Hitler? ‘He was just a small man in a big uniform’

With global championship athletics back in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium this week, STEVEN DOWNES speaks to Dorothy Tyler, who competed there in 1936 when she wanted to give Hitler a slap

Even at 89, Dorothy Tyler still has the nerve of a big-time competitor.

Not so long ago, in front of Princess Anne and more than 500 guests from the highest echelons of British sport at the SJA’s Annual Sports Awards, Tyler, twice an Olympic high jump silver medal-winner, thought nothing of announcing across the crowded room to Dick Fosbury, the man who gave his name to the Flop technique common to the majority of her modern successors, that they were all “cheats”.

“You can’t go over the bar head first,” Tyler said, undaunted even when, as she sat down alongside Dame Mary Peters, she got a tug at her sleeve and Peters told her that she would never have won her Olympic gold medal in 1972 had she not used the Fosbury Flop in her pentathlon competition.

Such a consideration was hardly likely to worry Tyler, who admits that, when a 16-year-old schoolgirl at her first Olympics, in Berlin in 1936, she nervelessly sidled up to Adolf Hitler when at a party thrown for the women competitors by Joszef Goebbels.

What did she make of the Fuehrer? “Just a little man in a big uniform,” she says.

“Someone said that I should have slapped him,” Tyler says, “but I think that might have got me into trouble.”

After 73 years, Tyler’s living memories of that infamous Berlin Olympics are vivid, and rare. Earlier this year one of her team mates from those Games, Godfrey Rampling, the last surviving male athletics gold medallist from “Hitler’s Games”, died, aged 100, leaving Tyler as one of a dwindling band of survivors from another era.

Tyler might have returned to Berlin this week, as a guest of the organisers of the IAAF world championships, but for a previously booked three-week cruise, including a visit to Lerwick to check her husband Richard’s antecedents. “It’s our first holiday since I had a stroke three years ago,” she says.

Tyler’s absence is Berlin’s loss. The Olympiastadion which Hitler ordered to be built may have been significantly re-modelled to host the 2006 World Cup final, but the daunting architectural statement echoes down the decades. Swastikas can still be found around the imposing arena. Some history cannot be erased.

Tyler, as Miss Dorothy Odam, won the high jump silver medal in 1936 and, 12 years later after war, marriage and motherhood, she won the silver medal again.

Her place in sporting trivia is assured because of a change to the high jump countback rule between Berlin and those London “ration-book” Olympics. Had the 1948 rulebook applied in 1936, Tyler would have won the gold in Berlin; yet had the 1936 rules been in force after the war, she would have been Britain’s only athletics gold medallist of those Games staged in her home city.

Little wonder that she has a finely attuned sense of fair play when the subject of high jump regulations comes up. She discovered long ago that speaking up for herself can be useful. In 1939, she broke the world record set seven years earlier by the American, Babe Didriksen, by jumping 1.66 metres, only to have her status snatched away from her weeks later by one of her rivals from the 1936 Olympics, Dora Ratjen.

“They wrote to me telling me I didn’t hold the record, so I wrote to them saying, ‘She’s not a woman, she’s a man’. They did some research and found ‘her’ serving as a waiter called Hermann Ratjen, so I got my world record back again.”

The 1936 British team travelled to Berlin more or less together (“the girls weren’t allowed to travel with the men”) on the boat train. It was Tyler’s first trip abroad. She was housed in a PE college where she and her team mates were watched by three strict, German chaperones, though Tyler wonders now whether they were there just to spy on them.

“When we got there, there were 40-foot Nazi flags everywhere, everyone seemed to be in uniform. It was all very militaristic.

“We were staying in a large dormitory. The first morning, I was woken up by the sound of marching, and outside there were hundreds of Hitler Youth parading.”

As is tradition, even though there were just five individual women’s athletics events on the programme in 1936, the high jump was on the final day of competition. “I always had to wait around all week,” said Tyler. In Berlin for a fortnight, “the only time the chaperones allowed us out, they took us shopping.

“When the shop assistant said “Heil Hitler!”, we just said back: “Hail King George.”

To compete, she wore homemade vest and shorts, and she remembers the high jump area in the stadium as smaller than usual. Because of interruptions from other events and medal ceremonies, her competition under blazing sun lasted three hours. “The German girls got water from the crowd, but we had nothing.

“I didn’t even measure my run up. I just picked a spot, ran and jumped over the bar. It was just something I did.”

Tyler remembers watching the sprint relays, “When the German girls dropped the baton, you could see Hitler – he nearly had a fit.”

During the war that followed, Tyler’s Mitcham home was bombed out, and she joined up as an auxiliary lorry driver. Afterwards, in an era of strict sporting amateurism, she took a secretarial course, “because secretaries don’t work on Saturdays”, enabling her to prolong her track career. She established a record of competing for Britain at four Olympics, through to 1956.

Still, today, Tyler competes, but now at golf near her home in Sanderstead, Surrey. She has three times won the national over-80s championship, “though since I had the stroke I only play three times a week”, she says.

Is there anything she was not good at? “I wasn’t any good at typing.”

For the high jump: Dorothy Tyler, centre, pictured at last November’s SJA British Sports Awards in London together with Dick Fosbury, the 1968 Olympic high jump champion, and 2008 Olympic 400m gold medallist Christine Ohuruogu

Picture by Steve Rowe/SJA. Other images courtesy the Croydon Guardian and Dorothy Tyler

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