The gender question posed to Caster Semenya may be front and center in sports debates, but it's hardly the first time the topic's come up. To wit: A Jewish athlete flees Nazi Germany, only to be forced to return and compete for the Nazis. But at the last minute, her teammate competes instead -- and it turns out this ringer is actually a man disguised as a woman.
If it sounds like the tangled plot of a movie, that's because it is: "Berlin 36" opens in German cinemas this week. But it's also the true -- and fascinating -- story of what transpired at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The tale of this star high jumper's manipulation by the Nazis was also the subject of a 2004 HBO documentary called "Hitler's Pawn" narrated by Natalie Portman.
Betrayed by Her Country -- Twice
Gretel Bergmann (below to the right, in photos taken in 1936 and 2008) was a 19-year-old high jumper when she fled to Britain in 1933; after Hitler's rise, a sign was posted at her training facility that read: "No Jews or dogs allowed." But the International Olympics Committee required Germany to include Jewish athletes at the 1936 Olympics, so its coaches pressured Gretel to return, threatening her family if she refused.
Once at the games, Gretel was booted from the lineup and replaced by her roommate Dora Ratjen (above left). Dora came in fourth in those Olympics. (The gold medalist, Gretel points out, was Hungary's Ibolya Csak -- a Jew.)
Gretel emigrated to the U.S., while Dora went on to set a new world high-jump record for women in 1938. The next twist was revealed soon after, when doctors discovered that "Dora" was actually a man by the name of Hermann Ratjen. He would later claim that Nazis forced him into competing "for the sake of the honor and glory of Germany."
Decades in the Dark
Bergmann says she never suspected anything gender-bending about her teammate. "She never came in the shower with us, so we thought she was a little weird, but I had absolutely no idea she was actually a man," Bergmann recalls.
In fact, Gretel only uncovered the truth about her former roommate after reading a magazine article in the 1960s.
Gretel, who now goes by Margaret Bergmann Lambert, is 95 years old and living in New York City. One of those same stadiums that she wasn't allowed into is now named after her. Ratjen died last year.
Watch a trailer for "Berlin 36" here -- it's in German with no subtitles.
Also from around the web:
When can kids decide they're transgendered? (Lemondrop)
Crazy sports actually considered for the Olympics (Cracked)
Try to ace (heh) this U.S. Open quiz. (FitSugar)
A history of Hitler in comics (ComicsAlliance)
The best sports streakers ever (nsfw) (The Chive)