The Curious Case of Stella Walsh

The recent hubbub about the female (?) runner from South Africa, Caster Semenya, and whether she is or is not actually a woman, got me thinking about the true pioneer of gender hijinx in track and field, the Polish-born, former Olympic gold-medalist Stanisława Walasiewicz, known here in the States as Stella Walsh. ↵On December 4, 1980, at the age of 69, Walsh was killed as an innocent bystander to a robbery attempt in Cleveland. It was a tragic death, and one that led to a most bizarre discovery. ↵Walasiewicz’s family emigrated to the U.S. when she was an infant. Ineligible for the U.S. Olympic team due to her lack of citizenship, she started running and training in Poland in the '20s, where she became an international star. Her crowning glory came at the 1932 Summer Games in L.A., where she won the gold medal in the women’s 100 meters, tying the world record in the process. At the 1936 Games, she won the silver in the 100m, coming in second behind Helen Stephens of the U.S. In the charged climate of the Nazi Olympics, Stephens was accused of being a man, a charge that Walasiewicz ironically seconded. Stephens was forced to submit to genital inspection to prove her gender, and she came out with flying colors – all woman. ↵

↵Walasiewicz continued her career on the track until the 1950’s, even winning a U.S. national title in 1951, when she was 40 years old. In 1975, she was inducted in the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame. At that point, she was an active leader in all sorts of Polish-American youth and sporting associations, endeavors that she continued until her untimely death in 1980. ↵During a routine autopsy of Walasiewicz’s body, it was discovered that she possessed male genitalia. A more detailed investigation also revealed that she possessed the male XY chromosome. Based on these facts, she would have been ruled ineligible to compete in women’s events, and there was brief but spirited debate in the IOC about the possibility of posthumously rescinding her medals before the matter was dropped altogether. ↵

↵

↵Gender tests became mandatory in the Olympics starting in 1968, spurred by the discovery at the 1967 European Championships that another Polish sprinter, Ewa Klobukowska, possessed the male chromosome. Klobukowska was subsequently stripped of the gold and bronze medal that she won at the 1964 Tokyo Games. Sadly, this was a heinous injustice -- tests ultimately proved that Klobukowska’s chromosome was not the male XY but in fact a genetic mutation, XXY, that in no way affected her gender or sex organs. A mystery remains, however, about the Ukrainian sisters, Tamara and Irina Press, who won five Olympic gold medals between them in track and field in the 1960s but instantly disappeared from the scene when mandatory gender testing was enacted. It is widely believed that both were hermaphrodites, although Russia denies any such allegation to this day. ↵

↵

↵Olympic gender testing was halted at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 due to pressure from the athletes, and the IAAF stopped the practice at international events in the early '90s after concluding that gender tests were no longer needed. It did, however, retain the right to initiate a gender test if suspicions were aroused, lest another athlete try to pull a Stella Walsh. Caster Semenya is the first case in which the IAAF has invoked that right since stopping widespread gender tests. ↵

↵

This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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