Dora Ratjen (pictured above) was born in Bremen, Germany, on November 20, 1918, and by the age of 17, was an Olympian. A high jumper, she finished fourth at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, just missing the opportunity to win a medal for the home crowd. And two years later, she’d best that. From September 3-5, 1938, she competed at the European Athletics Championship — and won gold in the women’s high jump, setting a world record with a height of 1.67 meters.
Fewer than three weeks later, Dora’s fame grew larger — for the wrong reasons.
On September 21, 1938, Ratjen took a train from Vienna to Cologne. The conductor thought she was a man dressed as a woman — a crime of some sort in Nazi Germany — and ordered her off the train, to be questioned by police. Dora objected and provided her offical, government-issued papers to the officer. These documents — shy of lifting up her skirt — were the most definitive evidence of her being a female. But the police continued the investigation and threatened a physical examination, according to Spiegel. Dora refused to be examined and, rather risk arrest for obstructing justice, admitted the truth. The conductor was correct. Dora was a man.
Dora had been living as a woman her whole life but was, in fact, male. He was born with malformed male genitals and the midwife who delivered him at first said he was a boy, then, seeing the birth defect, reconsidered and told Ratjen’s parents that the baby was a girl. He was christened “Dora” and his parents brought him up as a girl, never addressing the biological truth. According to Futility Closet, Dora told the police that at age 10 or 11, he realized he was male, but as an adolescent, did not want to question his parents’ decision to raise him as a young woman. Ratjen hid his true gender for nearly a decade after, which gave him the reputation as a shy, weird loner among other female athletes, who wondered why he snored, shaved his legs often, and was never one to use the communal showers.
Ratjen was stripped of his medal won at the European Athletics Championship and criminally charged with fraud. Prosecutors dropped the charges because Ratjen received no monetary gain from obfuscating his gender, and also because Ratjen agreed to no longer partake in sporting competitions. The former high jumper changed his name to Heinrich Ratjen and rarely if ever spoke about his odd place in history. He died in 2008.
Bonus fact: Pink is for girls, blue is for boys — that seems like a hard and fast rule. But it’s a relatively recent construct, dating back only until the 1940s. According to Smithsonian Magazine, before then, the color-gender association was reversed.
From the Archives: Redefining Nemo: The crazy gender-bending clownfish.
Related: “Inside the Olympics: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Politics, the Scandals and the Glory of the Games” by Dick Pound, former vice president of the International Olympic Committee and former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency. Five stars on four reviews.