'I watched the Games and hated every minute'

Margaret Lambert is the last living athlete who was banned from competing at the Berlin 1936 Olympics for being Jewish

When Gretel Bergmann watched the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, she knew the Nazis were keeping a secret from the watching world.

The Jewish athlete was the best female high jumper Germany had produced, but on the eve of the Games, she had been expelled from the national team. Sports authorities told her she was not good enough, teammates learned she was “injured” and her name was scrubbed from the record books. And then, to add insult to invented injury, the Nazis gave her place in the team to a woman who turned out to be a man.

Bergmann's extraordinary story remained hidden for decades until one of the worst injustices in sport was exposed. Now 98, she goes by the name Margaret Bergmann Lambert and lives in New York City with her husband, Bruno, who is 101. “I wanted to show the world what a Jew could do, but I knew very well the Nazis would never let me compete,” she says by phone. “I watched the Games and hated every minute of it. Nobody knew I existed.”

The Olympic charter states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” is permitted in the Olympics. But ideology frequently rattles the symbolic rings of a movement founded on principles of unity achieved through sport. Politics & Olympics: Ideals and Realities, an exhibition at the Free Word Centre in London, recalls some of the most important cases. They include Lambert, as well as better-known controversies such as the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Lambert's route to the most political Games of all – the so-called Nazi Olympics – began in the early 30s. Born in 1914 in Laupheim, in southern Germany, she excelled in athletics as a teenager, breaking the national high-jump record in 1931 with a leap of 1.51m. “We used to have a wonderful time,” she says, her voice strong and quick. “Everything was beautiful then in Germany and we were honoured and respected.”

When Hitler came to power, in 1933, Jewish athletes were excluded from clubs and competitions across Germany. Still only 18 and her dreams of even completing her education dashed, Lambert travelled to England to study. She was allowed to compete at the 1934 British championships in London, and won the high jump, increasing her personal best to 1.55m.

Lambert had hoped to compete for Britain at the 1936 Olympics in Germany but as the Games approached, Nazi officials, observing her success, ordered her to return to Germany. Hitler had wanted his Olympics to be cleansed of black and Jewish competitors, but when other nations threatened to stay away, and the Amateur Athletic Union voted to boycott the Games, he relented. Thirteen Jewish athletes would go on to win medals in Berlin, while the defiance of the black American sprinter, Jesse Owen, who won four golds, became one of the defining images of the modern Olympics.

There would be fewer opportunities for the German Jewish athletes who were recalled to the team. “The Nazis wanted to show the Americans, the British – all the countries that did not want to come to the Games – that Jews were not discriminated against,” Lambert says. “It was all a big lie, of course, and I was the token jew.”

Reluctant to return but fearing for the safety of her family if she refused, Lambert arrived in Germany to find a country transformed.

“I wasn't allowed anywhere, not even into the stadium to train,” she recalls. “We couldn't go to restaurants or to the movies and I knew damn well they weren't going to let me compete in the Olympics. A Jewish high jumper wasn't going to work out for the Nazis. I was so mad about the whole thing.”

Effectively held hostage in her own country, Lambert was permitted to compete three times before the Games. Driven by fury and a will to show her captors what a Jewish woman could do, she raised the bar again, equalling the new German record with a jump of 1.60m.

The Nazis waited until just four weeks before the Berlin Games to quietly exclude their “token Jew”. “They didn't tell me anything, there was just a form letter saying I had not been chosen because I wasn't good enough,” she says. “That was that.”

Lambert followed the progress of her former teammates in the women's high jump. The event was won by a Hungarian athlete who could only match Lambert's personal best. “It was very hard to watch,” she says. “I was very stirred up and did a lot of cursing.” The highest-placed German was Dora Ratjen, who came fourth and would go on to provide a bizarre twist in Lambert's story. Before the Games, the women had been roommates. “I used to come home to my parents and say, I think Dora is a little weird,” Lambert recalls. “I never saw her undress because she used to sneak into a little bathroom we weren't supposed to use rather than showering with the team. Her face was a little bit hard, but I had no idea.”

Lambert today Lambert today  

Two years after Berlin, Ratjen was travelling on a train when the conductor suspected she was a man. He called the police, who called a physician. He inspected Ratjen and determined she was a man. Dora admitted she had been born a boy but raised as a girl after confusion about his genitals, which had been deformed at birth. He was arrested but found not guilty of fraud. Accusations that the Nazis had conspired to conceal her gender were never proved and, after her jumps were wiped from the record books, Dora lived out her years as a barman called Heinrich.

In 1937, Lambert, then 23, sailed alone to New York City with four dollars in her pocket, the standard amount the Nazis gave Jewish emigres. She worked as a cleaner and would be joined a year later by her husband, Bruno, a doctor who would start a new career painting houses. She continued to compete, winning the US women's high jump and shot put championships that year and the high jump again in 1938.

Then came the outbreak of the Second World War. “I called up my coach and said I'm not training any more,” Lambert says. “There were more important things to think about and my parents were still living in Germany.” They survived the war, but Bruno's parents were killed.

Lambert's experience resulted in a deep hatred of her own country which would continue long after the Nazis were defeated. She changed her name and refused to speak German or visit her home country, staying instead with her husband where she still lives in Queens. She became a US citizen in 1942.

It wasn't until 2009 that Lambert's national record was restored by the German athletics association. In 1995, she had refused to attend the opening of a sports centre in Berlin that was named after her.

In 1999, she was invited to return to Laupheim, her hometown, where her name was being given to the stadium from which she had been banned. This time, she agreed to go.

“I hated everything German but finally came to the conclusion that people now had nothing to do with it,” she says. “I decided it wasn't fair to hate them and so I changed my attitude a little bit, not about what happened to me and so many other Jews, but about Germany now.”

Read more on the Politics & Olympics Exhibition at FreeWordOnline.com

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