The Olympic Sprinter Who Nearly Lost Her Medals Because of Her Autopsy
In April 1911, a baby was born in a small village in tsarist Poland. Her parents named her Stanislawa, and that summer, at the tail end of the first large wave of pre-World War I Polish immigration to the United States, Julian and Weronika Walasiewiczowna packed up their daughter and moved to Ohio. They anglicized their surname to Walsh to better fit in and shortened their daughter's name to Stasia and, later, Stella. The family settled into a Cleveland neighborhood called Slavic Village, Julian found a solid job in a steel mill, and the couple had two more American-born daughters.
Little Stella grew up a girl stuck between identities—the Midwestern American life was the only one she knew, and yet when her athletic prowess catapulted her to international acclaim, she was forced to compete for the country of her birth. After decades of fighting for the chance to represent the United States at the Olympic games, she was never able to live out her dream of winning a medal for the stars and stripes.
But, unbeknownst to most (though speculation abounded), Stella Walsh was also physically stuck between identities. The world was shocked when, following her murder in a mugging gone awry, her autopsy revealed that Walsh had ambiguous genitalia. For the woman once regarded as the world's greatest female athlete, questions arose as to the legitimacy of her titles, and her integrity after a lifetime of living and competing as a woman.
A BULLY FOR "BULL MONTANA"
At her Cleveland high school in the 1920s, Stella matured into an athletic superstar. She played on numerous sports teams—including the boys' baseball team—and amassed an impressive collection of ribbons, trophies, and medals from track meets. She had a distinctly masculine appearance, however, and other students teased her for it. At 5 feet 9 inches, her stocky build, muscular arms, and thick neck earned her the macho nickname of Bull Montana—a reference to the contemporary wrestler/actor Lewis Montagna who went by the same name. She was bullied, but she also proved time and again that she was the best athlete around.
After high school, Walsh took a job as a file clerk for the New York Central Railroad, but sports continued to be her passion, and she joined her employer's athletic association. Although she was a Polish—not American—citizen, she competed in track and field events in international competitions in both Poland and the United States, winning gold medals for running and the long jump. In 1930, her time of 6 seconds broke the world record for the 50-yard dash at the Millrose Games in New York City, and she quickly became a local celebrity in Cleveland, appearing frequently in the sports section of the newspaper and winning the title of "Miss Stadium" in the city's 1931 popularity contest.
THE PURSUIT OF OLYMPIC GLORY
With several world records under her belt and a newfound global audience, Walsh took action to become an American citizen. In 1930 she applied for citizenship with the goal of competing for the U.S. on its home turf of Los Angeles at the 1932 Summer Olympic games. But then the Great Depression hit home, and not only did Walsh's father lose his full-time steel mill position, but Stella was laid off from her job just a week before she was set to take her oath of citizenship.
Sensing an opportunity, the Polish consulate offered Walsh a paying job and a scholarship for higher education, provided she abandon her plan to become a legal American and instead compete for her birth country. Reluctantly, she agreed to their terms—this was long before athletes had sponsorships and paid endorsement deals, and they were expected to fully fund their own training and travel. She was just 21, and she didn't have much of a choice if she wanted to compete. "I’m not trying to duck the United States," Walsh told reporters at the time, "But I can’t run forever. If a big company like the New York Central can’t give me a job, where can I get one?"
At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, Walsh ran as Stanislawa Walasiewicz (a shortened version of her birth name) and handily set and immediately matched her own world record for the 100-meter dash, running it in 11.9 seconds during two preliminary heats and the final medal race. She won the gold for Poland—one of the two the country took home that year.
As a result, Stella's star continued to rise; she won awards and honors from the Polish government and media. She used her promised scholarship to study physical education and journalism at a women’s college in Warsaw, but she longed to return to the States. She felt isolated and missed the higher "standard of living" that she'd been accustomed to her whole life. Within six months of moving to the Polish capital, she severely sprained her ankle and decided to return home to Cleveland to mend.
Between 1933 and 1935, Walsh won big at various competitions like the Women’s World Games, earning medals and breaking records for the 100-meter dash, hurdles, broad jump, and shot put events. Newspapers admiringly referred to her as "The Queen of Sprint" and "The Cleveland Flyer."
By 1936, Walsh was prepared for the Summer Olympics in Berlin and hoped to defend her Olympic record and gold in the 100-meter. But this time, an 18-year-old bullet from Missouri lined up next to her. American Helen Stephens—who grew up just a couple hundred miles away from Walsh—had taken the world record in Kansas City the previous year. She would take the gold in Berlin as well, giving the U.S. a set of shimmering 100-meter victories (this was, after all, the Olympics headlined by legend Jesse Owens).
