Fencer Grigorii Kriss (left) in competition against Gianluigi Saccaro of Italy in the Summer Olympics, Tokyo, 1964. (IOC/Olympic Museum Collection)

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Jews in Sport in the USSR

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The destruction of the Maccabi sports club and other Zionist organizations by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Revolution by no means destroyed the attraction of Soviet Jews to sports. Jews participated actively in the athletic life of the Soviet Union on many different levels, and their achievements were impressive. For example, track and field athlete Robert Liul’ko (multiple USSR champion and record holder in all sprint events and the long jump, 1934–1940) and weightlifter Moisei Kas’ianik (1937 Antwerp International Workers’ Olympiad winner, 1946 World Championship and 1947 European Championship bronze medalist) were quite celebrated in the 1930s. Until the beginning of the 1950s, however, Soviet athletes participated only sporadically at sporting events because the USSR was an essentially closed society.

Tamara Press in the discus competition at the Summer Olympics, Tokyo, 1964. (IOC/Olympic Museum Collection)

The situation began to change after World War II, when the Soviet national team participated in the 1946 weightlifting world championship. At this competition, the Jewish athlete Grigorii Novak became the country’s first world champion in any sport. The first major showing of Soviet athletes at an international event occurred at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki; there, too, Soviet Jewish athletes were prominent. Gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaia (the first Olympic champion not only in the history of Soviet gymnastics but also in the history of world female gymnastics, as this title was first included in the Olympic program in Helsinki) was 1952 Olympic multievent and team champion and silver medalist in all gymnastic disciplines; she established a record by winning seven medals at a single Olympic Games and was 1954 world team champion and multiple USSR champion. The Greco-Roman style wrestlers Boris Gurevich (the first Olympic champion in the history of Soviet wrestling and the first Soviet Jewish Olympic champion; 1953 and 1958 world champion) and Iakov Punkin (also USSR champion in 1949–1951 and 1954–1955) won gold medals; Grigorii Novak (1946 world champion, 1947 European champion, and multiple USSR champion) won a silver medal in weightlifting; marksman Lev Vainshtein (multiple world, European, and USSR champion) received a bronze medal; and Boris Goikhman (1956 Olympic bronze medalist, 1958 European Championship bronze medalist, 1960 Olympic medalist, and multiple USSR champion and cup holder), the goalkeeper for the Soviet state Olympic water polo team, was part of the symbolic (or “fantasy”) world all-star team.

Other noted athletes included the wrestlers Grigorii Gamarnik (1955 world champion, 1958 world championship silver medalist, and multiple USSR champion), Oleg Karavaev (1960 Olympic champion, 1958 and 1961 world champion, multiple USSR champion), and David Rudman (1969 world championship bronze medalist, 1969 and 1970 European champion). In track and field, Mariia Itkina (1954, 1958, and 1962 European champion, multiple world-record holder and USSR champion) and the sisters Tamara (1960 and 1964 Olympic champion, 1960 Olympic silver medalist) and Irina (1960 and 1964 Olympic champion) Press won numerous competitions. In fencing, legendary masters included Grigorii Kriss (in 1964 became the first Olympic champion in the history of Soviet individual fencing, 1968 Olympic silver medalist, 1972 Olympic bronze medalist, multiple world and USSR champion), Mark Midler (1960 and 1964 Olympic team champion, multiple world champion), and David Tyshler (1956 Olympic bronze medalist, multiple world championships silver medalist). Water sports were won by Valentin Mankin (Olympic champion, 1968, 1972, and 1980; multiple world champion), Semen Belits-Geiman (1968 Olympic silver and bronze medalist, multiple European and USSR champion), Leonid Geishtor (1960 Olympic champion, 1963 world champion, multiple European and USSR champion), and Boris Goikhman. Soccer heroes included Viktor Kanevskii (1961 USSR champion and 1964 national cup holder; played many times for the USSR national team), Leonid Ostrovskii (world championship bronze medalist, multiple USSR champion), Eduard Markarov (world championship bronze medalist, USSR champion and national cup holder), and Boris Razinskii (USSR champion; played many times for the national and Olympic team). And colorful figures in world-class figure skating included Aleksandr Gorelik (1968 Olympic silver medalist, multiple world and European championships medalist) and Gennadii Karponosov (1980 Olympic champion; multiple world, European, and USSR champion and medalist).

Lev Vainshtein accepting the bronze medal for marksmanship at the Olympics, Helsinki, 1952. (IOC/Olympic Museum Collection)

Jewish coaches, in addition to athletic champions, were prevalent in Soviet sports. Especially notable were the following figures: in track and field athletics, Lev Al’terman and Pavel Goikhman; in basketball, the brothers Aleksandr (TzSKA [Moscow] chief coach in 1960–1968, when this team was USSR champion 15 times; included in the NBA Hall of Fame) and Evgenii (chief coach of the Soviet and SNG women’s national teams, which were 1992 Olympic champions and 1986 and 1998 world silver medalists) Gomel’skii; in fencing, David Tyshler and Iulii Uralov; in soccer, Mikhail Tovarovskii (founder of the Soviet soccer coaching school); in rhythmic gymnastics Irina Viner; and in winter sports, Boris Vasil’kovskii, Natal’ia Dubova, and Nikolai Epshtein.

Under the totalitarian regime, high-level sport tended to be an important aspect of politics. Soviet sport was infected with antisemitism, and this situation forced some outstanding Jewish athletes to camouflage their origins. Those who did not, suffered from discrimination. Jewish athletes were often not permitted to travel abroad and thus could not always partake in major competitions. Soviet officials also determined which sports figures would be awarded honorary titles, and had control over other matters that guaranteed the quality of life of athletes.

Still, Soviet Sport officials could not violate the established and generally recognized norms too openly. Authorities could not, for example, cancel the automatic awarding of the title Honored Master of Sport of the USSR to Olympic gold medal winners. However, they could and did avoid granting this title to Jewish athletes who won not gold but silver medals but were clearly worthy of this title by the totality of their achievements.

Soviet Jewish coaches were treated in similar fashion. Ultimately, writers working for antisemitic authorities were given a completely free hand in commemorating achievements in sports and in writing the history of the field. Eloquent testimony to the discrimination they practiced is reflected by the complete absence in leading Soviet reference works (such as the multivolume Bol’shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia [Great Soviet Encyclopedia] and the one-volume Sovetskii entsiklopedicheskii slovar’ [Soviet Encyclopedic Dictionary]) of individual entries on such athletes as Iurii Vengerovskii (1964 Olympic champion, 1962 world champion, multiple world and European championships medalist), Grigorii Kriss, Mark Midler, Mark Rakita (1964 and 1968 Olympic champion, 1968 and 1972 Olympic silver medalist, multiple world champion), and David Tyshler, to mention only some of the leading figures in popular sports such as volleyball and fencing.

This was all the more true for the less popular types of sport. Soviet reference works contain no biographical information on, for example, David Rudman, who not only promoted Russian Sambo, a martial art originating in the Soviet Union—and was one of the outstanding judo practitioners in the world—but also founded a youth club in Moscow to serve fans of Sambo wrestling.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jewish athletes from the region continued to compete. Most often, though, they were members of sports contingents from Israel, the United States, Canada, Germany, and Australia.

Suggested Reading

Uri Miller, Sport v istorii evreev i evrei v istorii sporta (Rostov on Don, Rus., 2000); Leonid L’vovich Mininberg, Evrei v rossiiskom i sovetskom sporte, 1891–1991 (Moscow, 1998).



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson