'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.”

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

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
New Articles
i100... with this review
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

    Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

    £22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

    SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

    £1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

    Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

    £32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam