Yogi bears no grudge

By Katie Davies FEW people have to wait more than 70 years after qualifying to take part in the Olympics, but one West Hampstead resident has his sights on just that. Oh yes, I want to take part in 2012. I will run the 100m in one hour when I am 100 – I

By Katie Davies

FEW people have to wait more than 70 years after qualifying to take part in the Olympics, but one West Hampstead resident has his sights on just that.

"Oh yes, I want to take part in 2012. I will run the 100m in one hour when I am 100 - I think I will just about manage that," Paul Yogi Mayer MBE laughs croakily with an accent still betraying its German roots.

The Jewish athlete was at the height of his sporting career in the 1930s, hoping to take part in the triathlon in the 1936 Olympic Games. But when the Nazis came to power, his career and freedom as a Jew living in Berlin were wiped away.

"We moved house and in that village I started playing football in the street and I got into the local swimming club," he recalls.

"I won the youth championships. I went to university in Berlin and I joined a Berlin sports club. People started to get interested in me, some of the top coaches and an American one in particular. Sport was my life. But then the Nazis got in and I was thrown out of training.

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"I still believed I could make it to 1936, out of self-respect more than anything, but realistically I couldn't because I didn't have coaches or the facilities anymore.

"There was one running track in the whole of Germany which could be used by Jews - otherwise there were no facilities.

"Jews couldn't go to swimming pools and this exclusion and separation, of course, had an enormous influence. In exchange, to pacify the Olympic Committee, the Nazis allowed Jews to go to athletic games in Israel but an event hundreds of miles away had nothing to do with me - how could they tell me I wasn't German?"

This was, of course, just the beginning of the Nazis' treatment of the Jews and Mr Mayer, like others, soon saw friends and relatives murdered.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Mr Mayer, who insists on being called "Yogi - not mister or any of that rubbish," is the true definition of a gentleman, imbued with human kindness.

At 93 his mind is incredibly lucid and his generosity seems instinctive. A biscuit, a coffee, a copy of all his books, and, if these are not accepted, probably the shirt on his back, are offered with raised brows and concerned eyes.

It is perhaps this altruistic outlook which guided him to attend the games of '36 in which he should have taken part - because he wanted to "support his contemporaries" who were not barred because of their ethnicity.

But what he saw managed to be the perfect riposte to those persecuting his people and it also prompted his life's work.

"I watched the games and I didn't take sides but the only thing I really got involved in was when Jesse Owens won," he smiles.

"He won the 100m and 200m and the whole stadium went mad.

"It's funny but in the German dialect the sound "esse" fits so perfectly and the whole stadium was shouting 'Jesse, Jesse, Jesse' - not Owens.

"I was sitting very close for the long jump and I remember seeing Jesse and Luz Long [the German whom the black athlete beat into second place in that event] sitting there.

"I remember clearly the two of them sitting on the grass talking to each other while Hitler watched.

"Owens had beaten his German champion and it must have been a terrible annoyance to him. Everyone who was there would remember that moment."

The inspiration of watching the athlete win three gold medals in the face of such a racist regime proved central to Yogi's life.

Escaping Germany just before the outbreak of the war in 1939, he became a parachutist for the British army fighting against the country of his birth.

From 1945 he set up projects training future Jewish sporting champions and worked tirelessly advancing sport in schools around Hampstead - fulfilling his own ambitions by proxy in thousands of young people and receiving an MBE for his work.

It also prompted a writing career. Yogi had bravely published a book on Jewish champions in his native Germany before fleeing.

And in 2000 he compiled his book exploring the relationships of all minorities with sport and the benefits it can bring - Jews and the Olympic Games - Sport: A Springboard for Minorities.

"Sport is an equaliser and if you can use sport, equality can be achieved," he says emphatically at his West Hampstead home.

"The benefits for minorities are enormous. Right now we have a man with artificial legs who wants to take part in the Olympics in four years' time.

"If he does that, it will destroy the idea that the physically disabled cannot reach the achievements of non-disabled people, and that is very powerful."

This year Yogi says he watched the games "all day and every day", his great sporting passion, second only to his love of cricket.

After interviewing him and as if to prove the point, the TV is straight back on and he is guiding me through the art of Olympic ping pong.

From someone who loves the games so dearly and has witnessed the grossest attempt to misuse them for political purpose - he resists any attempt to make the event political.

"I feel sport is one of the areas, like art, which is international and should not be misused for political purposes," he says.

Mr Mayer has now understandably lost his relationship to the country of his birth. However, his joie de vivre doesn't leave room for bitterness.

I ask him what it's like watching athletes on the podium and if he ever feels angry because he could have once been there. After a moment's pause he shakes his head. "To imagine that would be playing a game with myself. All nations have their horrors and dark spots," he says.

"For me Nazism was one of those mental disorientations of a nation which has happened to many. I go to Germany because I feel I should help - to show the Germans that there are Jews who understand we are building a new Germany.

"I will help Germany but I am British and I have enjoyed the Olympics this year immensely because of that. Germany was the great love of my youth but that is gone now."

If anyone from the Olympic Delivery Authority happens to stumble across this article perhaps they can take note.

Surely, there would be no better way of promoting Britain's proud history of liberalism and tolerance than by allowing this very British sports fan to fulfil his 100m ambition in 2012.