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16 August 2008

Dora Ratjen (1918 - 2008) high-jumper, barman.

Gretel Bergmann (1914 - ) had won the German Olympic trials in 1936 in the high-jump, and was expected to be Germany's representative at the Olympic Games. However two weeks before the Games she was was dropped from the team because of 'mediocre performance'. The real reason, of course, was that she was Jewish. She was replaced by Dora Ratjen of the Hitler Youth, an odd woman with a deep voice and who never showered with the other women. The other German representative was Elfriede Kaun.

In the Berlin Olympic Games of that year, Ratjen came fourth. Only three jumpers cleared 1.60m : Kaun, the UK's Dorothy Odam and Hungary's Ibolya Csák (1915 - 2006). All failed 1.62m at the first attempt. At a jump-off, also at 1.62m, Csák was the only one to clear, and became the first Hungarian to win an Olympic Gold.

The irony for the the Nazis was that Bergmann had cleared 1.64m in the trials. And more than that, Csák was also Jewish

In 1938, Ratjen won the European championship in Vienna, beating Csák into second place. However she was later examined by a police doctor after being read at a railway station, and found to have ambiguous genitals. Her European championship was rescinded, as was her permit to compete – on the grounds of violating her amateur status. Csák was awarded the gold.

In 1957, Herman Ratjen, a barman in Hamburg, said that he was Dora Ratjen, that he had been raised as Horst Ratjen, and had lived as a woman for only three years and that the Nazis compelled him to compete as a woman.


Bergman emigrated to the US in 1937 and quickly won their national title in high-jumping. She married and became Margaret Lambert. She saw the story of Herman Ratjen in Time in 1966 in a story about the introduction of sex testing. She did not return to Germany until 1999 when a stadium in her home town of Laupheim was renamed in her honour.

Csák later worked at the Hungarian Banknote printing company, but remained an active spectator in Hungarian athletics until her death in 2006.

Herman Ratjen died at the age of 90.


This case is the one and only of gender imposture in the Olympics. The whole embarrasment of sex-testing rests on this case. However we do not know the details of Ratjen's intersex status. It could be that she is actually entitled to compete as a woman under modern rules. The claim of Herman Ratjen in Hamburg in 1957 to be Dora rests only on his say-so. No journalist seems to have actually checked it out.

The 2009 film Berlin 36 is the story of Gretel Bergmann. There is no character called Ratjen in the cast list.


Ursula Hahn said...

You indicate that Mrs. Bergmann-Lambert died in 2008; the film Berlin '36 shows her being interviewed in 2009 and I believe she is alive as of January 19, 2010. Dora Ratjen is called Marie Ketteler in the same film.

Tom Ivy said...

As a writer / sometime historian, I've studied this story at length. The best comprehensive review of the case is at:,1518,druck-649104,00.html (which draws from the police report when Dora was arrested after winning the European Championship in Vienna in 1938. Dora reverted to her father's name "Heinrich" - though erroneously, you'll see her/his name as Hermann or Heinz or whatever. He took over his father's saloon. There is no record he ever married. He died at the age of 89. The film changed his name from Ratjen because legally they couldn't clear rights to use the real name (big deal with making films about real people). Trust this is helpful to anyone reviewing this blog. - Tom Ivy

Tom Ivy said...

Incidentally, There was a second case of Gender identity in the 1936 Olympic Games. Stella Walsh (an American who ran for Poland) silver medal in the 100 meter - was discovered to be a man after she/he was killed in a convenience store robbery in the U.S. many years later. Her nemesis was Helen Stevens who won Gold. (all this can be researched on-line or in several books on these stories) - tri

Zagria said...

It was Helen Stephens who was accused in 1936 and had to submit to a genital inspection. See my article on Stella Walsh here