Berger, Isaac 'Ike' : Jews In Sports @ Virtual Museum

Berger, Isaac 'Ike'


Country Represented:
United States

Years Competed:
1956, 1960, 1964

Medals Received:
gold, silver

Olympic Info:
Considered by many to be the greatest featherweight weightlifter in American history, Berger is a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the U.S. Weightlifters Hall of Fame. Born in Israel, Berger is one of the greatest Jewish Olympians, competing for the United States weightlifting team at three Olympiads. At the 1956 Melbourne Games, he won the gold medal and set a world record in the featherweight class (776.5 pounds).

At the 1960 Rome Games, Ike participated in the longest weightlifting competition in Olympic history. Berger, who was the defending champion in the featherweight class, battled Yevgeny Minayev of the Soviet Union. After ten grueling hours, finally ending at 4:00 a.m., Berger failed to lift 152.5 kg in the jerk. He had beaten Minayev six consecutive times entering the Olympics, but had to settle for the silver with a combined weight of 798.75 pounds.

In his final Olympic competition at the 1964 Tokyo games, Berger added a silver medal in the featherweight class (841.5 pounds) to his resume. That year, he set an Olympic record in the jerk of 336 pounds.

Career Highlights:
Born in Israel, Berger attended yeshiva and was nicked by shrapnel during Israel's War of Independence in 1948. He explained that during the War, "I'd have to go out every day to get food for our family an the neighbors. It was about three miles each way and I had to watch for artillary shell fragments and snipers." The following year, he and his family emigrated to the United States and settled in New York. Attracted by the city's playgrounds, Berger participated in many sports, but was self-conscious about his size and physique (he was about 5'0" and 100-pounds as a teenager).

Berger decided to do something to improve his stature and "one afternoon, I found myself in front of the Adonis Health Club in Brooklyn. I knew what I had to do. I started lifting weights and soon was pressing 125-pounds." Berger took up competitive weightlifting with the York BB Club and in 1955, he won the national AAU championship. He went on to win the title eight times, from 1955-1961 and again in 1964. The first featherweight to lift over 800 pounds and press double his own body weight, Berger was a technically flawless lifter who's best lift was the press.

In 1957, Isaac competed in the Maccabiah Games, winning the gold medal, and becoming the first athlete to establish a world record in Israel by pressing 258 pounds in the featherweight class. The following year, he won the World Championship in the featherweight class. He won the world title again in 1961 and finished second in 1957, 1959, and 1963. Berger was also the Pan American Games champion in 1959 and 1963.

His greatest accomplishment came four days before the 1960 Rome Olympics when Berger broke four world records: in the press (264 pounds), the snatch (255 pounds), the clean-and-jerk (336 pounds), and total weight (853 pounds). Berger hurt his muscles, and subsequently placed second at the 1960 Olympics. Berger once explained that, "The weights are my enemies. I hate them. I have to beat them. I conquer them by lifting. But once I life them, conquer them, hear the applause, I love them."

Isaac was elected into the U.S. Weightlifters Hall of Fame in 1965, and that same year began a three-year program at the New York College of Music to became a cantor. He is also a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

Birth and Death Dates:
b. Nov. 16, 1936

Jerusalem, Israel

Use links below to navigate through the olympics section of Jews In Sports.

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Great Jews in Sports by Robert Slater (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 2000)
Jewish Sports Legends: The International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, by Joseph Siegman (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 2000)
encyclopedia of JEWS in sports, by Bernard Postal, Jesse Silver, and Roy Silver (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1965)
The Olympic Games: Athens 1896-Sydney 2000, (New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1999)