Who Is Agnes Keleti? Holocaust Survivor and Oldest Living Olympian Reflects on Life at 100

Agnes Keleti, Olympic gold medalist and Holocaust survivor, just turned 100.
Getty Images

Agnes Keleti, the oldest surviving Olympian, and Holocaust survivor just turned 100 last week, and she is reflecting on a century of life.

Agnes Keleti, a Holocaust survivor and the oldest living Olympian, just turned 100 last week, and she is reflecting on a century of life. When she was four, she was introduced to gymnastics. Then, at 16 years old, Keleti won her first national title as a gymnast. She was destined for greatness. 

After winning the title, the Hungary-born gymnast was lined up to represent her country in the 1940 Olympic Games expected to take place in Tokyo –– but then World War II began, CBS News reported.

A year later, Keleti was removed from her gymnastics club because she was Jewish, according to the International Olympic Committee. She was forced to go into hiding, live under a false name, and spend years working as a maid. It wasn't until 1947, after the war had ended, that Keleti was able to compete again. 

“I managed to buy the identification papers of a Christian girl, she was around the same age as me,” she said in a recent interview with The Guardian. “In Hungary, all the Jews were required to wear a yellow star for identification but I refused. With my false papers, I managed to escape to the country. I stayed in a remote village and found work as a maid.”

That year, Keleti won her first Central European Gymnastics Championship.

But, still, she lived with the trauma of surviving the Holocaust, including losing several of her family members and her father, who were among the 550,000 Hungarian Jews slaughtered at Auschwitz and other concentration camps. There have been at least 46 recorded Olympic athletes who perished in camps, including 13 who died at Auschwitz, the Guardian reported.

A few years after, she competed in the Olympic Games. First, in 1952 in Helsinki –– winning four medals, including one gold –– and then, again, in Melbourne in 1956, taking home six medals, four golds in the uneven bars, balance beam, floor, and team event, according to the IOC.

By then, she was the oldest female gymnast to win an Olympic title. She was 35.

Keleti stayed in Australia after the Olympics, seeking political asylum once the Soviet Union had invaded Hungary. Afterward, she moved to Israel where she remarried and had two children, according to the IOC. She went on to work as a gymnastics coach and teach physical education at the Orde Wingate Institute. 

Years later, Keleti was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2002, CBS reported.

Over the weekend, the superstar celebrated her centennial mark of life on January 9. She spoke with the Associated Press, telling them that the past 100 years "felt to me like 60."

"I love life," she continued. "Health is essence. Without it, there is nothing."