Bizarre Olympic Story: Dora Ratjen, The Biological Man, Who Competed As A Woman For Nazi Germany

16 Jul

Dora Ratjen, 1937

By the looks of it, London 2012 will remain largely apolitical – A long cry from the Nazi Games of 1936. The Olympic games had been handed to Berlin in 1931, before the Nazis rose to power and, it was the perfect opportunity for Hitler to demonstrate to the world how efficient his rebuilt Germany was.

Anti-Semitic posters disappeared from the streets of Berlin and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ensured no efforts were spared to welcome the world. Despite Adolf Hitler’s refusal to put the gold medal around Jesse Owens’ neck, who won the 100m, 200m, long-jump and the 4 x 100m competition, the Olympics were a true success for Nazi Germany. Until two years later, when the truth behind one German athlete was uncovered. Was Dora ‘Horst’ Ratjen part of an evil Nazi plan?

Dora ‘Horst’ Ratjen was born on November 20, 1918 in Erichshof near Bremen. The Ratjen family already had three daughters and their newest arrival caused confusion. Was it a boy or a girl? “When the child was born the midwife called over to me, ‘Heini, it’s a boy!’ But five minutes later she said to me, ‘It is a girl, after all,” Dora’s father Heinrich recounted in 1938 in a statement to police.

The parents had doubts but, they decided to raise Dora as a girl and so it came that the bulky girl joined Komet Bremen Athletics Club in 1934 and started competing in women’s athletics meetings. The young athlete’s dream, or so it appeared, came true when she was accepted for the Olympic squad at 17. She joined the Olympics training camp and met her fellow team members, the Jewish high-jumper Gretel Bergmann and non-Jewish athlete Elfriede Kaun. At Nazi training camp, the other girls wondered why Dora never showed herself naked but did not think much of it. “’She’s strange. She’s odd, the girls thought,”Gretel Bergmann recalled years later in an interview.

The athlete with the husky and deep voice came fourth in the women’s high jump in Berlin’s swastika-infested Olympic stadium. Team mate Elfriede Kaun won the bronze medal while Gretel Bergmann did not compete. But Ratjen’s career had only begun. Two years later, Ratjen won the title of European champion, jumping a world record height of 1.67m.  Just months after the athlete’s biggest success, reality came crashing down.

On September 21, 1938, Dora took a train from Vienna to Cologne. The conductor of the train reported ‘a woman dressed as a man’. And so it was that police arrested Dora Ratjen and the truth was uncovered. Dora Ratjen was pronounced male and one of the biggest sporting scandals hit the headlines.

 

Did the Reich Sports Ministry know? Was it all an evil plot to increase Germany’s chances in the Women’s High Jump?

Ratjen was stripped of her titles and a five-page report, factually recounting the events without any acknowledgement of involvement by the Nazi regime, was issued by Reichs security chief Reinhard Heydrich. Ratjen began living as a man and reportedly worked as a waiter in Hamburg and Bremen until his death in 2008. In the meantime, Gretel Bergmann, the Jewish athlete who was banned from competing in the 1936 Olympics, put together her own theory.

Bergmann was accepted to the Olympic squad to help portray the country as liberal and tolerant. The Americans had threatened to boycott the Berlin Games should no Jewish athletes be allowed to compete for Germany. Her place in the Women’s High Jump was withdrawn once the American sportsmen, press and officials had boarded their plane to Germany. Despite breaking the German record one month prior to the Games, her accomplishments were removed from the books and Bergmann received a letter from the sports authority, informing her that she was no longer part of the national team – due to ‘under-performance’.

To this very day Gretel Bergmann insists that Dora Ratjen, the false athlete, was part of an evil Nazi plot aiming to showcase the superiority of the ‘Master race’.

The ministerial files have been destroyed but the eyewitness Gretel Bergmann, who shortly after her dismissal from the national team emigrated to the US, is convinced that the sports authority deliberately ‘created’ Dora Ratjen.

Dora ‘Horst’ Ratjen never gave an official media interview but is reported as having said in 1957 that he was forced into competing by the Nazis “for the sake of the honour and glory of Germany”.

 

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