And now for something completely different: for a long time, I’ve been thinking about featuring some non-Syracuse stories on Otto’s Grove, many of which I’ve compiled for a series I affectionately like to call, “All of Your Heroes are Jerks” because, let’s face it, athletes are not always the perfect role models. Today’s lesson is on Dora Ratjen, and the story is almost too insane to be believed. It’s like something out of a bad movie. Juwanna Mann, to be exact, only with Nazis.
Not many people are aware, but way back in 1936, the world was in a little bit of turmoil. Hard to believe, I know. If only there were movies and dozens upon dozens of television specials and documentaries dealing with a little known group called the Nazis, who, if we were to compare 1936 to the movie Karate Kid, were the Cobra Kai of planet Earth.
Actually that seems a little unfair to Johnny Lawrence and his brethren, since while the Nazis only believed they were superior, the members of the Cobra Kai actually proved themselves year after year at the All-Valley Karate Tournament, until some little weasel named Daniel LaRusso showed up and threw a wrench into their dominance. And in 1936, when referring to this real-life version of the Cobra Kai, the All-Valley Karate Tournament took place in the form of the Berlin Summer Olympic Games. Apparently, when the Nazi regime wasn’t doing battle with Indiana Jones or just generally trying to take over the world with your run of the mill witchcraft and occult worship, they were trying desperately to win at women’s track and field.
It actually may seem a little odd that Berlin was given the chance to host the Olympics during that rather tumultuous era, considering some asshole named Hitler was in the process of spreading his bullshit as far and wide as the eye could see in Europe, but the Olympics were awarded to the host city of Berlin way back in 1931, narrowly edging Barcelona, Spain to win the hosting duties. This was a full two years before the Nazis used their speechifying, beer hall tactics to convince a bunch of drunks they should be in power thanks to a failed artist who we now know to have been a complete lunatic, but who at the time was an undeniably powerful, charismatic, and eloquent public speaker, in Adolf Hitler.
Why is any of this important? Well, for starters, because one of the main objectives of the Nazi party was to demonstrate that the Aryan race was not only superior genetically, but dominant athletically. Never mind the fact that Hitler himself not only wasn’t a native German – he was born in Austria – but studies also suggest he actually had not only Jewish, but also African lineage, according to the studies conducted by a Belgian journalist named Jean-Paul Mulders and an historian named Marc Vermeeran. So when the Olympics came to Germany in 1936, Hitler wanted to make sure that his Aryan athletes won as many medals as possible. Playing by the rules, as you might have guessed, really wasn’t something he cared about at this point, having so swiftly risen to power, wielding it like a drunk 12 year old with a lightsaber.
And that’s what brings us to the story of Dora Ratjen, who competed in the women’s high jump during those summer games despite not actually being named Dora, and oh yes, even more importantly, not actually being a woman.
I mean, honestly, would you expect anything less from Adolf Hitler? Winning at any cost was preferable to allowing any non-Germans to come to Berlin and walk out with a gold medal, after all.
Born in 1918, Dora sprang from the womb with ambiguous sexuality. At birth, the child was first proclaimed to be a boy, then a girl, and then everyone apparently just gave up on trying to figure it out and let the Ratjen clan raise Dora as whatever the hell gender they wanted. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to process, but this young child, who it turned out was actually male, was raised as a female due to this uncertainty surrounding his gender. So from birth and throughout adolescence, Dora was outfitted in dresses and taught how to be a lady, despite pretty distinctively being a guy.
However, even upon this realization, which Dora said took place around the age of 10 or 11, he continued to press forward, living life as a female despite very much understanding he was absolutely not one. Two years after having competed in the 1936 Olympics, Dora opened up about his confusing upbringing, and how during his early years he began competing in athletics competitions against females, rather than males. It was right around this time the story really came out, and Dora was arrested for his participation in this fraud.
It’s hard not to feel at least a bit sympathetic for Dora, as well. Dora, who would come to be known later in life as Heinrich, as well as Hermann, or Horst, claimed to have been a pawn of the Third Reich during those Olympic Games. He had been an excellent high-jumper, recruited to compete for his home country, as his skill and athleticism had been enough to earn him the attention of the Nazis. The Fuhrer insisted that he compete for Germany. The stipulation, of course, was that he compete as a woman. Whether the Nazis were implicit in the entirety of the fraud is not really known, because according to teammates, no one really knew for certain that Dora was not actually a woman. In fact, they just wrote him off as a bit of an oddball who kept mostly to himself – or herself, as they believed.
One of the people most directly impacted by Dora Ratjen competing in the 1936 Olympic Games was a woman named Gretel Bergmann. In 1934, at the age of 20, Gretel received an invitation to compete for Germany in the high jump competition during those Games. A tall, graceful high-jumper, Gretel had trained most of her life for the opportunity and seemed poised to compete for a medal, representing her home country with perhaps a gold or a silver, and even a bronze wouldn’t have been too shabby. Unfortunately for Gretel, her dream of taking her place on the medal stand and hearing her country’s anthem play would never come to fruition, and for one simple reason: she was Jewish.
