Friday 27 January 2012

The Holocaust Olympics

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 Several facts may now be outdated or inaccurate.

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day when we remember the sacrifices of the many millions of victims of the Nazis. In Olympic history the opposing sides come together at the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympics. Two gay men show up the hypocrisy of the Nazis, in that one man became persecuted while another became a Nazi hero.

I mentioned Niels Bukh last time, and I’ll return to him in a couple of days. But today I want to concentrate on the Nazi victim, Otto Peltzer, the earliest identified gay Olympian.

Otto Peltzer was born in 1900. For a man who was an unhealthy child with a heart defect it is remarkable that he became a European and world record holder in the 800m. Whilst studying at university (ironically earning a doctorate in Social Politics) Otto became interested in sport, but for some reason was so embarrassed that he didn’t tell his family until he won his first German championship in 1922. After that Otto’s athletic career went from strength to strength.

Germany was banned from the 1920 and 1924 Olympics following World War I (the IOC bringing politics into sport). Otto was seen as the Great Hope of Germany when the country was allowed back into the Olympic movement and was chosen as team captain for the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. But an injury sustained in a handball game stopped Otto from progressing any further than the semi-finals.

Four years later Otto was chosen again as team captain for the Los Angeles Olympics. This time it was the provision of the wrong spikes on running shoes that prevented any German, including Otto, from winning any track medals.

The next year Hitler began his rise to power. The laws against homosexuality were strengthened and vigorously enforced. Otto was arrested in 1935 and imprisoned for 18 months. He was released early, 2 days before the Berlin Olympics began, on condition that he ceased all involvement in sport. Unfortunately, he took up an unofficial coaching position and was rearrested in 1937. He was kept at Gestapo HQ for 3 weeks before being released and told to never set foot in Germany again.

Otto travelled around northern Europe in poverty for several years. In 1941 the German authorities promised to drop all charges against him and he returned to his homeland. As soon as he set foot on German soil he was arrested and sent to KZ Mauthausen labour camp, where “extermination through labour” led to the huts being called “The Murder Houses”. Otto was to remain there until it was liberated by US troops in 1945.

After the war homosexuality in Germany remained illegal and Otto Peltzer, unlike the Jews, was still being persecuted. Finding work as a trainer was difficult and obstacles were put deliberately in his way. It was the rumour of his imminent arrest that forced Otto to leave Germany in 1956, using the Melbourne Olympics as the means to escape by taking a job as a reporter.

Otto remained outside Europe for many years, eventually finding success in India as a trainer and founder of the Olympic Youth Delhi athletic club (now the Otto Peltzer Memorial Athletic Club). Several of it’s athletes became national champions and Olympic competitors.

Otto survived a heart attack in 1967 and returned to Germany for treatment. During a training session in 1970 Otto Peltzer collapsed and died of another heart attack.

Otto’s memory faded, at least outside India, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that his sporting achievements were recognised in Germany. In 1999 the Otto Peltzer Medal was established, awarded only to a select few who have provided distinguished contributions to German athletics.

An exhibition is currently being held at the Memorial of the Shoah in Paris. “European Sport Under Nazism: From the Olympic Games in Berlin to the London Olympics (1936-1948)” goes into quite a lot of detail about how sport was used as propaganda. The exhibition ends on 28th March. Their website is

No comments:

Post a Comment