Olympic swimmers break records every year. Their skills are extraordinary. Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky amaze. Swimmers improve their times at every Olympics.
The first medalist in Olympic swimming, in modern history, was Alfred Hajos-Guttmann. And who was Hajos-Guttman? A Jew. In fact he was a Hungarian Jew. He earned two gold medals at the 1896 games in Athens. He won the 100-Meter and 1200-Meter Freestyle. His time for the 100-Meter was 1:22.2. By the way, this year’s winner touched the wall at 47.58.
Granted Hajos-Guttman did not swim in a 50-Meter state of the art pool but instead in the cool waters of the Mediterranean in which there were the occasional 12-foot swells. There is a big difference between swimming in a pool and an ocean! Even more noteworthy Hajos-Guttman also earned titles in Hungary’s national competitions in running, hurdles, discus and soccer. Later he coached Hungary’s national soccer team.
And when he returned to the 1924 Olympics he competed not in sports but the arts. Apparently back then it was not just about sports, and sportsmanship (although there have been both stirring and disturbing examples of this during these summer games), but other disciplines. Hajos-Guttman earned top honors in architecture.
And so I’m just saying. Maybe it really did begin with a Jewish achievement.
And why did Hajos-Guttman take up swimming? At the age of thirteen his father drowned in the Danube. It was not so much about the medals but instead about saving life. In fact he changed his name to Hajos, which means sailor in Hungarian.
The Talmud teaches that parents are obligated to teach their children Torah and a craft. To not teach them a craft is likened to teaching them to steal. And some say to teach them to swim too. Why? Because their lives might depend on it. (Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 56b) And Rabbi Moskowitz adds: To teach them to ride a bike. Why? Their enjoyment might depend on it.
The Torah reminds us: “And you shall teach them to your children. (Deuteronomy 6)
No one can swim as fast as Phelps or Ledecky but everyone needs to know how to swim. And it all started with Alfred Hajos-Guttman, the Jew who took up swimming for no other reason than his life might depend on it.
It’s really not about the medals.
Addendum: I would like to acknowledge Abby Sher and her recent article in Jewniverse: The First Swimmer to Win Olympic Gold Was This HungarianJew. Sher pointed me in the direction of Hajos-Guttman’s achievements.