Jaffee competed in two Olympiads for the United States speed skating team. At the 1928 Winter Games, he finished in fourth place in the 5000-meter competition, the highest Olympic finish by an American to that point. Jaffee then shocked the skating world by defeating Bernt Evensen, the defending world champion from Norway, in the 10,000-meter race.
Unfortunately, warm weather began to melt the ice before the 10,000-meter competition had officially ended, so the remaining races were cancelled and the Norwegian referee ruled the event a no-contest. That night, skaters from all over the world (including Evensen!) picketed to protest Jaffee being robbed of the medal. The IOC (International Olympic Committee) conferred and overruled the referee, recognizing Jaffee as the winner. Soon after, however, the International Skating Federation overturned that decision and upheld the referee's original ruling.
The injustice at the 1928 Games made Jaffee a hero in the United States, but he still faced anti-Semitism. At the 1932 Winter Olympics, Jaffee's American teammates made his life miserable, and he suspected anti-Jewish prejudice was the reason. They stole his mattress, started a fistfight with him, and shone a light in his eyes at night so he could not get enough sleep. Just before the 5000-meter race, he slept away from the Olympic Village so he could get enough rest. Jaffee overcame this prejudice to win gold medals in both the 5000-meter (9:40.8), and 10,000-meter (19:13.6) races, making him the only American to sweep both events at the same Games.
Born in the Bronx to Russian immigrant parents, Jaffee began skating after he got a job cleaning the ice surface at a rink in New York City. In 1926, only two years after he began competing, Jaffee won the Silver Streak two-mile championship. Then, after his Olympic triumph, he set the world record in the 25-mile skating marathon in 1934, although he had never previously skated a distance longer than 10,000-meters. Jaffee later taught and coached speed skating to everyone from children to Olympic athletes. He also became the winter sports director at Grossinger's Resort in the Catskills.
In 1932, with the Depression in full swing, Jaffee was forced to sell his Olympic medals to a pawn shop. He never saw them again. In 1951, he began the promotion of world barrel-jumping championships which eventually became an annual event. In 1976, the American Broadcasting Company presented a report on Jaffee's situation at the Montreal Olympics, but the nationwide search was not successful. Jaffee is a member of the United States Skating Hall of Fame, the Speedskating Hall of Fame, and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Birth and Death Dates:
b. Sept. 15, 1906 - d. March 1981
New York City
Use links below to navigate through the olympics section of Jews In Sports.
PHOTOGRAPHS AND OTHER IMAGES
Also, read a chapter from The Jew in American Sports by Harold U. Ribalow and Meir Z. Ribalow
Jewish Sports Legends: The International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, by Joseph Siegman (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 2000)