Accounts vary, but whether it was a livid Walsh or incensed Polish journalists, someone leveled the accusation that Stephens was competing under false pretenses. A Polish newspaper reported a rumor—which was quickly picked up by the AP—that the 6-foot-tall Stephens was actually a man disguised as a woman to give "himself" an unfair advantage against female athletes. Humiliated by the allegations, Stephens was forced to submit to a genital inspection—the first of its kind—by the Olympic committee to clear her of gender fraud. They determined that she was in fact female, and Stephens later successfully sued a magazine for implying that she was a man. But the indictment proved to be a bit of a red herring—Stephens may have had nothing to hide, but Walsh did.
AN AMERICAN UNRECOGNIZED
After the Berlin Olympics, Walsh announced her retirement, but she never actually quit competing. She participated in events like women's (baseball) pitching and basketball games, and in 1937, tied Stephens's 100-meter record. In 1954, at age 43, she won her fifth consecutive U.S. pentathlon championship. She'd made a plea to the Olympic committee before the 1952 games to let her run for the United States. "I pay taxes and I vote like any other American," she said, having become an American citizen in the years following World War II, when there was no longer much of a Poland to speak of. "I want to represent this country" [PDF].
That appeal didn't work; at the time, International Olympic Committee rules stated that after an athlete had competed on behalf of one country, they could not later compete for another. But an ill-advised "cupid's clause" in the IOC guidelines soon became the loophole that would finally allow Walsh to try out for the U.S. team. According to the new rule, if, say, a female athlete who had competed for one country were to marry a man from another, she would now be permitted to compete for her husband's country. "Stella could take a crack at the 1956 Olympics if she corners an American husband between now and the try outs this summer," a sports columnist for the L.A. Times noted, though he added that it didn't "seem likely." Never one to lose a challenge, Walsh soon married Harry Olson, a former boxer who worked as a draftsman for a California aviation company. He was 12 years her junior.
Somewhat suspiciously, Walsh revealed their marriage—which took place in Las Vegas—on the eve of the Olympic trials for the 1956 Melbourne games. "I have competed five times for my native country, Poland, in Olympics and women's Olympiads," she told reporters of her now-legal bid to run as an American. "But my greatest ambition is to run for my adopted country, America, in the November Olympics at Melbourne, Australia."
The stunt worked—she did get to compete at the American trials, but, after coming in a disappointing third in her 200-meter heat, she failed to make the team. Stella and Harry separated a couple of months later (though they never officially divorced), and after a few years of setting up training schools for girls in California (and trying out for the American Olympics team one last time in 1960), she eventually moved back to her family in Cleveland.
Through her fifties and sixties, Walsh organized athletic competitions and scholarships for Polish-American athletes, coached young sprinters, and worked as a bartender in Cleveland. In her spare time, she was known to challenge younger people to race her, knowing that, even at her age, she’d likely outrun them. The people in her community were aware of the rumors about her gender, but she was accepted for who she was, and no one questioned her about her masculine appearance. The days of Bull Montana were in her distant past. She was a cherished hometown celebrity, and in 1970, Cleveland’s mayor proclaimed April 13 as Stella Walsh Day, and the U.S. Track and Field organization inducted her into their hall of fame in 1975.
A SECRET EXPOSED
In December 1980, Walsh was in a Cleveland parking lot when she was approached by two men with a gun. When they tried to grab her purse, the 69-year-old Walsh fought back. The gun fired, hitting her in the chest. When local TV stations reported Walsh’s death, they also reported information that the coroner’s office had leaked about her preliminary autopsy report: Stella Walsh—who was considered one of the greatest female athletes of all time—had male genitalia.
One of Cleveland’s local TV stations, WKYC Channel 3, sued the county coroner’s office to compel them to release Walsh’s official autopsy report. Her family and supporters protested, not wanting the salacious results to be made public, but within days, national newspapers like The Washington Post were speculating about her gender identity with headlines like "Heroine or Hero?". A judge sided with Channel 3, and the coroner, Samuel Gerber, released Walsh’s autopsy report on January 23, 1981.
His examination revealed that Walsh lacked female reproductive organs (no uterus, ovaries, vagina) and instead had a non-functioning, underdeveloped penis. Genetically, she had mosaicism, a cellular mutation that resulted in Walsh having mostly male (XY) chromosomes along with a few cells with X0 chromosomes (the 0 indicating a missing X chromosome). Gerber speculated that at birth, Stella probably had ambiguous genitalia and, as was customary in those cases in those days, her parents decided to raise her as a girl. Significant physical differences weren't typically noticed until children with mosaicism reached puberty, and in the 1920s and '30s, terms and conditions like intersex and transgender were neither known nor acknowledged.
