Female athletes can have more than physical hurdles to jump over when competing in the Olympics.
Stella Walsh was one of the greatest female athletes in history, even though the world tried to strip her of her medals … and her gender.
“The Queen of Sprint,” as Walsh was more commonly known, was an unequivocal champion of the 100-meter dash. She also happened to be intersex — a reality she kept secret in life because she feared what it might do to her career.
Unfortunately, her fear proved well-founded when her secret was discovered after her death, and people began questioning her natural abilities and record as a result.
Despite a rough childhood, Walsh sprinted ahead into an incredibly successful athletic career.
She was born Stanislawa Walasiewiczowna in Poland in 1911, but moved with her family to Cleveland, Ohio, later that year (although she wouldn’t officially become an American citizen until 1947).
In high school, she was a superstar athlete, but her athletic prowess didn’t stop her from being the target of bullies, who gave her the nickname “Bull Montana” after the wrestler/actor Lewis Montagna.
Walsh went on to win numerous medals in both Poland and the United States for running and long jump and, in 1930, broke the world record for the 50-yard dash, which she completed in six seconds, at the Millrose Games.
Walsh competed in the Olympics for the first time at the age of 21 and for the last time in 1936 at the age of 25.
In 1932, she ran as a member of the Polish team, where she performed exceptionally, setting the world record for the 100-meter dash at 11.9 seconds, and she returned to Poland a gold medal champion.
Walsh continued to win medals and break records through 1935, but when she returned to defend her title at the Olympics in Berlin in 1936, she was bested by a worthy adversary — 18-year-old American Helen Stephens.
Soon after their race, a rumor was leaked to the press that Stephens was actually a man, and Stephens was forced to undergo the first-ever gender inspection by the International Olympics Committee (IOC).
Stephens was confirmed to be female, but the controversy opened up new questions for the IOC, questions that would end up coming back around to hurt Stella Walsh, even after she was killed in 1980 at the age of 69.
Walsh’s autopsy revealed something surprising — she had male genitalia.
It’s called mosaicism — a cellular mutation that resulted in her having mostly male (XY) chromosomes and therefore making her intersex.
Walsh’s parents chose to raise her as a girl, mostly because back in the 1920s and ’30s, terms like “intersex” and “transgender” were barely acknowledged, much less socially accepted.
When the results of Walsh’s autopsy were leaked, the press went on a rampage. A new tasteless nickname, “Stella the Fella,” began circulating, and articles popped up with titles like “Heroine or Hero?” all because a simple truth had finally been revealed.
Then, Walsh’s critics went after her medals, arguing that the IOC should take them back, because, being intersex, Walsh had essentially cheated and hadn’t truly earned them.
Ultimately, the IOC opted not to revoke her medals, but on a technicality: She had competed before the organization implemented routine gender verification tests.
The fact that Walsh was under scrutiny 45 years after she competed begs the question: Who determines this gender line and why?
Much like gender itself, it’s a complex issue.
Thankfully, the IOC recognized this complexity back in 1996, when it decided to discontinue the gender identification process via chromosomal testing. Now, the IOC examines intersex athletes on a case-by-case basis, and it even began allowing transgender athletes to compete back in 2004, though again, the process there is still discriminatory.
While all these tests were put in place to promote fairness, the qualifiers the IOC uses to define a person’s gender are by no means perfect.
Yes, higher testosterone levels can cause “female hyperandrogenism” which may cause a woman to have more stereotypically masculine traits like increased muscle mass. But that isn’t always the case.
And even if the IOC did go so far as to impose invasive chromosomal testing on female athletes, the results of those tests could be just as ambiguous, especially because we now know many women are born with a Y chromosome and don’t even know it.
Weirdly, the IOC doesn’t have as many regulations and tests for trans male athletes because trans male athletes aren’t perceived as having any sort of physical advantage over their competition.
This is both commendable, in that it shows the IOC’s primary focus is on ensuring fair competition, but also disappointing because it reinforces the notion that people assigned male at birth are inherently stronger than those assigned female at birth.
Hopefully, now that more transgender and intersex athletes are coming out to compete in the Olympics, the qualifying system will catch up to them.
It will take time, but there has definitely been progress since Walsh’s time, especially in the last 15 years. For example, in just the 2016 Olympics alone, the United States has seven LGBTQ athletes competing.
There may always be a separation between gender at the Olympics, but the spectrum of those genders is widening significantly.
Thanks to the awesome assist from Parker Molloy!