During training, however, she roomed with Dora Ratjen. Gretel was 20 and a world class high-jumper, while Dora was only 17, and, well, a dude. Gretel has gone on record saying that she always found Dora to be a little odd, but always very nice, and suggests that the reasoning behind the pair being roomed together was specifically because Gretel was a Jew. According to an interview with Gretel, she believed that placing a 17 year old boy with an attractive young female athlete would cause “too much of a temptation” for his burgeoning sexual urges…unless that young female athlete was Jewish.
Obviously, being Jewish meant that Gretel was completely off limits for Dora. As Gretel said in that same interview, “Sexual intercourse between Jews and Gentiles was a major offense and a one-way ticket to a concentration camp.”
Not exactly surprising, then, that Dora chose to keep his hands to himself.
It was Dora who ultimately took Gretel’s spot on the Olympic team representing Germany, as well. Despite the fact that Dora was rather forcefully implored to compete on behalf of his home country, he actually didn’t even medal. He took fourth place in the high jump that year, with many of his competitors suspecting something was amiss. Dorothy Odham, a British athlete who took silver in the event that year, was in particular convinced that Dora was actually a man. But it wasn’t until two years later that the truth was revealed, after Dora took the gold medal in the European Championships in 1938.
One of the saddest parts of this story, as if there weren’t enough sad parts to begin with, was how Dora’s fraud was discovered. In 1938, just after winning that gold medal, Dora was making his way back to Cologne, Germany, from Vienna, Austria, by way of train. He was minding his own business, but the conductor noticed something peculiar about him and immediately deduced it was a man dressed as a woman. This being Nazi Germany, that was a major no-no. The conductor called the authorities, and Dora Ratjen was pulled from the train and taken in for questioning, where he eventually relented and admitted to being a man. It was discovered that due to Dora’s unusual genitalia, it would most likely be impossible for him to actually engage in sexual intercourse after a thorough doctor’s examination, and a follow up test at Hohenlychen sports sanatorium led to the same conclusion.
Shame and humiliation followed as Dora went to trial for the fraud, though he was able to avoid jail time thanks to the fact that he never intended to actually use this deception to make any money. He had simply been raised as a girl, convinced to compete as a girl, and continued to train as a girl until he, without really meaning to, became a woman later in his life. By the end of 1939, at the conclusion of his trial, he was made to swear that he would stop competing as a female and change his name to reflect his actual gender. He was forced to give back his gold medal from the European Championships.
The sad story of Dora Ratjen seems utterly implausible, until you realize the lengths to which the Nazi party would go to assert dominance. In a piece by Time magazine, which ran in 1966, Ratjen is quoted as stating that he had been forced by the Third Reich to compete as a woman “for the sake of the honor and glory of Germany.”
Frankly, I’m not sure there’s a lot of honor in pretending a guy is a girl in order to win at sports. It’s almost like Hitler never even watched the Rodney Dangerfield classic “Ladybugs.”
The story of Dora Ratjen has become one of the focal points for gender verification in sports, which has reared its ugly head in recent years. As recently as 2012, Olympic athletes have faced serious questions about their sexuality, with South African runner Caster Semenya being at the forefront of these controversial questions. The possibility of women with uncharacteristically high testosterone levels being banned from competition has become a very real thing, and these sex tests will most certainly persist as female athletes get bigger, faster, and stronger. In almost every case, it’s a simple matter of an athlete merely having a condition called hyperandrogenism.
Of course Dora Ratjen, or Heinrich, or Hermann, or Heinz – whatever you want to call him – did not suffer from hyperandrogenism. His story, however, feels that much sadder because in spite of the shame that came down on him for competing, it was never really anything within his own control. Obviously, he could have picked up on the fact that he was a dude and stopped competing of his own volition – at least, that’s what we say now. But he was raised as a female by parents who seemed more confused by his gender than even he was. Couple that with the fact that he was strong-armed into competing for Germany at the tender age of 17, despite his claims that they knew full well he wasn’t female, and it starts to feel like he really did not have any choice in the matter.
It’s hard to even fathom what life in the 1930’s in Germany must have been like for someone like Dora Ratjen. After his arrest in 1938 and trial in 1939, Dora fell out of the public eye, and that’s probably for the best. He’s believed to have worked as a waiter in the towns of Hamburg and Bremen, and to have also run his family’s bar for years, before passing away in 2008, at the age of 89. This whole story became the subject of a film called Berlin ’36, which chronicled Ratjen taking Gretel Bergmann’s place on the Olympic team. Upon first glance it seems like Dora Ratjen is the villain here. When you step back, however, it seems abundantly clear he was just a confused, easily manipulated kid, doing what an evil regime was telling him to do out of fear for his life.
Basically, it just reaffirms what we all already knew: the Nazis were serious fucking assholes.