Jews at the Winter Olympics

In more recent Games, figure skating has been where Jews have made a bigger impact and that will hold true in Turin, as well.

slutskaya 298.88 (photo credit: )
slutskaya 298.88
(photo credit: )
Since the 1932 Winter Olympics when Irving Jaffee of the US won gold medals in the 5,000-meter and 10,000m speed skating events at Lake Placid, New York, Jews have become increasingly active in winter sports. In more recent Games, figure skating has been where Jews have made a bigger impact and that will hold true in Turin, as well. Leading the pack is 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 but then missing the world championships in 2003 due her mother's illness and suffering from vasculitis which caused her to miss almost the entire 2003/04 season. Slutskaya, who visits an aging grandmother in Netanya in the offseason, 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 US championships for the last four years, she will likely be the American's best chance of winning three straight golds in the event's history. Emily Hughes, younger sister of the surprising gold medalist at Salt Lake City, Sarah Hughes, managed a third-place finish at the US 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. Sarah is not competing. 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, she 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 (Calmanovich), 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 is Gennadi Karponosov who with partner Natalya Linichuk 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 of Israel. 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. Judy Blumberg of the US and her partner had a fourth-place showing at the 1984 Games, and also won bronze medals at the 1983-5 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 US 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. The successes overall in the Winter Olympics haven't been limited to figure skating, and there are a few who have stood out in other sports. American Gordy Sheer participated in the 1992 Olympic Games competing in the luge. Adam Rosen, together with Mark Hatton, will be competing in luge for Great Britain. 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 fourman USA1 bobsled team, piloted by 2002 two-man silver medalist Todd Hays, and 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 US teams in these Olympics. Kasten also "took the Israeli bobsled team under his wing when we first got started," according to David Greaves, a member of the team, "and helped us out whenever possible. We were very close with the American team." Daniel Weinstein competed for the US 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. There has been a Jewish presence in ice hockey as well. Victor Zinger was goaltender on five consecutive Soviet Union world championship ice hockey teams from 1965-1969, sharing the nets with Victor Konavalenko. Defenseman Yuri Lyapin of the USSR won a gold medal in 1976. However, 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 all of 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' fears 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 US team that won 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 NHL history, is currently one of the top-scoring defensemen in the NHL for the Detroit Red Wings, and has been selected to be a part of the US team that will compete in Turin. Schneider's mother converted to Judaism when she married his father. The Wingate Institute's International Sports Hall of Fame Web site contributed to this report.