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

The confusion about Dora began at the moment of her birth, which took place in Erischof, a town near Bremen, on November 20, 1918. To her father, Heinrich, the nurse at the midwife’s office first announced that he had a son, only to correct herself shortly afterwards and say that it was a girl, who would be the fourth. As such, she was baptized with the name Dora, but the doubt remained and before her first birthday, taking advantage of a doctor’s visit for pneumonia, the doctor did not clarify anything and admitted that there was little that could be done about it anyway. The parents then decided to raise her as a girl.

However, Dora herself would later recount that by the time she was ten or eleven years old it was clear to her that she thought and felt like a boy, not understanding why her parents insisted on dressing her in girls’ clothes and taking her to a girls’ school. But she refrained from asking them, probably with a mind as confused as they were. The fact is that she grew up that way, was confirmed in 1932 – the Ratjen family were Catholic – and when she turned sixteen, having finished high school, she went to work in a tobacco factory while at the same time taking an interest in sports and joining the Komet Bremen, a soccer club founded by students in 1896, which also had an athletics section.

Dora in competition, 1937/Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild, on Wikimedia Commons

Dora excelled in high-jumping 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 national team at a very opportune moment, since in 1936 Berlin was to host the Olympic Games and the hitherto German champion, the unbeatable Gretel Bergman, had an unacceptable flaw for the Nazi regime: 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 being allowed to participate in the games, beating the German record. However, the government did not keep its word and, when the time came, vetoed her incorporation to the Olympic team on the grounds that she was in poor physical condition, to the benefit of Dora.

Gretel emigrated to the USA, where she continued to collect records and refused to return to her country until 1999, when a stadium was named after her. Dora could not win a medal in Berlin, finishing fourth with a jump of 1.58 meters, remarkable for a debutant; the gold went to Hungary’s Ibolya Csák (with 1.62), silver to Great Britain’s Dorothy Odam (with 1.60) and bronze to her German teammate Elfriede Kaun (with 1.60).

However, Dora was immortalized in Olympia, the famous film about the Games shot by Leni Riefenstahl, and two years later, at the European Athletics Championships held in Vienna (where women competed for the first time), she won first place and set the world record at 1.67 meters (the height was not very high because at that time people still jumped front style; it was thirty-two years before the American Dick Fosbury devised the backstroke technique).

Berlín 36: Ibolya Csák (gold), Elfriede Kaun (bronze) y Dorothy Odam (silver)/Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild, on Wikimedia Commons

It was on the way back from the Austrian capital to Cologne that the question of Dora’s gender came up. At Magdeburg station, the train conductor called the police to report that a man dressed as a woman was on board the train. Dora had to get off the train and go to the police station, where she confessed that she was indeed a man. She underwent a medical examination which concluded that she had intersex genitalia (formerly known as hermaphroditism), apparently male but unable to have normal sexual intercourse or even urinate standing up. Despite the ordeal, it was a liberation for Dora to be able to put an end to that double identity, as she would later reveal.

For the time being, she was placed under arrest and interned in the Hohenlychen Sanatorium, a complex that had originally been built to treat children with tuberculosis, but which since Hitler’s rise to power had been converted into the SS clinic and the Third Reich’s sports sanatorium for elite German athletes. There she underwent further tests, all of which confirmed her peculiar nature. The Reichsfachamt Athletics (precedent of the German Athletics Association) officially accused her of violating amateurism, for which she was disqualified and her records and titles were withdrawn: the European gold went to Ibolya Csák while Dorothy Odam was given back the world record in 1957.

The news spread in various media until the Ministry of Propaganda issued an order prohibiting talk about the case. Of course, in the sporting environment it was vox populi that something strange was going on with Dora. Dorothy Odam took it for granted that she was a man and, in fact, denounced it as such when she was informed 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, never suspected it either, as she would later explain:

In the communal 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’s weird.

Surprisingly, the criminal proceedings against Dora were terminated 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 financial gain. She was thus released with a promise to retire from competitive sport and an obligation to regularize her status. Although Dora’s father was reluctant to admit that his daughter should become a son, the court ruled that her name should be changed to a male name, and she was forbidden to dress as a woman in the future. Dora received new identification papers under the name Heinrich and a job card from the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labor Service) to be employed in Hannover, as she was also to remain away from her parents.

Karoline Herfurth and Sebastian Urzendowsky in the Berlin 36 movie poster.

The latter was not difficult due to the outbreak of World War II, in which he participated as a soldier without much more information. At the end of the war, when the Nazis were 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 Time magazine recovered the case revealing that, in 1957, Hermann (probably a transcription error) explained that it had been the Nazis who forced him to pass himself off as a woman and compete in athletics to improve the sports results and use them in their proverbial propaganda activity, thus filling the void left by Gretel Bergmann, displaced by her Jewish condition, as we saw.

This is the idea that has become popular, especially after it was taken up by a German film released in 2009 (Berlin 36, directed by Kaspar Heidelbach and starring Sebastian Urzendowsky as Dora – called Marie Ketteler in the film – and Karoline Herfurth as Gretel Bergmann).

However, despite its historical basis, it is still a fiction for the sake of drama, without any evidence to support it: the documents of the Reichssportführung say nothing in that sense and neither does 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. Also, the Department of Sexual Medicine of the University Hospital of Kiel had documentation in its archives on the matter and opened it to the public not long ago showing that the Nazis did not know about it until two years after the Olympic Games.

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

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 5, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en La atleta alemana de los Juegos Olímpicos de Berlín 1936 que resultó ser un hombre


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

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