Hermann Ratjen alias "Dora Ratjen"
Dora Ratjen competing in 1937.

When the child was born, the midwife told the expected parents, “It’s a boy!” Then a few minutes later, the midwife said, “it’s a girl, after all.”

Dora Ratjen was born on November 20, 1918. When she was in her teenage years, Ratjen began to compete in sports, strong enough to take fourth place at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the high jump. And at the age of 20, she won a gold medal at the European Athletics Championships with a world record high jump of 1.67 meters. But the previous world record holder, Dorothy Tyler-Odam, said what everyone else thought, “she’s not a woman, she’s a man.”

On September 21, 1939, a train conductor reported that there was a man dressed as a woman in his train. Ratjen was pulled off the train and questioned by the police. He showed official papers that proved his female gender, but a doctor quickly concluded that Ratjen was a man. The German government returned Ratjen’s gold medal. As it turned out, Dora Ratjen had always thought he was a man, and eventually changed his name to Heinrich, a name he had until he passed away in 2008. In 2009, the German magazine, Der Spiegel, revealed these details about Ratjen’s sexual ambiguity.

Hermann Ratjen alias "Dora Ratjen"

The New York Times recently had a fantastic piece on gender ambiguity, and the humiliation a small group of athletes have had to endure to confirm their gender. The truth is, it is not clear cut as to whether certain people are definitively a man or a woman. Tests over the decades have looked at chromosomes, hormones, genetalia or reproductive organs, but there are still many cases where the gender of a given person is unclear. According to the Times, experts use the term “intersex” to describe such cases, but that may be the only thing they agree upon.

Estimates of the number of intersex people vary widely, ranging from one in 5,000 to one in 60, because experts dispute which of the myriad conditions to include and how to tally them accurately. Some intersex women, for instance, have XX chromosomes and ovaries, but because of a genetic quirk are born with ambiguous genitalia, neither male nor female. Others have XY chromosomes and undescended testes, but a mutation affecting a key enzyme makes them appear female at birth; they’re raised as girls, though at puberty, rising testosterone levels spur a deeper voice, an elongated clitoris and increased muscle mass. Still other intersex women have XY chromosomes and internal testes but appear female their whole lives, developing rounded hips and breasts, because their cells are insensitive to testosterone. They, like others, may never know their sex development was unusual, unless they’re tested for infertility — or to compete in world-class sports.

Over the decades, there have been plenty of claims of gender cheating in sport. People say, if she looks like a man, he must be a man. And due to the measures of testing in the past, women have had to go through humiliating tests, and have been shamed as cheats, Polish sprinter, Ewa Klobukowska, a case in point in the 1960s.

But there is a blurred space between men and women, an area still not fully understood by scientists or authorities – the intersex gender.

Halina Górecka and Ewa Kłobukowska 1964
Ewa Kłobukowska in 1964

Can you come in second and still set a world record? In the 1960s, the answer was “Yes”.

Take a close look at the table below. The winners of the Women’s 4X100 relay at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was Poland, followed quickly by the United States and Great Britain.

4x100 womens relay 1964 results table

Do you see it?

That’s right. A world record was set at the Tokyo Games, but it was credited to the United States team with a time of 43.9 seconds, this despite Poland’s faster time of 43.6 seconds.

While Poland’s anchor, Ewa Klobukowska finished 0.3 seconds ahead of US anchor Edith McGuire, it took McGuire and the US team another three years to overtake Klobukowska and the Poland team. And it happened under unusual circumstances.

Klubowska, seen here triumphantly at the end of the 1964 4×100 relay finals, was a year away from achieving Olympic glory at the 1968 Mexico City Games when she failed a gender test. There was significant attention given to female athletes, particularly those from the Soviet bloc nations, due to physically masculine characteristics. Due to the failed test, she was unceremoniously banned from competing in athletics. She was not accused of doping, but instead was found to have “one chromosome too many”, as the IAAF put it at the time.

As we learn in school, men have a combination of one X and one Y chromosome, while women have two X chromosomes. Apparently, Klobukowska was found in 1967 to have, as Wikipedia put it, “a genetic mosaic of XX/XXY”. But the science of gender genetics was advancing quickly, and a year later a different test was used to determine gender, one called the Barr Body test. A Barr Body, as far as I can understand it, is a cell that has more than one X chromosome. In other words, women would have Barr Bodies, while men would not.

From the Mexico City Games in 1968, the International Olympic Committee began using the Barr Body test. If Klobukowska had been tested in 1968 instead of 1967, it would have been revealed that she had a Barr Body despite the additional “Y” chromosome, and thus should have been classified as female.

Ewa Klobukowska portrait

When Klobukowska was tested in 1967, and found to have a Y chromosome, the IOC ruled that the Poland team could remain gold-medal champions in their 1964 race, but that their world record time would be discounted. Since the time of the silver-medal team from US was also faster than the previous world record, they were granted recognition of having broken the record. Perhaps IOC’s decision was an acknowledgement of the inexact science that was (and is) gender genetics. But the test revelation created a cloud of shame over Klobukowska, in hindsight, one that should have never emerged.

One unanswered question for me – if the Barr Body test in 1968 would likely have not resulted in Klobukowska’s ban, why does the IOC not restore Poland’s world record time in 1964?

One of my go-to books for great images from the Tokyo Olympics is the coffee table to me, “Tokyo Olympiad 1964” published by the Kyodo News Agency. On one page, the book tells a wonderful story about the joy of victory through three fantastic pictures.

Ewa Klobukowska anchored a Polish women’s team that won gold in the 4 X 100 relay race, and set a world record time of 43.0 seconds, defeating the American and British teams that took silver and bronze respectively. Klobukowska, who also took bronze in the women’s 100 meter compeition, was so happy in victory that when requested by an official to return the baton, she didn’t want to give it back. I’ve provided the captions from the book below.

“Hannah, we’ve made it.” Poland’s anchor Eva Klobukowska (center) embraces Teresa Barbara Ciepla (extreme right), excited over the world record their team set in the Women’s 400 M Relay.
“Say, young lady, you can’t take it with you!”
“But I want to. I love this baton.” – Poland’s Eva Klobukowska.

“Eva, give it to me.” Poland’s Teresa Barbara Ciepla takes the baton past the official into the dugout.

Five years later,