Yesterday, on 9 January, the best sports performances of 2022 were celebrated at the M4 Sport – Athletes of the Year Gala at the Hungarian State Opera building in Budapest. However, marking top sports achievements was not the only reason for those in attendance to gather. The same day, Ágnes Keleti turned 102. Thankfully, her health allowed her to be present at the illustrious event. She received a standing ovation from the audience, which she cheerfully observed from her seat in one of the boxes of the beautifully restored building. Two years ago, on her centennial birthday, she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the same annual gala.
She is also one of 11 former professional athletes to have the official ‘Athlete of the Nation’ designation granted by the Hungarian government. In fact, she has held that honour ever since it was created in 2004. No sports fan in the nation can doubt why.
She won a total of five Olympic gold medals: one in 1952 in Helsinki, Finland; and four in 1956 in Melbourne, Australia. She is one of the 97 athletes to have at least five golds in the history of the Olympic games, summer and winter events combined, and one of the 50 to have exactly five. As for female gymnasts per se, she is ranked 3rd on the all-time medals list, only behind the Soviet Larisa Latynina with nine golds and the Czechoslovakian Věra Čáslavská with seven golds. Two other former gymnasts also have five Olympic golds, but Keleti outranks them with her additional three silver and two bronze finishes.
And Keleti achieved all these great feats on the mat after living through terrible hardships during World War II. She is of Jewish descent: she was expelled from her gymnastics club Nemzeti TE in 1941 for that very reason. She lived through the horrors of the Holocaust by marrying a Christian man, fellow gymnast István Sárkány, and by using a false identity. Keleti divorced Sárkány in 1950 and married Róbert Bíró in 1959 in Israel, whom she is still with to this day.
After the war ended, she briefly worked as a cellist before returning to the world of gymnastics. In 1957, after the crushed 1956 Budapest revolution, Keleti emigrated to Israel. She worked there as a physical education instructor after her retirement as an athlete. She returned to Budapest permanently in 2015. On her 100th birthday, she was congratulated by both Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.
In 2021, she summed up the philosophy that carried her through life as follows: ‘You’ve got to love life and always look at the good side.’
Keleti is currently the oldest living Olympic gold medalist in the world. We certainly hope she will be able to keep that title for a long time.