Forgotten Olympic track champion’s legacy races on in Israel

Winning gold in the 1920s when running alongside some of the most famous Finnish athletes in history, Eliyahu Katz left his mark on what would one day become Israeli sports

Elias Katz crossing the finish line at the Helsinki Stadium, circa 1920s. (screenshot)
Elias Katz crossing the finish line at the Helsinki Stadium, circa 1920s. (screenshot)

Runner Elias Katz may well be the most anonymous Finnish champion in Olympic history. He is certainly the most anonymous Israeli Olympic champion.

Katz was killed in a terrorist attack in 1947 and his name is thus listed on the monument for the victims of hostilities on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. But there is little else to remind Israelis of his achievements. Katz may not have lived to witness the inception of the State of Israel, but, according to Finnish historian Rony Smolar, he made an enormous contribution to Israeli sports in the last years of the British Mandate in Palestine, repealed on May 15, 1948.

Born in Turku, Finland, in 1901, Katz was the son of a Jewish soldier in the Tsar’s army. Like many other Russian Jews, his father was deployed in Finland and after a military service spanning some 20 years, he was allowed to remain in the then-Russian autonomy.

According to Smolar, Katz would frequent the local night clubs and participate in dance marathons, and he also joined the small Jewish sports club in Turku, where he played soccer. Smolar is a veteran journalist who was based in Jerusalem for 20 years and is currently one of the vice-presidents of the Central Council of Jewish Communities in Finland. He authored a 2016 book about the history of Jewish sports and the community in Finland, “Makkabi – Helsingin juutalaisen urheiluseuran historia.”

At the age of 18, Katz was invited to participate in a mid-distance race. “He ran it in regular shoes and long trousers and still managed to defeat the reigning champion. Then someone thought it was a good idea for him to become an athlete and actually train,” author Smolar told Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel.

That turned out to be a very good idea. Katz began training in the main sports club in Turku, where he met Paavo Nurmi, a Finnish middle-distance and long-distance runner, dubbed the “Flying Finn.” Nurmi dominated distance running in the 1920s and is considered one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time.

Paavo Nurmi leads the 1,500 m at the 1920 Olympic trials in Helsinki, ahead of Oskari Rissanen and Elias Katz (far right). (public domain via Wikipedia)

The two became fast friends and Nurmi helped the inexperienced Katz improve his technique – Katz used to sway as he ran and Nurmi helped correct the talented Jewish youth’s track style – fast-tracking his career as a result.

Being on the same track and field team as Nurmi was no small feat. Nurmi and teammate Ville Ritola were superstars who won a combined 26 Olympic medals in the 1920s – 20 gold and six silver medals. Widely considered two of the greatest distance runners in history, in a country like Finland those achievements catapulted them to idol status.

Smolar explained that “Finland won its independence in 1917 and only five or six years later Paavo Nurmi brought it international fame, which was a source of national pride for many years. Even today, there’s a statue of Nurmi outside the Olympic Stadium” in Helsinki.

Finland, he continued, “is a sporting nation and it goes beyond athletics. Since the days of Nurmi and Ritola in the 1920s, Finland has become a superpower in winter sports, from ice hockey to [Finnish footballer] Jari Litmanen. My book [on Finish Jewish sportsmen] was named the best sports book of 2016 and in a country that loves sports as much as Finland does, that’s a great achievement.”

The cover of Smolar’s book features a photo of Katz crossing the finish line at the Helsinki Stadium, and he is proud to note that Lasse Virén, the Olympic champion of the 5,000 and 10,000 meters’ events in the 1972 Munich Olympics and 1976 Montreal Olympics, autographed the very first copy of his book.

Virén “is a good friend of mine and of the Jewish community. He was appalled by the murder of the Israeli athletes in Munich and has maintained a close relationship with the [Jewish] community ever since,” Smolar said, referring to the attack on the Olympic village in which members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September murdered 11 Israeli Olympic team members and a West German police officer.

Long strides

Grave of Elias (Eliyahu) Katz in Rehovot, Israel. (Oded Yisraeli/ via Zman Yisrael)

The early 1920s saw Katz make strides with Nurmi’s help and following the 1923 Olympic tryouts, he won a spot on the Finnish team.

