A few days ago we held the ALN Cup 2017, and hundreds of sports enthusiasts gathered to celebrate the world’s greatest athletes. Three top Israeli champions participated in our tournament – Mathan Simon – the 2016 champion, Shimon Rabinowitz – a top Israeli player with over 30 years in the sport, and Omri Ben Ari – the current Israeli champion.
As we collectively marvel at the exploits of these skilled, dedicated and driven competitors, it’s an ideal time to take a step back and reflect on some of the greatest Jewish athletes. In the highly competitive world of table tennis, Jewish athletes have been among the most dominant in their sport, winning international acclaim in varied competitions over the decades.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the greatest Jewish table tennis players ever. Many of these players endured great risk and personal loss during World War II. During this time, and in the decades to follow, many of these greats distinguished themselves on the national and world stages. Several represented more than one country during their careers.
Their exploits are among the storied among Jewish athletes of all time, earning them countless world championships, quirky nicknames and extensive honors.
Viktor Barna (1911-1972) won a record five singles world championships and was a Hungarian and British national champ. Born in Hungary, he fled to the United States in 1939 as World War II began, but returned, fighting as a parachutist for Britain. Following the war, he remained in Britain, eventually becoming a citizen. In total he won 32 world championship medals including 23 golds. He also won eight doubles championships, three mixed doubles titles and seven team events. He was inducted into both the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (1981) and International Table Tennis Hall of Fame (1993).
Laszlo Bellak (1911-2006) won seven gold medals among 21 total medals at world championships, including six team titles for his native Hungary (1928, 1930-31, 1934-35, 1938). At the outbreak of World War II, he moved to the United States, winning the U.S. singles title in 1938, three doubles titles (1937, 1939 and 1943) and a mixed doubles title in 1941. He is the author of Table Tennis—How A New Sport Was Born: The History of the Hungarian Team Winning 73 Gold Medals, published in 1990. He is a member of three table tennis halls of fame, being inducted to the U.S. (1980), international (1993) and Florida (1996) pantheons. In 1995, he was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Richard Bergmann (1919-1970) was inducted as a founding member in the International Table Tennis Hall of Fame in 1993. As a competitor for Austria and Britain, Bergmann won seven world titles, four singles crowns, two doubles and two team titles. He won 22 total world championship medals. At the Liebherr World Championships, the Richard Bergmann Fair Play Trophy has been awarded since 1967. Bergmann was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1982.
Gertrude Kleinová (1918-1976) won three world championships, winning team titles twice (1935-36) and a lone mixed doubles title in 1936. In 1935, she also advanced to the quarterfinals in singles, doubles and mixed doubles play at the world championships. She married Jacob Schalinger, a Czech table tennis official in 1939. She and her husband were deported from her native Czechoslovakia to the Thereseinstadt concentration camp and later transferred to Auschwitz, where Schalinger was killed. She is a 1994 posthumous inductee into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Dick Miles (1925-2010) won 10 U.S. national titles between 1945 and 1962. Born in Manhattan, he honed his skills by playing at the many clubs along Broadway. During his career and after he was known for several signature and trick shots, including a powerful, topspin-heavy forehand that he used using an underhand grip and driving it down the middle of the table. He reached the semifinals of the world championships in 1959, one of only three American men to reach that far in the world tournament. Following his retirement, he wrote for Sports Illustrated, penned the book The World of Table Tennis, and performing for the USO. He was an inaugural inductee to the U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame in 1966. The U.S. Table Tennis Association presented Miles with the Mark Matthews Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.
Angelica Rozeanu (1921-2006) was one of the greatest women table tennis players ever. She started playing table tennis while recuperating from scarlet fever at the age of 8 in her native Romania. She won her first Romanian national title in 1936, and held the title every year from 1936 to 1957 (with the exception of World War II). She won her first world championship in 1950, her first of six consecutive wins. She is the last non-Asian world champion. She emigrated to Israel where she was a three-time national champion (1960-62) and won the Maccabiah Games champion in 1961. He was inducted into both the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (1981) and International Table Tennis Hall of Fame (1995).
Sol Schiff (1917-2012) won doubles and team medals at the world championships in 1937 and 1938. Known as Mr. Table Tennis, he won the New York juniors and high school championships at 15 and later served two terms as the leader of the American table tennis association. He was instrumental in table tennis becoming an Olympic sport. He was an inaugural inductee to the U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame in 1966. In 2000, he won the U.S. Table Tennis Association’s Mark Matthews Lifetime Achievement Award.
Anna Sipos (1908-1988) was an 11-time world champion. Born in Hungary, she won world singles titles in 1932 and 1933, six consecutive doubles titles (1929-1934), and three mixed doubles championships (1929, 1934, and 1935, the last two with Barna as her partner). She won a total of 21 world championship medals and is regarded as the first woman to use the penholder grip before switching to the shakehand grip. She was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.
Miklós Szabados (1912-1962) pulled off an extraordinary feat in 1931, winning world titles as a singles player, doubles, mixed doubles and team participant in the Swaything Cup competition. In total he won six world doubles titles (1929-32 and 1934-35) and three mixed doubles titles (1930, 1931 and 1934). He was a member of five Swaything Cup teams (1929-31, 1934 and 1935). He eventually emigrated to Australia, where he won two national singles titles (1050 and 1952), a doubles title (1950) and a mixed doubles title (1955). He was posthumously inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1987 and the International Table Tennis Hall of Fame in 1993.
Lea Thall-Neuberger (1915-1993) was known as Miss Ping during her storied career. She won 29 U.S. national championships, including nine singles, 12 doubles and eight mixed doubles crowns. She won the world mixed doubles title in 1956 and also won 41 Canadian championships. She was ranked as high as third in the world in 1951. In 1999 she was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and was an inaugural inductee to the U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame in 1966.
With so much talent, it’s no surprise that Jewish athletes made their mark in the sport. This talent is nurtured in our local clubs and institutions. Here in Los Angeles, one place keeping the flame alive is deToledo High School, the host of our recent ALN Cup 2017. Located in West Hills, CA, deToledo HS has an active youth sports program, which includes the table-tennis team, the deToledo Jaguars. We thank deToledo HS for hosting our tournament, and look forward to new generations of Jewish athletes blooming at this school and many others around the globe.