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Irving W. Jaffee

JAFFEE, IRVING W. (1906–1981), U.S. speed skater, winner of two official and one unofficial Olympic gold medals, and member of the United States Skating Hall of Fame and Speed-skating Hall of Fame. Jaffee was born in New York City, the middle of three children, to an immigrant family that came to the U.S. from Russia in 1896. Jaffee's father sold cotton goods from a pushcart, and Jaffee helped the modest family income by working as a newspaper delivery boy. He grew up in the Crotona Park section of the Bronx, the same neighborhood that spawned Hank *Greenberg, five years his junior, and Al *Schacht. Jaffee first became interested in speed skating at 14, cleaning the ice at the Gay Blades skating rink in midtown Manhattan because he could not afford the seventy-five cents admission. He entered the weekly speed races there and lost 22 in a row, as well as the Silver Skates competition in 1924 and 1925. Finally, in 1926 Jaffee won the Silver Skates two-mile senior championships, and the next year at Lake Placid he broke the world record for the five-mile event. He was at first denied certification for the Olympic competition in 1928, which he attributed to antisemitism. Jaffee placed fourth in the 5,000 m, the best finish ever recorded by an American at the distance. The following day, after placing seventh in the 1,500 m, Jaffee also entered the 10,000 m, beating Bernt Evensen, Norway's defending world champion. But after half a dozen races, the weather became warm melting the ice, and the remaining races were cancelled. The Norwegian referee ruled the competition no contest, a decision without precedent. His gold medal is not listed officially, but Jaffee is generally credited with winning it.

Four years later Jaffee was out of shape after taking off nine months to care for his gravely ill mother, but he qualified for the team on his final attempt. Some of his American teammates at Lake Placid made his life miserable, taunting him with antisemitic remarks, stealing his mattress and spilling water on it. When he tried to sleep at night, they shined a light in his eyes. Two days before the 5,000 m competition, a teammate goaded Jaffee into a fistfight, at the suggestion of Bill Taylor, the manager, who apparently thought he was going to take a beating. "But I had spent a lot of time around Lou Stillman's gym as a kid," Jaffee recalled, "and after two minutes I drew blood. Taylor stopped the fight immediately."

To make sure he got at least one solid night's sleep, Irving slept at the home of a friend the night before his first race. With the Winter Olympics being broadcast over radio for the first time, the U.S. audience heard Jaffee win the gold in the 5,000 m (9:40.8) and 10,000 m (19:13.6), the first American to sweep both events in one Olympics.

After a parade down Broadway, Jaffee retired from competitive skating, though he did break by five minutes a 30-year-old world record for a 25-mile marathon skate (1:26:01) on January 27, 1934, while working as the winter sports director at Grossinger's Resort in the Catskill Mountains. He also has helped train no fewer than 10 U.S. Olympic competitors.

Jaffee was elected to the U.S. Skating Hall of Fame in 1940, and the Speedskating Hall of Fame in 1967.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.