.

Along with the figure skating individuals, there are a number of successful ice dance duos where one of the partners has a Jewish background.

The most notable to date was Gennadi Karponosov and Natalya Linichuk, who were world champions in 1978-79 and won Olympic gold in 1980. As a married couple, they went on to coach such skating greats as Baiul and Oksana Grischuk and Evgeny Platov, who went on to be the only tandem to win successive Olympic gold medals. Platov is currently coaching Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky, as well as Alexandra and Roman Zaretsky, all Israelis.

However, ice dance success goes back much further, as Emilie Rotter and partner Laszlo Szollas of Hungary won Olympic bronzes in both 1932 and 1936.

U.S. skater Judy Blumberg and her partner had a fourth-place showing at the 1984 Games, and also won bronze medals at the 1983-85 world championships.

A more recent Olympic ice dance success saw the married team of Ilia Averbukh and Irina Lobacheva of Russia capture the silver medal at Salt Lake City in 2002. Natalia Gudina and Alexei Beletsky competed for Israel in 2002.

Current hopefuls who will be competing in Turin are Maxim Staviski, who is of Jewish heritage, and Albena Denkova of Bulgaria, who finished seventh at the 2002 Olympics and are coached by Linichuk and Karponosov, have been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world rankings, but were No. 5 in 2005.

Two of the three U.S. ice dance couples at the upcoming Olympics feature a Jewish woman partner. Melissa Gregory, whose mother is Jewish, is married to Denis Petukhov, while Jamie Silverstein is partnered with Ryan O’Meara.

Silverstein is the 1999 world junior champion (with Justin Pekarek), and she took a break from skating from 2002-05 to concentrate on her studies. Meanwhile, Ben Agosto, a Chicago-born Jew, will be representing the United States along with partner Tanith Belbin, a recently naturalized Canadian.

Of course, if you look hard enough, you’ll find Jewish athletes who aren’t skaters.

The lone Jewish man on the slopes at the Turin games is Michael Renzin, Israel’s top alpine skier.

American Gordy Sheer participated in the 1992 Olympic Games competing in the luge, and Adam Rosen, together with Mark Hatton, will be competing in luge for Great Britain in Turin. This is the first time since 1992 that lugers from Great Britain have qualified for the Winter Olympics.

Steve Mesler will be in strong contention for a gold medal in Turin as part of both the two-man and four-man USA1 bobsled team, piloted by 2002 two-man silver medalist Todd Hays, also a bronze medalist with his four-man squad. Mesler has emerged as one of the top brakemen in the world.

Lenny Kasten, who defected from the former Soviet Union, is the bobsled and skeleton team manager for the U.S. teams in these Olympics. Kasten also “took the Israeli bobsled team under his wing when we first got started,” according to team member David Greaves. “[He] helped us out whenever possible. We were very close with the American team.”

Daniel Weinstein competed for the United States in short-track speed skating at both Nagano in 1998 and Salt Lake City in 2002.

In 2002, Olga Danilov became the first short-track athlete to compete for Israel in a Winter Olympics.

Jews have also starred in Winter Olympic sports that people tend to watch more frequently than every four years.

Victor Zinger was goaltender on five consecutive Soviet Union world championship ice hockey teams from 1965-69, sharing the nets with Victor Konavalenko, and defenseman Yuri Lyapin of the USSR won a gold medal in 1976.

Back in 1936, at the Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, Winter Olympics, there was the interesting story of Rudi Ball, one of the best hockey players in Germany. Ball was half-Jewish and persona non grata to the Nazi regime.

However, the Nazis needed him to play on the team to allay visiting nations’ (correct) suspicion that they were persecuting Jews. Ball had already fled the country, and had to be brought back in order to play.

Sarah DeCosta Hays was the goalkeeper for the U.S. women’s squad, which captured the inaugural women’s hockey gold medal in Nagano in 1998 and a silver medal in 2002.

Mathieu Schneider, the all-time leading Jewish scorer in National Hockey League history, is currently one of the top-scoring defensemen in the league for the Detroit Red Wings, and has been selected to be a part of the U.S. team that will compete in Turin.

Lionel Gaffen is a staff writer for the Jerusalem Post. Joe Eskenazi is a staff writer for j. weekly.

Related Stories:

Games provide another home for ‘wandering’ Jewish hockey star

Israeli ice dance team hopes to skate into history

Israel’s Olympic skier faces uphill battle for downhill speed

Olympic host city’s Jewish connections are hardly shrouded