'I Love Life': Agnes Keleti, Holocaust Survivor & Oldest Olympic Champion, Reflects On 100th Birthday

Tuesday, January 12th 2021, 3:16 pm
By: CBS News

Agnes Keleti, the oldest surviving Olympic champion, turned 100 years old on January 9. The Hungarian gymnast won 10 Olympic medals — five of them gold — but her athletic achievements are just a part of her incredible life story. Keleti is also a Holocaust survivor.

After winning her first national title at 16, Keleti was expected to make the Hungarian team for the 1940 Olympic Games. However, those games were cancelled due to World War II. Because of the war, Keleti didn't get a chance to compete in the Olympics until she was 31 years old, long past many gymnasts' prime, according to the International Olympic Committee.

In 1941, Keleti was removed from her gymnastics club in Hungary for being Jewish, the IOC said in a web post recounting her extraordinary story. She and her family were forced to go into hiding, and Keleti assumed a false identity and worked as a maid. Some of her family members, including her father, were among the 550,000 Hungarian Jews killed at Auschwitz and other camps.

After surviving the Holocaust, Keleti began competing in gymnastics again and had won her first Central European Gymnastics Championship in 1947. 

She went on to compete at the Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952 and Melbourne in 1956. She stayed in Australia following the Melbourne games, receiving political asylum when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary. 

She later moved to Israel and became the country's women's gymnastics coach. Keleti was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2002 and is Hungary's most-decorated female Olympian ever, according to the IOC. 

A book about her life, "The Queen of Gymnastics: 100 Years of Agnes Keleti," was released this year to mark her milestone birthday. However, Keleti told The Associated Press that the title "queen of gymnastics" is an "exaggeration." 

At a celebration for her birthday, Keleti spoke to the AP about her full life. "These 100 years felt to me like 60," she said. 

"I love life," Keleti said. "Health is the essence. Without it, there is nothing."

Keleti doesn't do full splits anymore, per her doctor's recent advice, the AP reports. However, there will always be a constant in Keleti's life: the smile on her face. 

"I live well, and it's great that I'm still healthy," she said. "And I love life."

First published on January 12, 2021 / 2:31 PM