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Syd Koff

(1912 - 1999)

The scandal involving the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics reminds us that the Games have often been enmeshed in controversy. The first time the United States team was caught up in Olympic politics was in the years before the 1936 "Nazi" Olympics. American Jewish athletes were at the center of the political maelstrom.

In 1932, the International Olympic Committee chose Berlin as the 1936 Olympic site. In 1933, Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor of the Reich. The Nazi Party’s anti-Semitic violence and legal decrees – particularly those banning Jews from participating with "Aryans" in sports – spurred the American Jewish Congress and the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to call for America to boycott the Berlin Games. They argued that, since Olympic rules decreed that no athlete can be denied the right to compete because of race, ethnicity or religion, the Games should be relocated to another country. The American Jewish Congress took its case to the American Olympic Committee (AOC), hoping to persuade the committee to boycott the Games if Germany remained the host.

The plea fell on deaf ears. Avery Brundage, president of the AOC, had received assurances that no Jewish athlete would be barred from competing for the German team and that no Jewish athlete from any other nation would be barred from the Games. Brundage persuaded his fellow AOC members to vote for American participation. The American team was going to Berlin.

As an act of protest, several American Jewish athletes refused to go to Berlin. Among them was a young woman named Syd Koff, born Sybil Tabachnikoff in 1912 on the Lower East Side of New York. In her teens, against her parents’ wishes, Sybil sneaked out of the house to compete in high school and other amateur track and field events. In 1930, a member of the Millrose Athletic Club, of which the great Jesse Owens was a member, saw Sybil practicing the broad jump on the beach at Coney Island and asked her to join the club. Syd began competing – and winning – against such famed rivals as Babe Didrickson, Lillian Copeland and Stella Walsh.

In 1932, Syd Koff represented America at the first Maccabean Games in Tel Aviv, Palestine. It took three weeks for the American team to arrive in the Holy Land by boat, train, donkey cart and camel. Once there, Koff competed against the world’s best Jewish athletes and emerged as the 1932 Games’ greatest star, leading the American team to the overall championship. She won the gold medal in 4 events: the 50 and 100 meter dashes, the high jump and the broad jump, and finished fifth in two other field events. Syd made such an impression that, on the streets of Tel Aviv that young Jewish women wore berets at the same jaunty angle that Koff did. When she competed in her second Maccabean Games in 1935, Koff garnered two additional gold medals.

When it was time to compete in the 1936 Olympics, Koff faced a difficult decision. She qualified for the 1936 Olympic Team in the broad and high jumps. By the time the American team was ready to depart, however, Jews in Germany were clearly being persecuted and the Nazi regime seemed bent on destroying the German Jewish community. German Jews were losing legal rights, being physically brutalized, having their businesses boycotted and their synagogues destroyed. Syd and other American Jewish athletes who qualified for the 1936 Olympics had to make a choice: compete and prove that Jewish athletes could defeat the specious Aryan "superrace," or honor the plea of a handful of Jewish organizations to boycott the Games rather than lend legitimacy to the Nazi regime.

Koff chose to join the boycotters. As experience indicates, the Brundage-chosen US Olympic coaching staff, under apparent pressure to keep Jewish athletes from winning medals, may well have found some excuse not to let Koff compete, much as the men’s track coaches refused to let Jewish sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller run as part of the men’s 4x100 relay team.

In 1940, despite the outbreak of war a year earlier, the Olympics were scheduled for Helsinki, Finland. Just weeks before, in a ruthless surprise attack, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. The Olympics were canceled. Koff never got her chance to win a medal. She married, had children and "retired" from competitive track and field but the call of the cinders was too strong. In the 1960s she returned to competition in the Masters’ division, in which she competed until 1972, when she was stopped by a broken hip. Syd Koff, deprived of her Olympic moments of glory, never lost her competitive drive. Syd died in New York City in 1999.

Sources: American Jewish Historical Society