“Foiled: Hilter’s Jewish Olympian”

Foiled: Hilter’s Jewish Olympian, by Mllly Mogulof, RDR Books, $17.95

Elite athletes are notoriously bad role models, much as we wish otherwise. We would like to believe that superb athletes are super people. How else can we justify all the hours we spend watching them, the huge salaries, the hero worship? But top athletes tend to wear blinders. It is a rare athlete who responds when history comes calling: Muhammad Ali who went to jail rather than fight in Vietnam; Billie Jean King who led a boycott to protest women’s second-class status.

This is the context for considering the life of Helene Mayer, one of the greatest fencers. Born near Frankfurt in 1910 to a German-Jewish father and German mother, Mayer enjoyed, perhaps too much, her stature as Germany’s golden girl after winning an Olympic gold medal in 1926 at the age of 18. Foiled, a fascinating new biography of Mayer, is a story about an athlete who was unable to take off the blinders.

Mayer was stranded in California in the 1930s, when the Nazis began hacking away at the rights of people with Jewish blood. She was granted haven by Mills College, where she taught and trained. She was, however, more interested in parlaying her athletic celebrity and Teutonic good looks into party invites rather than, for example, giving a helping hand to the fledgling Olympic boycott movement in the U.S. The crux of the biography is a twisted tale about Mayer’s being used as a pawn, with her consent, in a cynical international effort to pretend that Hitler’s Germany did not discriminate against Jews— this on the eve of the Holocaust.

The stomach-turning story of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin is powerful material, and Mogul of runs with it. The inclusion of American sprinter Helen Stephens’ tale about Nazi debauchery at post-Games parties is chilling. Overall, though, Mogul of leaves the sports lover wanting more, well, sports. As the winner of an astounding eight consecutive U.S. fencing titles (1939-1946), Mayer, in Foiled, is denied the honor of having at least one of her fencing bouts described with the kind of detail that gives the reader a sense of her athletic genius. But this book gets the reader’s blood pumping in other ways.

Jane Gottesman created and co-curated the Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like? photography exhibition and book project.