Keleti Ágnes – Queen of Gymnastics

Keleti Ágnes

Keleti Ágnes – Queen of Gymnastics

Karolina Tima Szabo 

How proud we are to call her our own, and we just celebrated her 100th birthday!

Keleti Ágnes was born on January 9, 1921 in Budapest.  She started her gymnastics at the age of 4.  At 16, she was already the Hungarian National Champion.

She was getting ready for the 1940 Tokyo Olympic Games, when unfortunately, both the 1940 and 1944 games were cancelled due to WW II.  She was expelled from her club in 1941 for being Jewish.  Her mother and sister went into hiding, and thanks to Raul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, they were saved.  Her father was exterminated in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. She heard that married women were not taken to work camps (of course, that wasn’t true!), so she married Sárkány István, a fellow gymnast in 1944.  Divorced in 1950.  Ágnes survived by hiding in the countryside where, with fake papers, she worked as a maid.

After the war ended, she continued her training.  In 1947, she won the Hungarian Championship, and was qualified for the summer Olympics of 1948.  But she missed the Olympics due to an ankle injury.

Under the name of Sárkány Ágnes, she won four gold, one silver, and one bronze medal at the 1949 World University Games.

By the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Ágnes was 31 years old.  She won a gold in floor exercise, a silver in team competition, and a bronze on the uneven bars.

Before her next Olympics, she became World Champion in 1954.  She was getting ready for the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne, Australia, when the Hungarian Uprising occurred.  At the time, we didn’t hear much about what really happened on the way to Melbourne, or being there. Many years later, I saw a film by Andrew G. Vajna - Szabadság, Szerelem  (“Freedom and Love”, also known as “Children of Glory”).  It related how  the Hungarian athletes traveled from Europe on the same ship  as the Russian team.  The fighting already started aboard the ship, and continued at the Games in the water polo pool in the quarter-finals, when the Soviet and Hungarian  teams met.  The pool water was red from the blood of an injured Hungarian player.  The bloodthirsty Soviets should have been disqualified for their unprofessional behavior!  By the way, Hungary won, 4-0.

Ágnes won three gold medals, floor, bars and balance beams, and a silver in the all-around.  Her team was first in the portable apparatus event, and was awarded a silver medal in the team competition.  Agnes was 35 years old; she was the oldest athlete to win gold, and the most successful athlete at the Melbourne Olympics.  She won a total of four gold and two silver medals.

During the Olympics, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary.  Of the Hungarian athletes, 44 of them, including Ágnes, asked for and received political asylum.  She became a coach for the Australian athletes.

Keleti Ágnes emigrated to Israel in 1957, where she was a physical education instructor at Tel Aviv University, and the Wingate Institute for Sports in Netanya.

In 1959,   Ágnes married Robert Biro, a physical education teacher; they had two sons.  She moved back to Hungary in 2015.

In addition to the medals she earned, Ágnes was honored in many other ways.  She was inducted

in 1981 – into the International Jewish Sport Hall of Fame,
in 1991 – into the Hungarian Sports Hall of Fame,
in 2001 – into the International Women’s Sport Hall of Fame,
in 2002 – into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
In 2004, she was named one of Hungary’s “Athletes of the Nation”.
In 2005,   the asteroid 265594 was named Keletiágnes in her honor.
In 2017,   she was announced Laureate of the Israel Prize in the field of sports.

Ágnes currently lives in Budapest; she is the oldest living Olympic gold medalist, and is also an accomplished cello player.  While she stopped doing full leg splits on the floor not long ago, she is still exercising.  

Happy 100th birthday to a great athlete! 

Karolina Tima Szabo is a retired Systems Analyst of the Connecticut Post newspaper and Webmaster of Magyar News Online.  She is the proud grandmother of two.