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Athletics

How Germany's Otto Peltzer fought Nazi oppression to become the first gay athlete in the Olympics

Otto Peltzer, a sporting icon in the 1920s, was tortured by the Nazis for his religious and sexual orientation, and yet managed to survive and create an impact on sports

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Otto Peltzer (Source: racingpast.ca)

By

Eshaan Joshi

Updated: 2021-06-30T19:34:35+05:30

It is not easy to be a minority in one respect, let alone three. The latter was the story of the life of Otto Peltzer, a homosexual German-Jewish who faced childhood ill-health. Peltzer faced severe immunity issues during his childhood, having heart defects, serious hip inflammation, and several other infections. While much of his childhood was spent in isolation, on health grounds, it was his adolescence that saw the German step into the field of sport for the first time.


Peltzer began with Tennis, but could was swayed away by track events, when he saw the runners training at the stadium. He began serious training in 1922, under Martin Brustmann, as he started paying due attention due his diet and training schedule. What followed were 2 years of downright change and improvement, as won consecutive national titles in 1500 m, and a national title in 800 m. While he could not exhibit his exploits, at the 1924 Paris Olympics on account of the ban imposed on Germany, Peltzer beat Olympic silver medalists Willy Schärer (1,500 m) and Paul Martin (800 m) later in the year. Two years down the line, the German etched his name in the record books, by outshining double Olympic medalist Douglas Lowe of Great Britain, and Finnish giant Paavo Nurmi, creating world records in the 800 m and the 1500 m.

The next several years of his life were followed by numerous wins in international heats and races, along with two Olympic heartbreaks, on account of pain, injuries and limited resources. With his running prowess being on the decline, Peltzer proceeded to make a career in teaching. However, the ace runner, a known homosexual, was arrested in April 1935, as the Nazi government made the rules against homosexuality increasingly stringent, regarding it as a disgrace to the Aryan race. Peltzer was accused of having homosexual relations with young athletes. Sentenced for a period of 18 months, he was released before the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but prohibited from coaching again. Peltzer, however, persisted, and was arrested again. After a brief period in jail, he was released, at the behest of Martin Brustmann, his coach during his formative years, and was asked to leave the country. The next four years were spent by the sprintster by doing petty jobs to earn his bread.




In 1941, Peltzer was assured of withdrawal of the charges against him, and urged to return to Germany. He was however, arrested yet again, and sent to the deadly Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, a category III camp, which had come to be known by the name 'Murder Houses'. While the fact that he was on a three month re-education was time and again reiterated to him, unimaginable tyranny was inflicted upon him. Peltzer managed to survive in the camp for a period of 4 years, till it was liberated.

The post World War II Germany, too, did not offer warmth to the once fabled national sporting icon, as the hunt for offenders of the laws of homosexuality was on. It was then that Peltzer travelled to India, and undertook some jobs in the country, before becoming an Athletics coach, who would create a crop of athletes which would go ahead and defeat the German contingent in the years to come.

While his fatherland could not nurture and extract the most of his sporting talents, the melting pot of India was where Peltzer found shelter, and created athletes and athletic practices which were of high pedigree.

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