Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Did you know that the youngest individual Olympic medal winner* in history gained her title during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin? In August 1936 Inge Sørensen, born on July 18, 1924 in Denmark (she died in 2011 in the USA), climbed onto the podium to receive her bronze medal for the 200 meters breaststroke race won at the brand new Olympia-Schwimmstadion: at that moment she was exactly 12 years and 24 days old.
The “Little Lovely Inge” as she was dubbed by the media came third after a Japanese swimmer and gold medal winner, Hideko Maehata, and a German Martha Genenger. Famously, during the medal ceremony as the three of them stood on the podium to receive their awards while Hitler greeted and paid his respect to the winners by stretching his right arm in a Nazi salute, only one of the three sportswomen responded with what is now known as the “Hitler Grüß” (Hitler salute/greeting).
Hideko Maehata took a traditional low Japanese bow with her hands busy holding a ceramic pot with an oak tree sapling, Olympia-Eiche, which each of the gold-medal winners in Berlin received as a souvenir. With Japanese tradition requiring that gifts always be held with both hands (one hand would be a sign of disrespect to the person offering the present), Miss Maehata had no other choice but to willy-nilly refrain from following the example of the gathered crowds.
Like many other German sportsmen and sportswomen at the time, Martha Genenger – who since 1934 had held the title of the European Champion in 200 m breaststroke and would go on to break two world records later – had no second thoughts about stretching her arm to greet the Führer.
However, the 12-year-old Inge received the honours standing upright with her both arms held firmly down. Of course, considering her young age it is rather unlikely that this act of defiance was a conscious rebellion against the rising Nazi threat and that Inge came up with the idea on her own. Rather, as other Danish swimmers reported, those were the girl’s parents who strongly disliked the idea of their child performing the Nazi salute.
When the war began, Inge’s family – true to their principles – consequently discouraged her from participating in any events or competitions organised by Hitler’s regime. They did so despite repeated invitations and cajoling: the Nazis wished to have Inge become part of their race propaganda and play the role of a perfect Nordic girl being perfectly streamlined, sporty and “Aryan”. Unlike most other Danish swimmers, the girl consequently refused.
The image of a blond, slightly frightened and deeply moved 12-year-old girl standing up straight on the Olympic podium in a sports stadium full of uniforms and raised single arms is among the most powerful symbols of silent defiance in one of the darkest chapters in our history.
*Luigina Giavotti often quoted as the youngest Olympic medallist in history – she was 11 years and 302 days old as she won silver during the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam – got her medal not individually but as part of the Italian gymnastics team.