Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Olympic Countdown

Since this article first appeared a lot of new information has been revealed and new research has been carried out. This article should be seen as a mere snapshot of the information known at the date of its publication. Several facts may now be outdated or inaccurate.

Before I move on from the 1936 Berlin Olympics there’s one more athlete at those games who deserves a mention.

Dora Ratjen (1918-2008) was a German athlete who came 4th in the high jump. In 1938 she won the gold medal and world record at the European championships. But later that year she was arrested because police believed she was man dressed as a women (a criminal offence at the time). An examination proved that Dora was indeed physically more of a man than a woman, but there was enough reason to believe why he was declared female at birth. Intersex babies were often more easily identifiable than Dora had been, and his gender had posed a problem to the midwife. On 28th February I’ll go into more detail about how this could happen.

At the trial the judge said that Dora couldn’t be found guilty of fraud because he had always been led to believe he was female. Subsequently Dora changed all official documents to show himself as male and adopted the name Heinrich. He agreed to stop participating in sport and returned his European gold medal. In the film “Berlin 36” Heinrich’s experiences in the Olympics were fictionalised to show he was forced to compete as a woman by the Nazis. This is untrue.

The Olympics don’t have any more positively confirmed lgbt competitors until 1956 when we reach the Winter Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. Here we meet our first identified lgbt Winter Olympian, Ronnie Robertson (1938-2000). Ronnie Robertson is the first in a long line of gay male ice skaters, who make up the largest group in an Olympic winter sport (13 positively identified to date, plus 3 possible others).

In the 1950s three men dominated American figure skating – Ronnie Robertson and the Jenkins brothers, Hayes and David. At the 1956 games they finished 2nd, 1st and 3rd respectively. The competition was so close that the judges took 2 hours to decide there was only 0.07 of 1 point between gold and silver positions. Having come 2nd behind Hayes Jenkins twice more that winter Ronnie decided to turn professional.

As is often the case with sportsmen Ronnie took up skating as a child to improve his health. By the age of 14 he was US Junior Champion. It was on the US skating circuit that Ronnie met Art Gelien who was a junior pairs skating champion. They became a couple not long afterwards.

Art was also an aspiring actor and singer, and very soon he became much in demand in the 1950s, and from his earnings from acting Art helped to finance Ronnie’s training. These earnings were quite substantial, as Art was the biggest Hollywood teen idol of the 1950s with millions of teenage girls swooning over him. He acted under the name of Tab Hunter.

Art accompanied Ronnie to the 1955 World Championships and on the subsequent world tour. At the 1956 Olympics Ronnie won the silver medal. I am unsure if Tab Hunter was there to support him. Their relationship petered out after that. Ronnie Robertson died 12 years ago last Saturday at the age of 62.

Later in 1956 the Olympics moved south of the equator for the first time for the summer games in Melbourne, Australia. One of the competitors was 17-year-old American swimmer Susan Gray, the earliest surviving lgbt Olympian (2 weeks ago I found out that I am related to her – we both descend from the Gawkroger Platts family of Yorkshire). What gives Susan another place in the history of lgbt Olympics is her involvement in the Gay Games.

At the first Gay Games in 1982 the games founder, Tom Waddell, persuaded two fellow Olympians to take part. One was hammer thrower George Frenn (who was straight), and the other was Susan Gray (by then Mrs. Susan McGreivy). George and Susan acted as torch bearers at the Gay Games opening ceremony.

Susan McGreivy was a lawyer by profession, by 1984 working for the American Civil Liberties Union. It was in this capacity that she was involved in the long battle between the Gay Games and the US Olympic Committee over the use of the name “Gay Olympics”, which is how the games were originally marketed. I’ll return to this legal battle in April.

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