A team of women in blue bathing suits, screaming in excitement.
The Israeli women's water polo Olympic team at the qualification tournament in 2021. (Photo by Marcel ter Bals/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

A Brief History of Jews in the Olympics

The prevailing stereotypes of Jews as bookish, nerdy, or business-minded have led to a widespread assumption that, on the whole, Jews are not good at sports. Some may be surprised to learn, therefore, that Jews have in fact frequently been well represented in the Olympics where many have medalled.

For example, between 1968 and 2016, a total of 41 Jews won olympic medals (27 of them gold) — in swimming alone! This was thanks in no small measure to swimmer Mark Spitz, the most successful athlete in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, who won seven gold medals in that game, a record that stood until Michael Phelps won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics of 2008. Another Jewish swimming standout is Dara Torres, who has a Jewish father and converted formally to Judaism in 2000. She won 12 medals spread out over five olympics games between 1984 and 2008. At age 41 she became the oldest swimmer to join the U.S. Olympic team.

Anti-semitism has also dogged many Olympic games, most notably the 1936 Olympic games held in Berlin, Germany. Adolf Hitler, who had assumed power three years earlier, banned German Jews from participating in the games — including Gretel Bergmann who had just recently set a world record in high jump. As a result, many Jewish athletes from around the world chose to boycott the games.

During the same 1972 Olympics in Munich in which Mark Spitz smashed all kinds of records, eight members of the Palestinian Black September terrorist group captured and subsequently massacred eleven Israeli athletes and coaches. The event, now known as the “Munich massacre,” has been the subject of several feature films.

Jewish athletic achievements, in the Olympic games and other sporting venues, have been documented in a number of museums around the world including the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum (Commack, NY), the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (Beverly Hills, CA) and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (Netanya, Israel). The last of these was founded in 1979 by athlete, author and television producer Joseph M. Siegman. He joined MJL to share stories of Jewish athletes in the Olympic games. You can watch the entire presentation here:

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