Ágnes Keleti demonstrating gymnastics at the Fifth Maccabi Games, Israel, 1957. (Pierre Gildesgame Maccabi Sports Museum, Israel)

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Keleti, Ágnes

(Klein; 1921– ), gymnast, five-time Olympic champion, and coach. Ágnes Keleti won 10 Olympic medals, including 5 gold, in gymnastics over three Olympic Games. In 2000, she ranked third all-time among women athletes for most Olympic medals and fourth all-time as a winner of Olympic gold medals. Keleti is the most successful Jewish female athlete in Olympic history and was ranked among the world’s top five gymnasts from 1952 until 1956. Between 1947 and 1956, she won the All-Around Hungarian Championships 10 times.

Keleti, who grew up in a well-to-do, middle-class Jewish family, began to study gymnastics at age 4 in Budapest. She was 15 when she joined the gymnastics section of the Fencing and Athletics Sport Club at the Jewish High School in Budapest and won her first national title at 16. She graduated from high school in 1939, but because of antisemitic quotas on admission, she could not attend a university. She became an apprentice furrier while preparing for the 1940 Olympic Games. However, due to the outbreak of World War II, the games were canceled.

Keleti married fellow gymnast István Sárkány in 1944 after the Germans occupied Hungary, doing so because rumors suggested that married women would be spared deportation. They divorced in 1950. Keleti survived the war by using Christian papers and working for a furrier in a small village.

At the renewed Olympic Games in London in 1948, Keleti won a silver medal in the Combined Team competition; her participation was limited as a result of an injury. At the Helsinki games in 1952, when she was 31, Keleti finally was able to realize her potential and won the gold medal in floor exercises, the silver in the combined team competition, and the bronze in both the hand apparatus team and in uneven parallel bars. She also finished fourth on the balance beam and sixth in the individual all-around.

In 1954, Keleti won the world championship in uneven bars; at the same event, her Hungarian team won the world title in team exercises (portable apparatus). She taught gymnastics at the College of Physical Education between 1950 and 1956.

At the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, Keleti won gold medals in the free-standing exercise, balance beam, parallel bars, and combined exercise team (portable apparatus). She won a silver medal in the combined exercise team as well. During these games, the Soviet Army crushed the 1956 Revolution in Hungary. With the majority of members of the Hungarian delegation, Keleti did not return to her country. In Australia, at first she worked in a factory as a semiskilled laborer; she then performed at a gymnastics show at Sydney’s largest nightclub.

In 1957, Keleti was invited to demonstrate gymnastics at the Fifth Maccabi Games in Israel. She decided to stay in that country and, in 1959, married Róbert Bíró. Keleti worked for decades as an instructor at Tel Aviv College (later the Wingate Institute for Sports in Netanya). Between 1959 and 1960, she also coached the Israeli national gymnastics team. From 1983 until 1988 she coached the gymnastics team of Maccabi Tel Aviv, and from 1988 until 1995 she was the coach of the Ra‘ananah gymnastics team.

In December 1991, Keleti was installed in the Hungarian Sports Hall of Fame. She is also a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2002.

Suggested Reading

Ágnes Keleti, Egy olimpiai bajnok három élete (Vác, Hun., 2002); Joseph Siegman, Jewish Sports Legends: The International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (Washington, D.C., 2005).