The German athlete at the 1936 Berlin Olympics who turned out to be a man

The case of Caster Semenya, a South African athlete twice Olympic champion and three times world champion in the middle-distance modality (800 meters, to be exact), who in medical tests turned out to have a chromosomal abnormality that makes her produce three times more testosterone than normal and have internal male sex organs, which has led sports authorities to institute new regulations limiting the amount of testosterone for female athletes. But Semenya’s case is not really something new; There was already one in the first half of the 20th century that also had its great moment at the Berlin Olympics in 1936: Dora Ratjen’s.

The confusion about Dora began at the very moment of her birth, which took place in Erischof, a town near Bremen, on November 20, 1918. Her father, Heinrich, was first told by the midwife that she had a son shortly after. correct himself and say that it was a girl, that it would be the fourth. As such, she was baptized with the name of Dora but the doubt continued to exist and before she was one year old, taking advantage of a medical visit for pneumonia, the doctor did not clarify anything and admitted that there was little that could be done about it anyway. Her parents then decided to educate her as a girl.

However, Dora herself would later tell that by the age of ten or eleven she was already clear that she thought and felt like a boy, not understanding why her parents insisted on dressing her in girl’s clothes and taking her to a girls’ school. But she refrained from asking him, probably as confused in her mind as they were. The fact is that he grew up that way, he was confirmed in 1932 -the Ratjens were Catholic- and when he was sixteen, having finished his high school studies, he started working in a tobacco factory at the same time that he became interested in sports and entered the the Komet Bremen, a football club founded by students in 1896 that also had an athletics section.

Dora stood out in high jump and that same year, 1934, despite the ridicule she sometimes received for her manly appearance, she was champion of Lower Saxony, renewing her title the following seasons, which launched her to the national championship. This opened the doors to the selection at a very opportune moment, since in 1936 Berlin was going to host the organization of the Olympic Games and the until then German champion, the unbeatable Gretel Bergman, had an unacceptable defect for the Nazi regime: she she was Jewish. In fact, Gretel had emigrated to the United Kingdom, where she also won non-stop, but she returned in 1936 with the promise of allowing her participation in the games, breaking the German record. However, the government did not keep her word and when the time came, it vetoed her joining the Olympic team, arguing that she was out of shape, to the benefit of Dora.

Gretel would emigrate to the US, where she would continue collecting records and refusing to return to her country until 1999, when they named a stadium after her. Her replacement failed to get a medal in Berlin, finishing fourth with a jump of 1.58 meters, remarkable for a debutant; the gold went to the Hungarian Ibolya Csák (with 1.62), the silver for the British Dorothy Odam (with 1.60) and the bronze for her German partner Elfriede Kaun (with 1.60). Of course, Dora was immortalized in Olympiathe famous film about the Games shot by Leni Riefenstahl, and two years later, at the European Athletics Championships held in Vienna (and in which there was a female competition for the first time), she established herself by reaching first position and setting the world record at 1.67 meters (the height was not much because at that time it was still jumping from the front; it was thirty-two years before the American Dick Fosbury devised the technique from the back)

Apparently, it was on his way back from the Austrian capital to Cologne that the question of Dora’s sex came up. And all caused by something unrelated to sport: at the Magdeburg station, the train conductor called the police to report that he had a man dressed as a woman on board. Dora had to get out and go to the police station, where she confessed that, indeed, he was a man. She underwent a medical inspection that concluded that she had intersex genitalia (formerly known as hermaphroditism), apparently male but incapable of normal sexual intercourse and even standing up to urinate. Despite the bad experience, for Dora it was a liberation to be able to put an end to that double identity, as she would later reveal.

At the moment she was under arrest, being interned in the Hohenlychen Sanatorium, a complex that had originally been built to care for tuberculosis children but that since Hitler’s rise to power had been converted into the SS clinic and sports sanatorium of the Third Reich for elite German athletes. There they did more analysis and all confirmed its peculiar nature. The Reichsfachamt Athletics (precedent of the German Athletics Association) officially accused her of violating amateurism, so she was disqualified and her records and titles were withdrawn: the European gold went to Ibolya Csák while Dorothy Odam would have the world record returned to her in 1957.

The news spread in various media outlets until the Ministry of Propaganda issued an order prohibiting speaking about the case. Of course, in the sports environment it was popular voice that something strange was happening with Dora. Dorothy Odam took it for granted that it was a man and, in fact, she denounced him that way when they informed her that she had broken her record; On the other hand, Elfriede Kaun, with whom she had a good relationship, never imagined anything abnormal and the main victim of Dora’s hatching, Gretel Bergmann, did not suspect it either, as she would later explain:

In the community shower we wondered why she never showed herself naked. It was grotesque that someone could still be so shy at the age of seventeen. We just thought, ‘She’s weird. She is rare.’

Surprisingly, the criminal proceedings against Dora ended in the spring of 1939, as quickly as they had begun, after the judges ruled that she could not be charged with fraud because she had no intention of obtaining financial gain. Thus, she was released with the promise of retiring from competitive sport and the obligation to regularize her status. Although Dora’s father was reluctant to admit that her daughter should become her son, the court established that her name should be changed to a masculine one, as well as prohibiting her from dressing as a woman in the future. Dora received new identification papers with Heinrich’s name and a work permit from the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labor Service) to be employed in Hannover, since she also had to stay away (or away, henceforth) from her parents.

The latter was not difficult due to the outbreak of World War II, in which he participated as a soldier without much more data. At the end of the war, Nazism already defeated, he was able to return to Bremen and take over the family bar. Everything seemed to have been forgotten but in 1966 the famous magazine Time recovered the case revealing that, in 1957, Hermann (probably a transcription error) explained that it was the Nazis who forced him to pass as a woman and compete in athletics to improve sports results and use them in his proverbial propaganda activity, thus supplying the void left by Gretel Bergmann, displaced by her Jewish condition, as we saw.

Karoline Herfurth and Sebastian Urzendowsky on the movie poster Berlin 36

It is the idea that has caught on popularly, especially after it was taken up by a German film released in 2009 (Berlin 36directed by Kaspar Heidelbach and starring Sebastian Urzendowsky as Dora -called Marie Ketteler in the film- and Karoline Herfurth in the role of Gretel Bergmann).

However, despite its historical basis, it is still a fiction for the benefit of the drama, without any evidence to support it: the documents of the Reichssportführung They say nothing to that effect and a police report signed by Reinhard Heydrich (head of the Reich Central Security Office), sent to the head of the Reich Chancellery, Hans Heinrich Lammers, does not either. Also, the Department of Sexual Medicine at Kiel University Hospital had documentation on file about it and opened it up to the public not long ago showing that the Nazis did not find out about it until two years after the Olympics.

The truth is that the film was not made just for the sake of it; there was a powerful reason that occurred the year before its shooting: since that alleged interview in TimeHeinrich had not appeared in the press since and his name resurfaced on April 22, 2008… in the obituary section.


The Commonwealth Games. Extraordinary stories behind the medals (Brian Oliver)/Sex test. Gender policing in women’s sports (Lindsay Pieper)/How Dora the man competed in the woman’s high jump (Stefan Berg in Spiegel Online) /Wikipedia

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