Agnes Keleti, oldest living Olympic champion and Holocaust survivor, turns 99

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Although she turned 99 on Thursday, even a 9-year-old would have a hard time keeping up with Agnes Keleti‘s irrepressible energy and enthusiasm.

Keleti is the oldest living Olympic champion and a Holocaust survivor. She won 10 medals in gymnastics — including five golds — between the 1952 Helsinki Games and at the 1956 Melbourne Games.

Still, speaking on the eve of her birthday at her elegant apartment in downtown Budapest, Keleti hardly wanted to mention her achievements and her long life, which includes adventures and great accomplishments, but also heartbreak and tragedy.

Keleti’s family was decimated during the Holocaust, which she survived thanks in part to assuming a false identity and working as a maid. While her mother and sister also survived, her father and uncles perished at Auschwitz and were among the 550,000 Hungarian Jews killed in Nazi death camps, Hungarian forced labor battalions, ghettos or shot to death into the Danube River.

“The past? Let’s talk about the future,” Keleti said. “That’s what should be beautiful. The past is past, but there is still a future.”

Even her Olympic memories seem to center not on her athletic prowess — among Jewish athletes, only American swimmers Mark Spitz and Dara Torres have won more Olympic medals — but rather on the travel opportunities her sporting career offered.

“It’s not the medals that are significant but the experiences that came with them,” Keleti said while holding some of the nine medals she still has (one was reportedly lent to a journalist for a project and never returned). “I loved gymnastics because it was possible to travel for free.”

Even standing on the podium to get her medals didn’t really appeal to her: “I didn’t want to show myself. I loved to do gymnastics.”

After winning a gold medal in the floor exercise at the Helsinki Games, as well as a silver in the team event and two bronzes, Keleti won three individual golds in Melbourne — balance beam, floor exercise and uneven bars — and another in a team event, while also winning silver in the all-around competition and another team event. She could have won even more but an injury kept her from competing at the 1948 London Olympics.

She doesn’t watch sports on television these days, not even the Olympics, which “aren’t very interesting. I prefer mountain climbing.”

The climbing days may be behind her, but she seems most happy taking walks around Budapest, where she returned a few years ago after living for decades in Israel, or traveling to places like Barcelona, which she visited last year.

Keleti, who began her gymnastics career at the age of 4 and won her Olympic medals at the hard-to-believe ages of 31 and 35, was also a talented cello player and, after moving to Israel in 1957, taught gymnastics for years.

“I love children and I also love to teach them,” she said.

Asked about the most important thing children should learn, Keleti answered without hesitation: “The joy of life.”

Keleti, whose infectious laugh seems always ready to spring into action, has a favorite prank for those expecting to meet a frail, weak lady entering her 100th year. She extends her hand in greeting, makes sure her grip is good and tight, and suddenly yanks the unsuspecting “victim” toward her with surprising force.

“I’m strong,” she says with a big chuckle after the pull. “And silly!”

While she stopped doing full leg splits on the floor not long ago, she still does them standing up while holding her son Rafael’s hand, or sitting on a couch.

If there’s one issue she continues to have an opinion about, it’s the premature pressure and exhausting exercises young gymnasts may be exposed to.

“That’s not good,” Keleti said. “Tough gymnastics exercises damage their development. It shouldn’t be started early.

“Not to mention that, in the first place, it’s the children’s minds that should be developed, not their bodies.”

What did she do to train her mind?: “I studied languages and I saw the world.”

Keleti has been given a long series of prestigious awards in Hungary and Israel, including being one of Hungary’s 12 “Athletes of the Nation” since 2004 and getting the Israel Prize, considered that state’s highest honor, in 2017.

But, as with her Olympic medals, she doesn’t seem impressed by the recognition of her successes.

“I excelled?” she asks, almost incredulously. “I did what I could and that’s it.”

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MORE: 1983 World champion will become oldest Olympic table tennis player

Japanese pair edges Americans for historic Grand Prix Final figure skating title

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara
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Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the biggest title ever for a Japanese figure skating pair, taking the Grand Prix Final and consolidating their status as the world’s top active team.

Miura and Kihara, last season’s world silver medalists, barely outscored world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in Turin, Italy, in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate to win the six-pair event that is a preview of March’s worlds.

