100-year-old Olympic champ Agnes Keleti: "Do not concentrate on the winning but do it out of love"

Olympic centenarian Agnes Keleti survived the Holocaust and persecution to become a champion for the ages. Ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021, the 100-year-old shares her story, favourite memories, and wishes for those competing.
By Chloe Merrell

“You’ve got to love life and always look at the good side.”

That is the secret to 100 years of life, according to Agnes Keleti, the world’s oldest living Olympic champion, sharing her wisdom in an interview with Olympics.com.

It’s a philosophy that has carried her through a life punctuated by moments of achievement, tragedy, resilience, and loss.

Starting out as bright, young gymnast, Keleti could never have imagined the disruption and chaos that outside forces would inflict on an illustrious career in its infancy.

At 16-years-old, full of promise and hope, the young gymnast won Hungary’s national gymnastics championships. Her sights were then set on performing at the sport’s greatest stage: the Olympics.

But the outbreak of World War II upended everything.

Keleti’s home country fell under Nazi occupation and, because of her Jewish ancestry, Keleti’s main hope for survival was to go into hiding and assume the false identity of a Christian maid.

While she, her mother, and sister survived, her father and other relatives were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

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Picture by Keleti Family

Keleti's gymnastics return

After the war ended, Keleti made the decision to return to her gymnastics career. Her sights were once again set on competing in the Olympics.

London 1948, however, ended in heartbreak after a ligament injury ruled her out of contention. It was the third consecutive Olympic Games she would miss.

Four years later, as undeterred as ever, Keleti finally made it.

Helsinki 1952 marked her Olympic debut. In itself, it was a remarkable feat, as at the age of 31, Keleti was well beyond the years of her competitors; the average age of her rivals was 23.

Then at last, joy.

Keleti left Finland’s capital the proud owner of one gold medal, one silver, and two bronzes.

Her achievement urged her to return to the Olympics and fulfil every ounce of gymnastic potential that had been coursing through her body ever since she reached that first national championships back in 1937.

At the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956 she blew the world away as she bested the legendary Soviet gymnast Laris Latynina to win a further six medals, four of which were gold.

Of all her ten medals, Keleti’s very first is the one she holds most dear.

“My favourite is the floor exercise gold medal.” - Agnes Keleti to Olympics.com

“It’s my favourite one because the floor exercise is the place where I do what I want, and I can be myself.”

Unlike the gymnastic disciplines that pivot around apparatus, on the floor the gymnast can more freely express themselves.

As a woman who remembers having to fight harder than the men around her to be able to achieve results, her first gold was a moment of great vindication.

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The gymnastics didn’t stop there for Keleti.

After political tensions worsened back in Hungary, Keleti sought asylum in Australia before eventually emigrating to Israel in 1957. There she trained to eventually become the coach of the Israeli national gymnastics team.

She would teach her aspiring students one thing above all else: “lots of repetition brings results!”

With all that Keleti has witnessed on the path to realising her dreams, the centenarian has acquired several pearls of wisdom that those heading to Tokyo 2020 in 2021 could certainly learn from.

“The best advice,” Keleti shares, “is not to deal with the circumstances: where you are, how does it look, what the weather is. But to bring the best out of yourself.”

“Not to concentrate about the winning… but to do it out of love.” - Agnes Keleti

The enduring light of the Olympic flame is something for Keleti that has remained a steady constant in a life where so much of the world has changed. Her favourite historical memory is man’s first steps on the moon.

Keleti's love of the Games is everlasting. She still adores watching sports but above all, of course, is gymnastics.

As another generation comes to unite around the Olympic light - there is one athlete she will keep an eye out for.

A gymnast who, like Keleti, will forever have her name carved in the annals of history: Simone Biles.

“I would love to see her have more exercises named after her,” Keleti says. For a gymnast, there is no greater honour than having your innovation recognised. Biles already has four to her name.

“I hope for her that everything she has planned will get realised in this Olympics.”

Agnes Keleti’s life is the definition of one lived with Olympic spirit. Her story is a reminder to all that anyone can overcome adversity and achieve greatness.