Reaction to the news that Stella was intersex was mixed. Many people in Cleveland’s tight-knit Polish neighborhoods defended her, arguing that she was still a sports hero and role model. Others were shocked at the deceit, and a new nickname cropped up: "Stella the Fella," one far worse than the Bull Montana taunts she'd endured as a teen. Her former husband, Harry Olson, spoke to reporters and called her a freak of nature, though he also admitted that they'd had intimate relations and he hadn't realized there was anything suspect. Some of Stella's childhood friends and neighbors stated in interviews that they had always known about her physical differences, but it had also been an accepted reality.
"When she grew up … other boys and girls knew she had these physical deformities," an outspoken friend of Walsh's told reporters. "She was ridiculed. We knew this. She was a hermaphrodite. It was common knowledge that she had this accident of nature." Still, as he and others pointed out, Walsh didn't live her life pretending to be something she wasn't. She may have been self-conscious—another childhood friend admitted on TV that she had seen Stella’s "mutation" when she was changing in a locker room once and that Walsh felt extreme shame and embarrassment about her body, an anecdote that further shed light on Walsh's longtime standoffishness in locker rooms and tendency to request private rooms rather than bunk with other athletes on trips—but Walsh had always lived her life as a woman.
"I knew there was something different about Stella," one of Walsh's former trainees told SB Nation, "but she lived so supremely as a woman and never discussed that particular thing."
SUBSEQUENT TESTING IN SPORTS
Because of her autopsy results, Stella faced a posthumous backlash from other athletes who questioned if it was fair that they lost medals and competitions to an athlete who had male genitalia and presumably more testosterone than they did. Did Stella start the rumor about her Olympics competitor Helen Stephens being a man to take attention away from her own nebulous gender? Would Walsh have been able to run as fast as she had and to break so many world records if she hadn’t been intersex? Should the IOC rescind her medals? The short answer: It’s complicated.
When Walsh competed in the Olympics, the IOC didn’t conduct routine gender verification tests (which started in the late 1960s), and no doctor diagnosed her with a gender-related condition. Studies have shown that some people with mixed male and female chromosomes don’t have excess "male" strength; it depends on how well the individual’s androgen receptors function.
Although the IOC examines intersex athletes on a case by case basis, its policy on transgender athletes is more clear cut. Since 2004, both female-to-male and male-to-female transgender athletes have been allowed to compete in the Olympics, and now for this coming Olympics, male-to-female athletes must have officially declared their gender and have testosterone level below a certain amount for 12 months prior to and throughout competition [PDF] (female-to-male athletes have no such restrictions). In 2009, the International Association of Athletics Federations made a South African runner, Caster Semenya, undergo gender determination testing. Although the findings were supposed to be confidential, leaked results claimed to have shown that she was intersex—she had neither ovaries nor a uterus but did have internal, undescended testicles. After a forced year-long hiatus from competing, she was allowed to run again, winning a silver medal in the 800-meter event at the 2012 Olympics. Semenya is currently set to make a comeback in this summer's Rio games.
For the 2012 London Olympics, the IOC released their updated regulations [PDF] for determining what to do with intersex female athletes with elevated androgen levels, who may be unfairly benefiting from the performance enhancing effects of male hormones, such as greater speed, power, and strength. The regulations stated that a confidential, expert panel consisting of a gynecologist, genetic expert, and endocrinologist can, if requested, investigate an athlete’s medical history and testosterone blood levels. If the panel determines that the athlete’s condition does not give her a competitive advantage, then the athlete will be allowed to compete. If the athlete has functional androgen receptors and testosterone in the range of normal for males, that athlete will be ineligible for competition.
For Stella Walsh, though, medical knowledge and societal attitudes in her competing years were not as evolved as they are today. The IOC decided against rescinding any of Walsh’s medals because gender determination tests were not conducted during the years she participated as an Olympian. As the county coroner who conducted her autopsy stated, "Socially, culturally, and legally, Stella Walsh was accepted as a female for 69 years. She lived and died as a female."
Walsh's birth and death certificates both list her as female, but the controversy surrounding her sex would have mortified her in life. A better, and more representational legacy of Stella Walsh rests on her drive to train hard and never stop competing. As sports columnist Dan Coughlin, a longtime friend of hers, wrote years later, Walsh was always a world-class athlete, first and foremost. "She trained relentlessly. She was always an Olympian … Whatever she was, she was one of a kind."