Mayer, Helene : Jews In Sports @ Virtual Museum

Mayer, Helene


Country Represented:

Years Competed:
1928, 1932, 1936

Medals Received:
gold, silver

Olympic Info:
One of the best fencers in history, Mayer competed in three Olympiads for Germany and won two medals, but is perhaps best remembered for being the center of controversy at the 1936 Berlin Games. Mayer's first Olympic appearance was at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, at the age of 18, and she dominated her competition. She won the gold medal in the individual foil event with little trouble, winning 18 of 20 bouts. She then returned to the 1932 Olympics and finished fifth in the same event at the Los Angeles Games.

Mayer made the journey to the Olympics once more, and captured the silver medal at the 1936 Berlin Games. Controversy surrounded her there, as she returned to Germany (from the United States) to compete in the Olympics despite protests from the American Jewish community and other Jewish athletes. The daughter of a Jewish father and Christian mother, Mayer was declared an "Aryan" by the Nazi goverment and included on the Olympic team as a compromise following American threats to boycott the Berlin Olympics. She said upon her departure from the U.S., "Everybody has been trying to manage my affairs...I've always intended on going back...I want a chance to win back the championship I lost in Los Angeles in 1932."

After winning the silver medal, Mayer wore a swastika on the medal stand, and extended her right arm in the Nazi salute during the medal ceremony; while this rankled many, others explained that she did this to save her family. Although her Jewish father had died in 1931, her mother and two brothers continued to live in Germany. She always considered herself German and wanted to represent her country, but rumors have continually speculated that the Nazis had threatened her family in order to get Mayer to compete.

Career Highlights:
Mayer, considered one of the greatest female fencers in history, won her first German foil championship in 1923, at the age of 13. By 1930, she had won six German titles. After winning the gold medal at the World Championships in foil in 1929, and 1931 (she also won the world title in 1937), Mayer left Germany and went to the United States to study international law in California.

While in the U.S., the Nazis rose to power and used the tall, blonde, green-eyed Meyer as a national heroine until her Jewish origins were discovered and she was expelled from the Offenbach Fencing Club. Although she was later allowed to compete for Germany in the 1936 Olympics, she competed primarily in the United States for the rest of her career, winning eight U.S. foil titles between 1934-1946.

Birth and Death Dates:
b. 1910 - d. Oct. 15, 1953

Offenbach, Germany

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encyclopedia of JEWS in sports, by Bernard Postal, Jesse Silver, and Roy Silver (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1965)
New York Times, February 12, 1936