Saturday, January 24, 2009

Mano a Mano

The photograph at the right shows the two chief competitors for the 100-meter dash at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The runner on the left, competing for the United States, ended up winning, while the runner on the right - who had taken the gold in that event four years earlier - came in second as the representative from Poland.

Shortly after the race, the gold medalist was accused of cheating - it was alleged that she, Helen Stephens of Fulton, Missouri, was actually a man. Near as I can figure, the test for this sort of thing back in 1936 consisted of taking the entrant under the bleachers and having him or her drop trou. Stephens passed and got to keep her gold medal.

One wonders if the silver medalist, Stella Walsh, would have been so lucky. She was born Stanislawa Walasiewicz in Poland, but her family moved to Cleveland when she was three months old. She was a track star by the time she was in her late teens, and won gold in the 100 meters to Los Angeles in 1932, when she was 21. She had along career as an athlete, married a boxer named Neil (or Harry) Olson when she was 36, divorced him in two months, then settled in as an employee of the Cleveland Parks Department.

In 1980, when Stella was 69, she was killed in an armed robbery in Cleveland. An autopsy showed that she had male sex organs. The immediate assumption on the part of a lot of people was that she had passed herself off as a woman all those years in order to compete in track. Her story was included in a rather meanspirited book called The 25 Greatest Sports Conpsiracy Theories of All Time, which noted, "Olson was obviously in on her deception, and what he got out of it remains his secret."

But that's not the end of the story. Stella Walsh had no female sex organs, but she was given a girl's name as a baby, and raised as a girl, so she wasn't the only one who thought she might be female, and she wasn't exactly trying to put something over on people. "We knew this," one of her childhood friends told the Washington Post. "It was common knowledge that she had this accident of nature. She wasn't 100 percent pure female." Another recalled, "She asked me if God had done this to her."

After her death, someone looked up poor old Harry Olson. "I feel stupid as hell for marrying her," he said. He claimed they made love only "a couple of times, and she wouldn't let me have any lights on."

None of us is ever likely to know exactly what Stella Walsh had going on down there. According to the Washington Post, the coroner said she had "an underdeveloped and non-functioning penis, 'masculine' breasts and an abnormal urinary opening." It gives me the heebie-jeebies to even try to figure out what that all might mean. But jeez, someone who has to go through life like that deserves whatever they can get, including a couple of Olympic medals.

When Stella Walsh died, Prince's "Dirty Mind" was on the American R&B charts. If she had held on for four more years, she would have heard Prince voice a sentiment she would have been familiar with: "I'm not a woman/I'm not a man/I am something that you'll never understand."


Volly said...

Interesting story. There are apparently many, many babies born with "ambiguous" characteristics. Doctors often arbitrarily make surgical adjustments to newborns so that they will be raised as female, but this can cause extreme psychological problems later in life.

Have you ever heard of jazz pianist Billy Tipton? Link:

THAT is one fascinating story.


T. Nawrocki said...

Stella was born in Poland in 1911, so those kinds of surgical adjustments weren't an option for her. You just picked your poison, such as it were.

Billy Tipton, as I understand it, wasn't sexually ambiguous; she was just a woman who chose to live as a man. And did so in spectacularly successful fashion.