In the 1924 Paris Olympics, Katz won the preliminary 3,000 meters’ event with a time of 9:43.8 minutes – the best time of the qualifying heat. He was in the top group coming into the finals, but with two laps to go he suffered a fall and slipped to the fifth place, only to make a phenomenal recovery and finish second, stopping the clock at 9:44.0 – 10.5 seconds after Ritola, who won five Olympic gold medals during his career.

The two partnered with Nurmi ​​and won the gold medal in the 3,000 meters’ team event. Katz, who dashed through his first competitive run in long trousers, thus became an Olympic champion.

In 1925 Katz moved to Berlin, where he joined the Bar Kokhba sports club, among whose members was Lilli Henoch, a German track and field athlete who set four world records and won 10 German national championships in four different disciplines.

These were Katz’s amateur years in sports and to earn a living he worked at KWD, a major department store in the German capital. But his athletic accomplishments and Olympic champion aura gave the Bar Kokhba club a promotional boost, turning it from a local Jewish club to an important sports club of the European level.

In 1926, Katz was part of the Finnish foursome that set the world record in the 1,500-meter relay race. Ahead of the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games, the Finnish Olympic Association pressed him to again represent the country. He agreed following a lengthy negotiation over his wages, but suffered an ankle injury and eventually didn’t participate in the games.

Katz returned to Berlin and worked as a trainer in the Bar Kokhba club until the Nazis came to power and barred Jews from participating in sporting activities.

While he could have returned to Finland, in 1933 Katz immigrated to then-British Palestine, as did many of his fellow club members, who would go on to contribute to the development of many sports in the fledgling Jewish state.

German Jewish athlete Lilly Henoch (left) plays handball for the Berlin Sports Club. (public domain photo)

While many of the Jews living in Turku served in the Finnish army alongside German soldiers on the Russian front, they – unlike Jews who arrived in Finland from Austria and the Czech Republic – were not persecuted by the Nazis.

Katz, who upon immigrating changed his name from Elias to Eliyahu, had hoped to continue working as a coach in pre-1948 Israel, but was not paid for his work and expertise and struggled to earn a living. He eventually found employment as a guard and a maintenance man at the Maccabiah Stadium (which would later become Tel Aviv’s famous Bloomfield Stadium), as well as a construction worker and a film projector for the British Army.

Team Israel barred from 1948 Olympics

In his spare time, Katz coached athletes at the Maccabi Association and was scheduled to train Israeli athletes ahead of their first appearance at the 1948 London Olympics. But Israel, founded only two months before the games were set to start, was denied its chance to participate in them over a last-minute ruling by the International Olympic Committee.

The six-member Israeli team had registered for the games earlier in 1948 as the team from “Mandatory Palestine,” but by the time the games rolled by on July 29, that entity no longer existed. Wary of an Arab boycott, the International Olympic Committee used that technicality to determined that the fledgling Jewish state was not eligible to participate in the games and refused to budge on the issue.

On December 24, 1947, Katz was showing a film at a British Army camp in Rehovot. Later that evening, he was murdered by two Arabs, becoming the city’s first fatality in the War of Independence.

“Eliyahu Katz is guaranteed a place in the history of Jewish sports,” the papers read the following day. “His memory will not be forgotten and he will become a symbol for our sporting youth.”

Those words were sadly not prophetic. Although a trophy bearing his name has been awarded to the winner of the Israeli Track Championship for years, Katz’s pioneering sporting role has been forgotten in both Finland and Israel.

“The public in Finland hardly knows anything about Katz, mainly because he was only a top athlete there for a few years before moving to Berlin and he only returned for a short period of time,” Smolar said.

The Olympic champion was buried in Plot 1 of Rehovot’s military cemetery. His gravestone reads: “Here lies Eliyahu son of Shlomo Zalman Katz. From Finland. Fell in the line of duty, 11 Tevet 5078. May his soul be bound in the bond of eternal life.”

This article first appeared in Hebrew on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.

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