Tim Pears: Otto the strange ... The champion who defied the Nazis

Roundup: Talking About History

Otto Peltzer was a German track hero in the Twenties, was vilified and jailed for his sexuality in the Thirties, survived a death camp in the Forties, then found a remarkable new life in the Sixties. Tim Pears tells the unknown story of the world-record holder who stayed true to the amateur ideal.


In 1962 the male athletes of East and West Germany toured Asia. At the Rome Olympics two years earlier the united team had won six track medals, including gold in the 4x100m and silver in the 4x400m relays. Now the Teutonic superstars travelled the East, displaying their prowess to one undeveloped sporting nation after another. India was one of those nations. India sent few athletes to the Olympics. They only ever won one medal per Games - although it was generally gold - in the men's hockey.

The Germans arrived in Delhi, for a two-day competition, and found to their surprise that the Indians were not the humble, easygoing athletes they had expected, but tenacious competitors who matched them in event after event, and particularly the relays. At the end of the second day the Germans, to their disbelief, had been beaten. The other thing that puzzled them was that the Indians were trained by a haggard, 62-year-old German, unknown to most of the visitors' entourage. One or two of its older members did recognise him: journalist Adolf Metzner published an article in Die Zeit called 'Yogi with Prussian Eagle'.

'Today the former German champion runner lives in the New Delhi stadium and exists on handouts from his charges. All his possessions are in a small suitcase. He suffers from the terrible heat in summer, and is bothered by mosquitoes and dogs. As possessed as ever, he gives advice to anyone who seeks it. When the Indian government gave him an honorarium of 1,000 rupees after the Rome Olympics, he gave it to the victims of a flood. The Indians venerate him like one of their wise men.'

During the Weimar era, Otto Peltzer had been Germany's pre-eminent sportsman. At his peak he held the national record in eight different events, and was world-record holder at three middle distances. Captain of the 1928 and 1932 Olympic teams, Otto was a driven, disputatious man, as unpopular with officialdom as he was popular with his fellow athletes and with the public.

Peltzer also happened to be homosexual, a 'crime' for which he would pay, under the Nazis, a terrible price. He was borne up and then ground under the wheels of European history in the 20th century, at whose beginning he was born. And yet he would survive, and find in India an extraordinary valediction....

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