Life & Culture

Looking back to our Olympic glory


Imagine watching this week's Olympics opening ceremony and remembering taking part. For two men, in particular, the Rio Olympics will rekindle very special memories.

Ben Helfgott will be 87 in November; Allen Jay is already that age. But their memories of Olympic glory are as clear as if they were still on the GB team.

Helfgott's story is well known - a British weightlifting champion, twice representing the country in the Olympics; the first time, 11 years after being released from the Buchenwald concentration camp. He is a symbol to many of the work done in Britain to improve the lot of fellow survivors.

Allan Jay's story is much less familiar. He competed in fencing for Britain in five Olympics and won two silver medals at the 1960 Games in Rome. He carried the Union Jack at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and was team manager at three Games from 1982 to 1996.

Once, he tells me, he felt like using his épée against members of the Olympic selection team. "I had qualified for a sixth Olympic place, but was beaten to it by a fencer who was not at all qualified." The chief selector was seriously ill in hospital and the meeting to pick the team was going to be held at his bedside. But he died just before the appointed time and a decision was made to exclude Jay. "I was furious," he recalls. "The selector would have voted for me."

Helfgott and Jay competed at the same Olympics, in 1956 in Melbourne and again in Rome four years later.

Allan Jay took up fencing as a 13-year-old schoolboy at Cheltenham College. " We could choose between cricket, gardening and shooting. I didn't like cricket, and gardening was never going to be for me. So I picked shooting.

"But they had too many people for shooting. So they got rid of the weaker ones, and made them do fencing. And that included me. It changed my life."

He doesn't claim to be religious, but being Jewish has always been an important feature of his life. Not least, he met his wife Carole at a Bournemouth Jewish hotel. They have been married for 57 years, and have two children and one grandchild.

Helfgott says he never experienced or knew of antisemitism in the Olympics. "I think they have always been an example to other meets," he says.

"Just think of the literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Jews who have competed in the Olympic Games since they began at the end of the 19th century . It doesn't matter which country you come from. We are all friends."

Jay agrees. Asked what he liked most about fencing, his reply is prompt, "The foreign travel, and the friends you make." But he did experience some problems.

"There was an Egyptian competitor - distantly related to King Farouk - in the 1956 Games with whom I had become quite friendly. But then, one day, instead of shaking my hand, he turned his back on me. I wanted to know why and was told he was under instructions not to talk to any Israeli or any Jew."

Soon after being selected for the Melbourne Games he had a call from the team manager. "He asked me if I had been to Israel. I told him I had. He asked if I had any Israeli stamps on my passport. I said I had. He wanted to know because there would be a refuelling stop in Cairo on the way to Australia. He said I ought to change my passport and if I was asked my religion, I should say anything but that I was Jewish. I agreed to get a new passport, but not to deny my religion, even though I was not religious."

In the end, the only problems were on the way home just after the aborted Suez campaign.

His plane had landed in Karachi to refuel. Basra, the Iraqi town which has been so much in the news in recent years, was to be the next stop. The captain of the plane asked Jay into the cockpit, after he wrote "Jewish" on his landing card. A Hungarian plane had just been stopped by the Iraqis and the airline had been told that no Jews would in future be allowed to travel to that country.

The pilot said he had no alternative but to order Jay off the aircraft.

"For three days, I was put up in an hotel. Eventually, a seat was found on a Quantas plane.The trouble was, it was first class. I didn't mind the idea of flying home in style. But when I got home they tried to get me to pay the £1,100 fare. Me? I was earning £3 a week as an articled clerk."

Eventually, the airline and the Olympic committee recognised it wasn't Jay's fault and the bill was forgotten. However, the sportsman was not. His successes multiplied.

He claims that he won a place at St Edmund's Hall, Oxford, only because they thought he might get a blue for fencing. He competed in many Maccabiah Games, and won many medals, all of which are "somewhere in the attic" of his cottage in Somerset. He was also world foil champion, and won a silver for épée in 1959.

He carried on fencing until four years ago, when he was 83. "The great thing about fencing is that you can go on forever," he says.

His first Maccabiah visit to Israel was not without incident. "There were flags all over the stadium, of all the countries taking part in the games. All, that is, except the Union Jack." Jay and his team-mates decided this was an insult - it probably was, as the Israelis were still smarting over what were perceived as the anti-Israel stance of the then British government and the Palestine mandatory power (Israel was less than two years old at the time).

"We said we would not take part in the games until the Union Jack was flying along with all the others." The trouble was that there was no Union flag in the stadium. "Eventually, one was located and it was brought in - by ambulance. The roads there were so blocked by people going to the games that an ambulance was the only way to beat the traffic."

Fencing used to be "the Jewish sport", he says, dominated by Jews from various European nations. "I have no idea why that was," he says. "Maybe because it's as much mental work as physical." He would love to see more young Jews take up his sport.

Meanwhile, Helfgott has concentrated on his work on committees involving Holocaust survivors' welfare, is vice-chairman of the International Claims Conference and is on the Board of Deputies.

He still lifts weights every day - "but not quite as heavy as the ones I used in the Olympics."

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive