Tuesday 11 February 2014

Remembrance : So Very Nearly the First Openly Gay Olympic Champion

Otto Peltzer could easily have become the first openly gay Olympic champion in 1936. The reason why he didn’t was because he was a victim on the Nazi persecution of gay men. I gave a brief story of his life in my original Olympic Countdown series in 2012. Today I’ll take a look at how high he climbed in German athletics and the depths to which he was plunged by persecution.

The best place to start is 1926 and Otto’s success as an athlete. He entered the Amateur Athletics Association championships in London. This was not long after German athletes were welcomed back into international competition after being banned since World War I. Also present at the championships was the reigning Olympic 800m champion, the UK’s Douglas Lowe. Otto beat him, breaking the world record in the process.

Otto returned to Germany as the country’s new star athlete. A few months later a specially arranged 1500m race was set up between Otto and a select group of top runners, including the legendary Olympian Paavo Nurmi of Finland. In a nail-biting finish Otto passed Nurmi on the final bend and crossed the line in another world record time.

Before the end of 1927 Otto had broken German records in 500m, 600m, 800m, 1000m, 1500m, 2000m, 850 yards, and 400m hurdles, and held 5 world records. His international celebrity was such that when the German team visited the USA in 1927 Otto was the only one to be invited to meet the President.

After he was chosen national team captain by his fellow athletes for the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics Otto criticised the way athletes were treated. The German Olympic committee threw him off the team, at which the rest of the team declared “If he goes, we all go”. Needless to say, Otto was reinstated. He was chosen as the German team captain again for the 1932 Los Angles games.

The following year Hitler came to power and began his regime of hatred. The 1870 German statute against sodomy, known as Paragraph 157, was revised and violently enforced.

In 1935 Otto was arrested on suspicion of homosexual contact with young athletes. He was taken to Gestapo HQ and interrogated by none other than Heinrich Himmler. Fortunately, an influential friend, a high ranking doctor in the Nazi Party, succeeded in gaining Otto’s release, but a couple of months later he was rearrested and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Himmler was determined NOT to allow any possibility of Otto, a “sodomite”, becoming the German team captain again at the forthcoming home Olympics in Berlin in 1936.

Although Otto wasn’t sent to a labour camp (this time) he was forced to wear an identifying badge with the letter “A”, signifying the German word “arschficker” (you can probably work out the English translation).

Just 2 days before the Berlin Olympics began Otto was released early from prison. He was forced to sign a declaration stating that he would not take part in German sport again. Otto returned to his old athletics club and became an unofficial trainer. This displeased the Nazis and he was arrested for the 3rd time in 1937. Once again he found himself being interrogated at Gestapo HQ, and once again his old doctor friend stepped in. This time Otto was ordered to leave the country, and if he ever criticised the Nazis his family would be imprisoned.

When World War II broke out Otto was in Sweden. He began writing sports articles and training at several sports clubs. Some of his articles were scathing of German athletes and praised non-German athletes as being better. The Nazis were still working on ways to stop his actions for good, and tried to have Otto expelled from Sweden.

In the end the Nazis appeared to give up. Otto was given reassurances from the Gestapo that all charges against him would be dropped if he returned to Germany and kept out of sport. Naïvely, Otto agreed, but as soon as he set foot on German soil the SS arrested him for the 4th time, this time as an “incorrigible enemy of the Reich”. He was sent to Mauthausen labour camp as a political prisoner.

Mauthausen was also known as Mordhausen – the “Murder Houses”. A large quarry was filled with other prisoners breaking and carrying large rocks. The tall sides of the quarry were called “Parachute’s Wall”, because the prison guards threw weakened prisoners from the top to their deaths. When Otto arrived he believed he was only there for 3 months “re-education”, but the camp commandant laughed and pointed to a chimney and told Otto he’d probably be out in less. Otto was beaten regularly by the guards, and forced to carry heavy stones up hills for 8 hours at a time. Unlike many he survived to the end of the war, and when the camp was liberated by the Americans in 1945 Otto was just skin and bone.

Holocaust survivors are often resilient – they had to be to get though it all. So it is astonishing that 6 months after liberation and subsequent hospitalisation Otto completed a 5000m run in a time of 17 minutes 28 seconds!

Otto’s competitive career may have been over, but for the rest of his life he trained many successful athletes, especially members of the Indian Olympic team. His achievements and life after the war are subjects more suitable for another time.

But a postscript to all this is that in 1999 the German athletic association, the DLV, created the Otto Peltzer Medal, an honour to be awarded to athletes who have made significant contributions to German athletics and sport.

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