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Defying stereotypes – Jewish women athletes




Women were first permitted to compete at the Olympic Games in 1928, but prior to that, Jewish women had already made their mark in the throwing events in Germany, Canada and the US.

Martel Jacobs of Germany was the German, English and South African javelin champion.

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PICTURED ABOVE AND RIGHT, Lili Henoch would later be shot with her mother in Latvia by the Nazis in 1942. A marker at the mass grave where they were buried can be seen below left  

Lili Henoch was considered to be Germany’s finest female athlete of the 1920s.

She set world records in the shot, discus and 4×100 relay, but was past her prime by 1928.

Her athletic prowess did not save her from deportation from Germany.

On September 5 1942 Henoch and her mother were shot and buried in a mass grave in the woods near Riga, Latvia.

Henoch was just one of many world-class Jewish athletes murdered by the Germans on the pretext of racial inferiority.

A&FAmong the athletes who perished in the concentration camps were 10 Jewish Olympic medallists who between them had won 19 Olympic medals.

Fanny Rosenfeld of Canada was one of the greatest all-round athletes of all time, holding a number of national records in discus, shot-put, javelin, and jumping, as well as track events. In September 1925 she equalled the world record for the100 yard sprint.  Rosenfeld competed in the inaugural Olympic Games for women in 1928 in Amsterdam, winning two gold medals in the track events.

Lillian Copeland of the US won silver in the discus at the same Games. Copeland also excelled at the javelin and shot put, holding the US title for both disciplines. These events were first included in the Olympics for women in 1932 and 1948 respectively.

Copeland was 27 at the time of the 1932 Los Angeles Games and won gold in the discus on her final throw of 40.58m.  At the same event Jadwiga Wajs, a Jewish athlete from Poland, took the bronze.  Between 1925 and 1932 Copeland habitually broke the world record for the discus, shot and javelin.  Her career was marred by Hitler’s rise to power. Copeland, along with many other Jewish athletes in many parts of the world boycotted Hitler’s 1936 Games. The disappointment of not competing would have been keenly felt in Copeland’s case as she was now unable to defend her own title.

The event was won by the German athlete Gisela Mauermayer, a statuesque blonde, who was a member of the Nazi party and was considered in Germany to be the perfect example of Aryan womanhood. Mauermayer dispatched the discus a distance of 47.63m in taking the gold. There would have been little or no thought for the absent Jewish athlete and erstwhile title holder. Equally scant consideration would have been given to the other Jewish discus thrower, Ingeborg Mello, whose career had been thwarted by Hitler’s restrictions.

There was, nevertheless, a Jewish athlete sharing the podium with Mauermayer – Jadwiga Wajs.  Wajs in company with most of the Jewish athletes from Eastern European countries did not boycott the 1936 Games. She improved from  3rd place in 1932 to take the silver in 1936. Wajs set 9 world records between 1932 and 1934, establishing herself as the world’s leading discus thrower during this period. In an 8 day period in May 1932 she broke the world record 3 times. One can only wonder what went through her mind as she was being presented the silver medal while, standing next to her was Mauermayer giving the Nazi salute. It is interesting to note that while Mauermayer hurled the discus a distance of 47.63m,

OSS Logo HOMEWajs’ throw of 46.22m was also remarkable. This throw improved on the distance she achieved in 1932 by 7.48m, and if she could have duplicated this throw in 1948 she would have won the gold by a margin of 4.3m.

LEFT: Aussie expat & SAJR.CO.ZA 
reader Mike Meyerson recently
also shared the story of a
Yiddish mix-up he’ll never forget.
I said the NET, stupid!

In 1948 at the first post-war Games a brilliant French athlete, Micheline Ostermeyer, entered the Olympic record books. Despite the devastating effect of the Holocaust on the numbers and morale of the Jewish population, there were nevertheless three Jewish contestants among the 8 athletes in the women’s discus finals of those Games – Micheline Ostermeyer, Jadwiga Wajs and Ingeborg Mello. In that order they placed first, fourth and eighth.

Ostermeyer was born in Pas-de-Calais in December 1922 to a musical mother and a sporting father. Her uncle was the composer Lucien Paroche. She spent her early childhood in Tunisia. The family then returned to France. Her mother coached her at the piano while her father taught her the skills of running and jumping. She continued her education in music under Lazare Levy at the National Conservatorium of Music in Paris.

During WW2 the Ostermeyers returned to Tunisia. Micheline Ostermeyer gave weekly piano performances on Radio Tunis during 1941, and competed in the Tunisian athletic championships, winning five titles.

She returned to France following liberation and was reunited with Levy, who had successfully evaded deportation to Germany by hiding in the free zone. She completed her course in piano at the Conservatory and arranged a meeting with the French Athletic Federation, who were unaware of her performances in Tunisia.

They were surprised to hear that she had exceeded the French record for the shot and had equalled the French record for the high jump. When they heard that she was also a concert pianist they reacted with such astonishment that Ostermeyer decided not to mention her running ability. Ostermeyer subsequently became the French champion at shot put, high jump, 60m sprint and heptathlon. Besides winning gold in the discus at the 1948 Olympics, she also won gold in the shot, celebrating her success with an impromptu Beethoven recital at the French team headquarters. In the high jump Ostermeyer took bronze, using her distinctive rolling style. Her achievements at these Games were second only to the great Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won 4 gold medals. Ostermeyer claimed that sport taught her to relax while the piano gave her strong biceps and a sense of motion and rhythm. She continued  as a concert pianist  long after she packed away her shot and discus. She died aged 79 on October 17 2001 at Rouen. Ostermeyer is, however, remembered as the most versatile of French Olympic athletes and arguably France’s greatest Olympic athlete.

