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At the request of the Nazi Youth movement, Ratjen competed for Germany in the Women’s High Jump at the 1936 Summer Olympics.
In the previous Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Germany won only 21 medals and were fourth in the medals table. It was believed that the entering of male athletes in women’s competitive events would give the Germans an unfair advantage and bring glory to the Reich during the Games to take place in Berlin. Though physical gender examinations and, later, genetic and chromosomal tests would be required of women’s athletes in Olympic Games starting in the 1960s (because the Soviet Union and other Communist countries were suspected of using male athletes in women’s events), Ratjen’s was the only verified case of gender cheating in the history of the modern Olympics. In 1938 Ratjen was barred from further competition because of ‘ambiguous genitalia’.
German high jumper Gretel Bergmann stated that she and her fellow female athletes never suspected Ratjen’s gender. “I never suspected anything. I just said, ‘She’s kind of weird’ but she was a nice kid. We got along very well. I never looked when she undressed or most likely she never got undressed in front of me completely. We had this huge shower room and we all took showers in there and she never came in, always went into this little room which had a bath. That was supposed to be off-limits, but she went in there. All the girls thought she was a little unusual – pretty deep voice – and they made fun of her.” Ratjen was always instructed to room with Bergmann, presumably because the male Ratjen would never become sexually tempted by the Jewish Bergmann, as relations between Jews and Gentiles in Nazi Germany was strictly prohibited and was a “one-way ticket to a concentration camp” according to Bergmann.
British Olympian Dorothy Odam who was the high jump silver medalist in those games said she always felt sure that Ratjen was a man, even though he tightly bound his genitals to conceal them.
Ratjen went on to compete at the European Championships in Vienna in 1938, setting a world record for the ladies high jump with a 5 feet 5.75 inches jump
Ratjen was discovered on his way back from the European Championships at a train station in Germany. Although Ratjen was wearing a skirt, two women spotted him with a five o’clock shadow. A doctor was summoned and Ratjen’s sex was revealed. He never competed in athletic events again.
In 1957, Ratjen came forward and said “she” was actually male (with ambiguous genitalia) and was forced by the Nazis to disguise himself as a woman “for the sake of the honour and glory of Germany”. Ratjen stated, “For three years I lived the life of a girl. It was most dull.” At the time, Ratjen worked as a waiter in Hamburg and Bremen. Little is known of his life after that and he died on 22 April 2008.
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