Amazing tale of man called Hermann who finished fourth in women's high jump

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The letter which the postman delivered in autumn 1934 was a summons to four days of Olympic training. The 20-year-old who received it – a leggy high jumper called Gretel Bergmann – ought to have been delighted, because it seemed to open the way to the German team for the Berlin Games, less than two years away. She had no way of knowing that, far from picking her, the Germans would indulge in one of the most cold-blooded, disgraceful deceptions in Olympic history – picking a man for the women's high jump.

The letter began "Heil Hitler!" but since it was official that didn't matter. All official letters began like that. There was something which did matter, though. She was Jewish.

Bergmann lived in Laupheim, a small town in the south-west of Germany which had a settled Jewish community. Hitler had assumed power in 1933, and anti-Semitism became government policy. She saw park signs saying "No Jews or dogs allowed" and had friends who suddenly didn't talk to her.

The Berlin Games were awarded to the city before Hitler came to power but they offered a chance to parade the wonders of the Third Reich before the world. Hitler liked that.

Any suggestion that the Germans would not pick Jews for their team brought two risks: the International Olympic Committee could strip Berlin of the Games and the United States could institute a boycott. In the previous Games in Los Angeles, the US won 103 medals, with a mere 21 for Germany. Berlin without the Americans would be devalued. Hitler did not like that.

It was what brought the letter to Bergmann. Her presence at the training camp would reassure the IOC, the US and other countries with deep misgivings. "My emotions were torn this way and that," she wrote in her autobiography, 'By Leaps And Bounds'.

In spring 1936, another letter arrived – she had been picked for the Olympics. By now she was the German record-holder and regularly roomed at training camps with her fellow high-jumper Dora Ratjen. Bergmann told me: "I never suspected anything. I just said, 'She's kind of weird' but she was a nice kid. We got along very well.

"I never looked when she undressed or most likely she never got undressed in front of me completely. We had this huge shower room and we all took showers in there and she never came in, always went into this little room which had a bath. That was supposed to beoff-limits, but she went in there.

"All the girls thought she was a little unusual – pretty deep voice – and they made fun of her." There was a reason. Ratjen was a man called Hermann, a member of the Hitler Youth who had been ordered to pose as a woman or else – and "or else" was not something you wanted to explore in Nazi Germany.

The fact that he was always delegated to room with Bergmann puzzled her. She only worked it out years later. Ratjen was 17 and it might have been "too much of a temptation" for a young man with a "healthy sex drive to be in a room with a female – except for a Jewish one. Sexual intercourse between Jews and Gentiles was a major offence and a one-way ticket to a concentration camp". Ratjen never dared touch her.

Bergmann's last letter was delivered on 16 July, 1936, the day after the US team sailed from New York. It said she had not made the team. Ratjen made it, though. The motivation for picking him seems plain: as a man he would clearly beat the women, get gold for the glory of the Reich and the "or else" would include keeping his mouth shut afterwards.

There is a beautiful irony. On the last day of track and field at the 1936 Games, Ratjen finished fourth in the women's high jump and so did not even get a medal. The British competitor Dorothy Odham, who took silver, said she always felt sure Dora was a man – even though he bound his private parts tight to conceal them. He was uncovered returning from the European Championships in Vienna in 1938, where he had broken the women's world record. At a train station in Germany, two ladies noticed him in a skirt but with a five o'clock shadow. A doctor was summoned, he lifted the skirt and Ratjen's career was over.

By then Gretel Bergmann had emigrated to New York with her fiancé, Bruno Lambert, which is why, still hale and hearty at 94, she is known as Margaret Lambert – Gretel was her nickname. She only discovered the truth about Ratjen in 1966 when, waiting at a dentist's, she picked up a copy of 'Time' magazine and found a story about how the IOC were introducing sex tests for women. Next to it she saw a picture of Ratjen. She burst out laughing.

She vowed that she would never go back to Germany, but she relented in 1999 when the stadium in Laupheim was renamed in her honour. After all those years, she neededan interpreter.

Christopher Hilton is the author of 'Hitler's Olympics' (Sutton Publishing, £20)

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