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October 4, 2017

Dora Ratjen: The Incredible Story of the Man Who Became a Female Athlete in Olympics and Other Championships

Dora Ratjen was a German athlete who participated in Olympics and other championships in the women’s category until it was proved later that she was a man. Though, not really done for any illegal gain, his participation sparked suspicion among some of the fellow athletes, especially the British Olympic silver medalist Dorothy Tyler-Odam. Here is the story of Dora Ratjen, later renamed Heinrich Ratjen.

Ratjen at the 1937 German Athletics Championships.

Ratjen was born in Erichshof, near Bremen, Germany, into a family of “simple folk”. He was born with a “coarse scarred stripe from the tip of his penis to the rear” that misled the midwife into thinking it was a girl. Nine months after his birth, Ratjen fell down and was taken to a doctor who examined his genitalia and told his parents to let it be since nothing could be done about it. Then, they named her Dora and brought him up as a girl.

Ratjen started becoming very successful at sports during his teens, especially high jump, and participated in the 1936 Summer Olympics at Berlin, but finished fourth. In 1938, he set a new world record by clearing 1.67 m (5 feet 5.75 inches) during the European Athletics Championships. In 1939, he broke the world record in high jump. However, he was already under suspicion by many people and that world record was given to Dorothy Tyler-Odam in 1957 when she told the IAAF that he was a man working as a waiter, which they verified.

Ratjen’s winning 1.63-meter jump at the 1937 German Athletics Championships.

As Ratjen grew up so did the awareness of his body. He also faced several problems when he was with his teammates at sports events. During the 1936 Olympics, one of his teammates, Gretel Bergmann, said that the team just thought Ratjen was shy, strange, and odd for a girl of 17 who never showed herself naked in the communal shower. She also said that they never noticed or suspected anything different about her sexuality.

1938 European Athletics Championships (women) Vienna. Medalists High Jump: Dora Ratjen (gold), Ibolya Csak (silver), Nelly van Balen-Blanken (bronze). 18 September 1938.

On her last trip as a woman, Dora Ratjen wore a gray two-piece, skin-colored tights, and light-colored ladies shoes. On September 21, 1938 she took an express train from Vienna to Cologne. At the European Athletics Championships in the Austrian capital a few days earlier, she had won gold for the German Reich, clearing the high-jump bar at 1.70 meters, a new world record.

Dora Ratjen had been arrested at the train station.

At around noon the train stopped at Magdeburg station. The athlete was stretching her legs on the platform when a policeman approached her and asked to see some ID. A ticket inspector had informed Detective Sergeant Sömmering that a woman sitting on the train was actually a man. Sömmering took a close look at Ratjen and noticed how hairy her hands were. Ratjen pulled out an ID card from the European Championships, but the officer wasn't satisfied. He asked her to take her bag out of the train and accompany him to the police station.

The policeman was determined to find out if Ratjen was a woman or a man. He even threatened to examine her. "And if I resist?" Ratjen asked. Then she would be guilty of obstruction, the detective replied.

The athlete hesitated for a moment, then said that she was indeed a man.

Dora Ratjen was arrested at 12.15pm. Mug shots were taken, the details of the case were noted down, preliminary proceedings were initiated, and Ratjen was charged on suspicion of fraud. The period: 1934 to 1938. The victim: "The Reich" - at least according to the admission papers. Ratjen's gold medal was immediately confiscated.

Dora Ratjen’s mugshot.

It was thus that on September 21, 1938 the life of 19-year-old sportswoman Dora Ratjen came to an end, and that of Heinrich Ratjen began; a story that would continue to be spun until his death on April 22, 2008. Ratjen's body lies buried in a cemetery in Bremen, but it still doesn't rest in peace.

The Ratjen case is one of the biggest sporting scandals in which a man dressed in women's clothes managed to fool his rivals. Gender researchers have also taken an interest in the affair. Was Ratjen a hermaphrodite, a transvestite, or simply a boy whose sex had been incorrectly identified at birth? Although his name is not mentioned, Ratjen and his police photos appear in the Atlas of Forensic Medicine under "transvestitism".



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