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Margaret Lambert’s Lost Olympic Story

German Jewish high jumper barred from the 1936 Games gets her due in Olympic Channel documentary

Stephanie Butnick
November 13, 2017
Bettman/Courtesy of Olympic Channel
Greta BergmannBettman/Courtesy of Olympic Channel
Bettman/Courtesy of Olympic Channel
Greta BergmannBettman/Courtesy of Olympic Channel

You’ve probably never heard the story of Margaret Lambert, or Greta Bergmann, as she was known in her native Germany. Born in 1914 in Laupheim, a town in Southwest Germany, Bergmann quickly made a name for herself as a track-and-field star with a specialty in the high jump. But in the 1930s, as Hitler and the Nazi party rose to power, everything changed. Her admission to the University of Berlin was withdrawn, and in 1934 she moved to England for college, winning the British women’s high jump championship the following year.

And then she was called back to Germany with an unusual and threatening mandate: The Nazis wanted her to try out for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Facing international pressure for hosting the Olympics while openly persecuting huge portions of their population, the Nazis needed to create at least the appearance of tolerance. Which meant they needed a prominent Jewish athlete like Bergman. She returned to Germany and set a record at the final Olympic trials—held in Adolf Hitler Stadium.

But her hopes of competing in the Olympics were soon dashed. Only days before the Games began, the German Olympic committee told her she didn’t make the team. She left for the United States in 1937, married fellow German Jewish runner Bruno Lambert, and never looked back. When she died in July of this year, she was 103 years old.

A new documentary, The Margaret Lambert Story, now airing on the Olympic Channel as the first installment in their Foul Play series, gives Lambert the spotlight she has long deserved. It’s not the first effort to bring Lambert’s story to the masses. Writer Molly Lambert, Margaret’s granddaughter, eloquently told her story in the New Yorker last month.

Margaret Lambert waited more than 80 years to have her Olympic moment. The least you can do is cheer her on. Watch the documentary online here.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.