Not Just Fun and Games -- Women, Jews, and the Olympics

Crossposted on JVoices

The first Olympics I remember well were the 1988 Summer Games, held in Seoul. We were sitting shiva for my grandfather on Long Island. I remember my sister and I lying on our grandparents' bed (my grandmother always had pink satin sheets) and being completely mesmerized by the tiny female gymnasts as they tumbled across the floor. To my knowledge, none of those women were Jewish (Kerri Strug made her debut in 1992, and the Israeli gymnasts who competed in 1988 likely did not make it to American television), but American Jewish women have made a strong impact on the Olympic Games over the past 100-plus years.

Many of the notables competed during the early years of the Olympic Games. Charlotte Epstein, a swimmer,and Lillian Copeland and Syd Koff, both track and field athletes, were all active in the 1920s and 1930s with Copeland setting world records in shotput and discus 76 years ago this week. All three also made the 1936 U.S. Olympic team, but boycotted the Games in Berlin. It's interesting to look at this year's Jewish women Olympians - Dara Torres, Sada Jacobson, and Deena Kastor among them, in comparison to those who came 80 years earlier, as it is the case that the 2008 Games in Beijing may be the most controversial since 1936.

With China's embarrassing human rights record at home and in Tibet, and their continued trade with the genocidal government in Darfur, many Jewish organizations have spent the last several months protesting these games, and a few have even called for Jewish athletes to boycott the games. Notable was the protest in San Francisco as the Olympic torch made its way through the city this past April.

Should the Jewish athletes of today boycott China that their forebears took against Nazi Germany in 1936? The issue seems far less clear cut, at least insomuch as China is not gearing up for the systematic destruction of the Jewish people, and the idea that China's record affects the Torres or Jacobson in the same way that Hitler's "Jews Not Welcome" signs affected Copeland and Koff is outrageous. On the other hand, the sustained Jewish outcry against human rights abuses and genocide is the logical extension of World War II, and I don't think the protests are misguided. The question is, unfortunately, if a Jewish boycott of the Olympics would make any impact at all, and the answer seems to be "no." That said, as we watch the athletes in the next few weeks, it is our responsibility to keep open the dialogue about China's abuses and how to actually combat them.

To find out more, visit Jewish Women in the Olympics.

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How to cite this page

Rabinoff-Goldman, Lily. "Not Just Fun and Games -- Women, Jews, and the Olympics." 4 August 2008. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 1, 2023) <>.

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