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Sport

Swimming legend dies

Nazi sympathiser set 44 world records in a career cruelly interrupted by the war


Hveger (r) was barred from participating in the 1948 Olympics, most likely due to her Nazi sympathies, but went on to clear her name and swim in the 1952 Games at the age of 31 (Photo: Scanpix)

December 11, 2011
00:00

by Ben Hamilton


Ragnhild Hveger, a legend of Danish swimming, has died at the age of 90. During an illustrious career interrupted by the Second World War she set 44 world records, but the closest she came to an Olympic title was a silver in 1936, aged just 15.

By the time the next Olympics came along in 1948, she was still highly competitive at the age of 27. But the Danish sports authorities barred her from taking part due to her making a professional living out of the sport whilst abroad, firstly in Kiel in Germany during the war, and then after the war in Sweden. The ban was probably influenced by her family’s membership of the Nazi party, her marriage to a German officer, and her participation in Nazi propaganda swimming events – all of which led to her being interned for six weeks following the end of the war.

It took her a long time to recover her reputation in Denmark, but she still went on to represent her country at the 1952 Olympics in nearby Helsinki where she came fifth in the 400m freestyle – in a time quicker than her swim in 1936 - and helped the 400m freestyle relay team to fourth.

But in the end, three golds at the 1938 European Championships remained the pinnacle of her career. Nevertheless, she continued to pick up awards after retiring. In 1966 she was inducted into swimming’s hall of fame in Fort Lauderdale, USA, and in 1996, the Danish Olympic Committee declared her sportswoman of the century.

Hveger’s career was very much in contrast to that of ‘Little Captivating Inge’ Sørensen, a fellow competitor at the Berlin Olympics who died in March at the age of 86. Sørensen captured the hearts of her fellow countrymen when she refused to heil Hitler on the winners’ podium in Berlin after winning a bronze medal at the age of 12.

And then, when Hveger and fellow swimmer Jenny Kammersgaard willingly took part in Nazi-organised swimming competitions to underline the perfection of the Aryan race, Sørensen refused to take part. It was never clear whether it was an act of conscience – Hveger complained that Sørensen’s parents would not let her.

Perhaps ironically, while Hveger went on to live and die in Denmark, Sørensen, the darling of her nation, emigrated to the USA in 1951.
 



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