Gender ideals in sports in Germany before the Nazis

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:


He completed his Ph.D. in 1925, and the following year he dashed to global fame, competing in seventy-six races, achieving four national records, three world records, and beating two reigning Olympic champions. His racing style was brash and incautious, reckless even, relying on his blistering pace on the home straight to seal victory. It mirrored his combative personality; his on-track success was accompanied by stories of frequent confrontations with coaches, teammates, opponents, and the stuffed blazers who ran German athletics and whom Peltzer openly defied and derided for their conservatism.

If few athletes have enjoyed such a stellar season, fewer still have so personified their era. To millions, he was a new type of hero for a new type of Germany: modern, expressive, individualistic, one who could do battle against other nations without doing harm. As sleek and rapid as the Mercedes-Benz cars that began tumbling off the production lines that same year, Peltzer, the spiky intellectual turned sporting showman, embodied the preoccupations of Weimar Berlin as much as a Weill score, a Brecht play, or a Dietrich movie. The moment seemed to be in his very bones. With long, loping limbs, and milk-white skin stretched like Saran Wrap around his skinny frame, the man whose family called him “The Stork” was an intriguing new model of masculine perfection in a time and place when the norms of physical beauty, sexual desire, and gender identity were being tossed into the air. The playful androgyny that generations of artists, from Auden to Bowie, have found in Berlin’s nightspots was plainly evident in its stadiums, too. As Erik Jensen’s studies of Weimar relate, writers welcomed the rise of track and field jocks—not just Peltzer, but also “slender, quick-as-an-arrow … taut-breasted girls.” They seemed daring, transgressive, and conspicuously unlike the Siegfrieds and Brünnhildes that had previously been the German models of male and female.

Peltzer was thrust into a welter of new ideas and competing sexual philosophies. In 1919, Magnus Hirschfeld, a torchbearer in German gay rights advocacy, had founded his Institute of Sexology, which sought to uncover the scientific secrets of human sexuality and also offered sex therapy and education, medical treatment, and family planning to anyone who wanted it. Like the Olympians, Hirschfeld drew inspiration from both razor-edge modernity and classical Greece. After publishing an influential pamphlet titled Sappho and Socrates, he’d devoted himself to attempting to overturn Paragraph 175, the notorious section of the German penal code that outlawed male homosexuality. Hirschfeld argued that gay men were a third sex, innately effeminate and genetically distinct from “ordinary” men. It was only one theory circulating among Berlin’s gay activists; others looked to examples from Greek history to claim that homosexual men were actually more masculine than heterosexual ones. After all, the indomitable warriors of Sparta—so admired by Hitler—proudly took male lovers.