She remains the only French athlete to win three medals at a single Olympic Games. It is doubtful that there will ever again be an athlete who can marry the ability to win gold in the shot and discus with a career as a concert pianist. 

Jadwiga Wajs’ reappearance

The Polish athlete Jadwiga Wajs, reappeared in 1948. (The Games were not held in 1940 and 1944.)  Unfortunately Wajs was well past her prime and only achieved 4th place with a throw of 39.3m, a distance considerably less than her silver winning mark at the 1936 Games.

It is perhaps thanks to a footnote in Paul Mayer’s book, Jews and The Olympics – A Springboard for Minorities, that Ingeborg Mello is remembered as more than just the last name in the list of finalists in 1948. Mello had been prohibited from competing in Germany because she was Jewish. Both Mello and Mayer were among the elite Jewish athletes who fled Germany as restrictions against Jews became increasingly stringent. Mello fled to Argentina where she was selected to represent her new country in the first post-war Olympic Games. She also represented Argentina in the 1952 Games placing 7th in the finals of the discus. Interestingly, her throw of 41.61m would have placed her 3rd in Hitler’s 1936 Games, behind Wajs. It is not inconceivable that Mello could have  been a serious contender for  gold at the Berlin Games had her career not been so seriously compromised in her younger years. 

The history of these Jewish female field athletes is not without blemish, as is so frequently the case with world-class athletes. The Press sisters represented the Soviet Union in the Olympics of 1960 and 1964. Tamara Press was born on May 10 1937 in Kharkov, Ukraine, and was an engineer by profession. She dominated both the discus and shot events for six years. Over this period she set six world records for each event, establishing herself as the most successful athlete of all time in these disciplines. Tamara already held the world record for the shot at the time of the 1960 Olympics in Rome. There, she won gold in the shot and silver in the discus, establishing a new Olympic record for the shot. Seven days later, still in Rome, she set a new world record for the discus, so compensating for her second place in the Games. She won gold in both the shot and the discus in 1964 in Tokyo, setting new Olympic records for both events.

While Tamara dominated the throwing events, her equally successful sister, Irina, specialised in the 80m hurdles and the pentathlon. Irina won gold in the hurdles event in the 1960 Games in Rome. By 1964 she held the world record in the pentathlon. She won gold in this event in the 1964 Olympics, substantially improving her own world record. She threw the shot (one of the 5 disciplines of the pentathlon) 17.16m, beating the next best contender, the great Mary Rand, by more than 6m, and managed a credible 6th place in the main shot event. The sisters set a combined total of 23 world records between them, becoming the most successful sisters of all time at the Olympic Games.

The careers of these two sisters ended in controversy when they disappeared from international competition at the time that sex testing for athletes was introduced in 1966. The fact that neither of them undertook these tests left a question mark on their achievements. Western commentators have sometimes been harsh in their criticism, dubbing them the “Press brothers”. Whether they are male or female remains a matter of speculation. Their records nevertheless stand.
Their case brings to mind that of Herman Ratjen, whom the Nazis trained and sent to the Berlin Games in the guise of a woman. Paul Taylor, in his book Jews and the Olympics, makes the point that in both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, international sport was a means to an end – an instrument for propaganda. Because they used sport as an instrument for propaganda, these regimes often ignored the rules of sporting fair play. If, therefore, we come to the conclusion that the Press sisters were actually men competing as women, then we should bear in mind that they were unlikely to have been the perpetrators of the fraud, and perhaps not even willing participants, but, as in the case of Herman Ratjen, the victims of totalitarian coercion.

Tamara Press owned discus & shot put 

While Tamara Press owned the discus and shot put during the 60s, another great Jewish female athlete from the Soviet Union, Faina Melnick, took over ownership of the discus during the 70s, dominating the event from 1971 to 1977. Melnick was born on  June 9 1945, in Bakota, Ukraine.  At the 1972 Munich Olympics she won gold in the discus, establishing a new world record of 66.62m. During the event she broke the Olympic record three times. Melnick was the first female to hurl the discus beyond 70m. To break one world record is a remarkable achievement. How does one describe setting 11 new world records in a single discipline? This, however, is what Melnick did between 1971 and 1976.  

Paul Mayer describes an amusing anecdote with regard to Melnick. A Jewish journalist while trying to determine whether Melnick was herself Jewish, found that she avoided the direct question. The journalist thought this might have been on account of the surrounding “minders”. Many Jews from behind the Iron Curtain were reluctant to discuss their background, given the prevailing anti-Semitism and anti-religious ideology in the Soviet Union. He therefore changed tack by asking the names of her parents. With a smile she replied, “Shmuel and Sarah”. He thanked her, to which she replied, “my pleasure”.  Following her athletics career Melnick became a teacher in Moscow and has had considerable success coaching the shot.

Svetlana Krachevskaja was the last Jewish woman to win an Olympic medal in a throwing event. She won silver in the shot in1980 while representing the Soviet Union.

The achievements of these Jewish female athletes are of interest because they highlight the stereotype – something that is as stultifying as it is resistant to refutation. 

The material for this article was largely obtained from the books written by Paul Taylor and Yogi Mayer. Both authors titled their books “Jews and the Olympic Games”. Taylor describes the achievements of these athletes in the context of politics and history. Material was also sourced from The Complete Book of the Olympics – Wallechinsky, Great Jews in Sports – Slater, and Jewish Sports Legends-Seligman,

Other sources include; www.OLYMPIC/ORG/UK/ATHLETES; and   Obituary for Micheline Ostermeyer-Le Monde.

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