Agnes Keleti is the oldest surviving Olympic Champion and she will celebrate her 100th brithday

This coming Saturday (January 9), a remarkable woman - and significant sporting figure - is due to reach the landmark of her 100th birthday.

Ágnes Keleti is the oldest surviving Olympic champion, having won 10 medals for Hungary in gymnastics at the Helsinki 1952 and Melbourne 1956 Games, including five golds. It is understood that she plans a modest celebration at her house in Budapest.

What makes Keleti’s sporting distinction even more impressive is that she did not get an opportunity to compete in the Olympics until she was 31, with the Second World War having put paid to the proposed 1940 and 1944 Games and injury having cruelly robbed her of the chance to take part in the London Games of 1948.

But Keleti faced challenges of a more profound nature during the War. Had it not been for her bravery, resourcefulness and luck she might have suffered the same fate as her father and other relatives in being killed by the Nazis.

Keleti had taken up gymnastics at the age of four, and she joined the VAC Sports Club, the only Jewish club in Hungary. At 16 she had won her first national title - she would go on to add nine more. As such Keleti looked a sure bet to be in the Hungarian team for the 1940 Olympics that were due to be held in Tokyo.

The war intervened, however, and in 1941, with Hungary fighting alongside Germany and Italy as part of the Axis powers, Keleti - born Agnes Klein - was expelled from her gymnastics club for being Jewish and was forced to go into hiding with her family in the countryside.

As conditions grew even more dangerous for her, she survived thanks in part to assuming a false identity and working as a maid. In 1944, when the Nazis occupied Hungary, she hastily married fellow gymnast István Sárkány, believing that it would make her less likely to be sent to a labour camp. They divorced in 1950.

Keleti’s father and uncles were among the 550,000 Hungarian Jews killed in Nazi concentration camps, perishing after being sent to Auschwitz.

Her mother and sister went into hiding and were saved by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who found a place for them in Budapest in a "Swedish house". Keleti, left on her own, bought the identity papers of a Christian girl and spent the rest of the war working as a furrier and as a maid for a Nazi-sympathising family in a small Hungarian village.

Later Keleti worked in an ammunition factory and in the household of a German general stationed in the Hungarian capital. She reportedly smuggled the general’s leftover food to her sister and mother once a week.

In the winter of 1944-1945, during the Siege of Budapest by Soviet forces, Keleti would go out in the mornings to collect the bodies of those who had died and place them in a mass grave.

After the war Keleti, a talented musician, played the cello professionally and resumed her gymnastics career. She qualified for the 1948 Olympics in London, but missed the competition after tearing a ligament in her ankle. Thus she had to wait until 1952, in Helsinki, to start her Olympic career.

Keleti earned four medals, including gold in the floor exercise, and the following year she won a world title on uneven bars.

Four years later in Melbourne, Keleti became, aged 35, the oldest female gymnast to win gold as she earned victory in three of the four individual event finals - floor, bar and balance beam - and brought her Olympic medal collection to 10.

On October 8 this year, Keleti also became the oldest living Olympic medallist following the death at the age of 100 of John Russell, who won an equestrian team bronze with the United States at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Russell had become the oldest living Olympic medallist on August 17 this year following the death of Sweden’s 1948 4x400m bronze medallist Folke Alnevik, who had been born 33 days before him.

posted Friday January 8th
by Mike Rowbottom