The Japanese totaled 214.58 points, distancing the Americans by a mere 1.3 points after Frazier erred on both of their side-by-side jumping passes in the free skate. Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze.

“We had a very late start to our season than initially planned, so as we have been performing at each event, I see us getting stronger, improving things,” said Frazier, who with Knierim had their best short program and free skate scores of the autumn.

Knierim and Frazier didn’t decide to continue competing together this season until July.

“I feel a little personally disappointed tonight just for myself for my jumps,” Frazier continued. “I was a little all over the place and, normally, I can execute better, so I feel a little bad, but I’m very proud of us overall. We’ve done a great job of improving each competition and looking forward to the second half of the season where we can start tapping into our best skating.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura and Kihara, who partnered in June 2019 and train in Ontario, both waited with trepidation for their final score to be posted, worried that each’s separate mistake on jumps might cost them the title. When they learned they won, both burst into tears.

“This was the first time in eight years that I made a mistake with a Salchow, so I thought we might not get a good score, and it would be my fault,” Kihara said.

Miura and Kihara entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world by best scores this season ahead of Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Last season, Miura and Kihara became the second Japanese pair to make a Grand Prix podium and to earn a world championships medal. Their ascension helped Japan win its first Olympic figure skating team event medal in February (a bronze that could be upgraded to gold pending the Kamila Valiyeva case).

In Grand Prix Final history, Japan had won 11 gold medals and 40 total medals, all in singles, before this breakthrough.

Knierim and Frazier, already the first U.S. pair to compete in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, became the first U.S. pair to win a Grand Prix Final medal. The Final has been held annually since 1996, though it was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miura and Kihara and Knierim and Frazier ascended to the top of the sport while the top five teams from the Olympics from Russia and China have not competed internationally since the Winter Games.

All Russian skaters are ineligible for international competition due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t enter last March’s worlds and did not compete in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Later Friday, world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan led the women’s short program with 75.86 points, 1.28 ahead of countrywoman Mai Mihara. American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, was fifth of six skaters in her Grand Prix Final debut.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier topped the rhythm dance with 85.93 points, edging Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates by .44. Both couples are bidding for the biggest international title of their careers. None of the Olympic medalists competed internationally this fall.

The Grand Prix Final ends Saturday with the men’s and women’s free skates and free dance, all live on Peacock.

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A Winter Olympic medal still being decided, 10 months later

Fanny Smith, Daniela Maier
It's still unknown whether Fanny Smith (green) or Daniela Maier (blue) is the Olympic ski cross bronze medalist. (Getty)
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There is a second Winter Olympic medal result still in question, 10 months after the Games.

While the figure skating team event results are still unknown due to the Kamila Valiyeva case, the bronze medal in women’s ski cross is also in dispute.

Originally, Swiss Fanny Smith crossed the finish line in third place in the four-woman final at the Winter Games in February. Upon review by the International Ski Federation (FIS) jury, she was minutes later demoted to fourth place after making contact with German Daniela Maier near the end of the course. Maier, who originally was fourth, was upgraded to bronze.

“I tried to be OK with the fourth place. I was very disappointed, I have to say, [then] the jury was like this,” Maier said then. “I am really sorry for Fanny that it’s like this right now. … The jury decided like this, so accept it and be happy with the medal.”

Smith and the Swiss ski federation appealed. FIS reinstated Smith as the bronze medalist nine days after the race and six days after the Closing Ceremony. A FIS appeals commission met four times and reviewed video and written documentation for several hours before deciding that “the close proximity of the racers at that moment resulted in action that was neither intentional or avoidable.”

But that wasn’t the end. The case ended up reportedly going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings are usually accepted as final. The CAS process is ongoing, European media reported this week.

CAS has not responded to a request for comment. A FIS contact said Friday, “There is currently no update to provide in regards to the bronze medal in ski cross. Should there be any update, we will inform you.”

Smith said there should be news soon regarding the case, according to Blick.

Maier still has the bronze medal at her home and enjoys looking at it, according to German media, which also reported that the German ski federation expects Maier to win the case and keep the medal. Smith and Maier spoke extensively about it in recent training sessions and cleared things up. Maier said the best outcome would be bronze medals for both of them, according to the report.

For now, FIS lists Smith as the bronze medalist. The IOC lists Maier as the bronze medalist.

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