The 10 Greatest Jewish Sports Stars

Athleticism may not be the first thing you associate with Jewish people: brains, humour and neurosis are probably far higher on the list. But don't be fooled, they've been Olympic legends, boxing world champions and scored goals in World Cup finals.
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Barney Ross: one tough Jew

10. Sandy Koufax (Baseball)

A one club man, Koufax played the entirety of his outstanding Major League Baseball career for the Dodgers where he won pretty much every award going and is widely regarded as one of the best left-handed pitchers of all time. Koufax won four World Series, the 1963 MVP award and the CY Young Award for the league’s best pitcher on three occasions. Had he not been forced to retire in his peak, at 30, he would undoubtedly have smashed every record going. Koufax also had a strong sense of Jewish identity which came to the fore when he refused to pitch in a World Series game due to a clash with the Yom Kippur festival. In 2010, President Obama invited him to the White House in recognition of his achievements and claimed that the two men had something in common. "He can't pitch on Yom Kippur. I can't pitch”, quipped Obama.

9. Jason Lezak (Swimming)

Lezak is a 4 time Olympic and 8 time World swimming champion and is known as one of the best freestyle relay swimmers of all time. Although he has never won an individual Olympic gold, anyone who witnessed Lezak overcome a huge deficit on French world record holder Alain Bernard on the last leg of the 4x100 to strike gold at the Beijing Olympics will testify to his incredible power and ability.

8. Jody Scheckter (Motor Racing)

A talented F1 driver, Scheckter became world champion in 1979 and is still the only Jew to take the drivers’ championship. In perhaps an ever greater achievement, he romped to victory in the World Superstars in 1983, defeating sporting luminaries such as Andy Ripley and Superstars great Renaldo Nehemiah.

7. Johan Neeskens (Football)

An integral part of the great Holland sides in the 1970s, Neeskens was a cultured midfielder who was imperious on the ball and technically faultless. Appeared, and lost, in two successive World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978 and is still the only Jewish player to score a World Cup final goal after he converted a 2nd minute penalty against West Germany in 1974 following one of the best passing moves in World cup history.

6. Joel Stransky (Rugby Union)

Stransky will forever be associated with one of the most momentous sporting moments of the last 20 years – South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup victory on home soil. Stransky controlled his side from fly half and scored the winning drop goal in the final which led to Nelson Mandela presenting the trophy to Francois Pienaar. Also had a successful career with Leicester where he became a fans favourite with his unerringly accurate kicking displays.

5. Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis (Boxing)

The first of two Brits on this list, ‘Kid’ Lewis was born in the 1890’s and was raised in the east end of London where he learnt his trade in a local boxing club. Lewis was welterweight world champion and had an incredible 227 fights (often fighting heavier men) in the professional ranks and recorded a barely credible 170 wins over a career which included fights in England, USA, and Australia. Lewis is regarded as one of the most skilful boxers to ever come out of Britain and he often appears in the upper echelons of lists rating the best pound for pound fighters of all time.

Lewis later worked as a bodyguard for Oswald Mosley’s New Party and even represented the party in local elections before its Anti-Semitic nature came to the fore. His biography is a must read for any boxing fans.

4. Agnes Keleti (Gymnastics)

At the outbreak of the Second World War, then 19 year old Hungarian Keleti was already regarded as one of the best gymnasts in the world. However, Keleti had to go into hiding to avoid being captured by the Nazis and lost her father who died in Auschwitz. At 31, a veteran age in gymnastics, Keleti competed in her first Olympics in 1952 where she won gold on the floor exercise, and three other medals. Keleti remarkably qualified for the Melbourne Olympiad four years later where she won four gold and two silver medals which makes her arguably the most successful Jewish sportswoman of all time. Keleti sought asylum in Melbourne after the Games to escape the authoritarian regime in Hungary and emigrated to Israel shortly afterwards.

3. Harold Abrahams (Athletics)

Abrahams was a graceful and multi-talented athlete who won Olympic gold in the 100m in the 1924 Olympic game and is often rated in the same bracket as Jesse Owens and other great sprinters of the early 20th century. Abrahams’ sporting achievements and attempts to fight discrimination throughout his career were immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire where he was played by Ben Cross.

2. Mark Spitz (Swimming)

For a man who retired at the age of 22, Mark Spitz had a pretty good career. As a brash 18 year old Spitz claimed he would win six gold medals at the 1968 Olympic Games but failed to live up to the hype and came back with only two relay gold medals. However, four years later at the Munich Games Spitz won an incredible seven gold medals and broke the world record in every single event he entered. Spitz is one of the best Olympians of all time and is the most successful Jewish Olympian with 9 gold medals. Tried his best to ruin his legacy by entering the US trials for the 1992 Olympics but fortunately was way off the pace and will now forever be remembered for his brilliant moustache and 7 gold medals in Munich

1. Barney Ross (Boxing)

It is impossible to do justice to the life and sporting career of Barney Ross in such a small amount of words. Son of Orthodox Jewish immigrants (he was born Dov Rasofsky), Ross grew up in a tough part of Chicago in the 1920s and worked for Al Capone as a glorified street thug. He took up illegal boxing to make money for his family but soon became a successful amateur boxer and dominated the American boxing scene. Although not religious himself, Ross became vocal in his support for European Jews during the 1930’s and became the poster boy for American Jewry. He fought in 80 professional bouts, losing only four times, and was a three weight world champion. Ross is widely regarded as one of the best pound for pound fighters of the 20th Century and he often attracted crowds in excess of 50,000.

After retiring he joined the US Marines and fought in the bloody Battle of Guadalcanal during the Second World War, where it is said that he defended his position single handedly against twenty Japanese soldiers after his comrades were injured. He was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery in combat and is held, to this day,  in mythical status by Americans.  His autobiography No Man Stands Alone is difficult to get hold of but is one of the best sports biographies of all time.

…And the one who got away – David Beckham (Football)

The most capped English outfield player, Champions League winner and overall thoroughly likeable man caused a storm last week when he got a blister on his foot training for Spurs. You may think that his appearances at the Spurs training ground were his closest link to the Jewish community but the former England skipper had a Jewish grandfather and apparently referred to himself as “half-Jewish” which immediately sent the Jewish Chronicle into meltdown.  In fairness, Becks has actually spoken of attending Jewish weddings with his grandfather and of his connection with the Jewish Community as a kid.

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