Nazis used man in women's Olympics

September 3, 2009

A new film reveals how the Nazis replaced a female Jewish athlete with a man in drag during the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The feature film Berlin 36, which opens in Germany next week, tells the story of star high-jumper Gretel Bergmann. Ms Bergmann was banned from competing in the Olympics to shield Hitler from the embarrassment of a Jewish athlete winning.

Bergmann’s replacement was her roommate Horst Ratjen, who posed as “Dora”. He kept his gender secret from his teammates by shaving his legs several times a day and showering alone.

Ms Bergmann is now 95 and lives in the US. “I never suspected anything. We all wondered why she never appeared naked in the shower,” she told Der Spiegel news magazine. “To be so shy at the age of 17 seemed grotesque. But we just thought: well, she's weird, she's strange.”

The film’s release comes a month after the gender of South African athlete Caster Semenya was called into question when she won gold at the World Athletics Championships.

When the Nazis took over in 1933 Ms Bergmann was no longer allowed at her sports club. She emigrated to the UK and became the national high-jump champion in 1934.

Concerned that the US would boycott the Olympics, the Nazis pressured her into returning to Germany. She was told her family would be endangered if she did not compete. Once the US athletes had left for Germany, the Nazis dropped Ms Bergmann from the team, using “Dora” instead.

Ms Bergmann said: “I would have won gold, nothing else. I wanted to show to the Germans and to the world that Jews were not these terrible people, not fat, ugly and disgusting as we were portrayed. I wanted to show that a Jewish girl could beat the Germans in front of 100,000 people.”

Last updated: 11:41am, September 3 2009