The Runner's Secret
A Blurry Line Can Divide Male and Female Athletes

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2008

In a life shadowed by mystery and scarred by shame, one thing was blindingly obvious about Stella Walsh: She could run faster than almost any woman alive.

During a two-decade span that started in the early 1930s, Walsh was queen of the sprints. She set or matched the world record in the 100 meters six times, her last mark standing for 11 years. She won three events at U.S. national championship meets four times, a feat that has never been equaled.

Polish-born but raised in Cleveland from infancy, Walsh -- the name was an Americanized version of Walasiewicz -- attained her greatest glory at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, competing for her native Poland. Walsh's long strides powered her to the gold medal in the 100 meters in world-record time.

Four years later at the Olympics in Berlin, Walsh barely missed duplicating the feat. A sturdy Missouri farm girl named Helen Stephens nipped her at the finish.

Incensed by this affront to Walsh's dominance, Polish newspaper reporters spread a rumor about the 6-foot Stephens. She was, they said, really a man. That rumor was baseless.

Walsh later gained her U.S. citizenship, briefly married a man in California and spent most of the rest of her life in Cleveland, working for the city's parks department. All but forgotten after her retirement, the woman who had once been the most famous American track athlete after the legendary Babe Didrikson remained a heroine in the city's Polish American community. A recreation center in the city still bears Walsh's name.

It was only in death that the truth about Stella Walsh emerged.

* * *

On a snowy day in December 1980, 69-year-old Stella Walsh took her last steps across the parking lot of a Cleveland shopping center. Two men approached, intent on robbing her. One pulled a gun. Prosecutors later said that Walsh tried to knock the weapon away; the gunman fired, hitting Walsh in the abdomen. She would die several hours later in a Cleveland hospital.

On the eve of Walsh's funeral, a story began to spread. That night, two local TV stations reported that police, in seeking Walsh's killers, were also investigating a shocking claim:

That Stella Walsh, the great Olympian, was really a man.

The story cracked like a starter's pistol, generating alternating waves of confusion and outrage. The city's Polish Americans were especially incensed, suspecting a smear job. The furor continued for weeks until the Cuyahoga County coroner, Samuel Gerber, submitted his official findings.

Walsh, he wrote, had had a mixture of male and female chromosomes. She had no internal female reproductive organs, and possessed an underdeveloped and non-functioning penis, "masculine" breasts and an abnormal urinary opening. Gerber said that Walsh's sex was likely ambiguous at birth, and that she could have been raised a boy or a girl. But perhaps mindful of the charged environment, he added that Walsh "lived and died a female. . . . Socially, culturally and legally, Stella Walsh was accepted as a female for 69 years."

People who knew Walsh acknowledged they had been aware of her abnormalities, and that Walsh had privately harbored doubt and shame about them for years. "When she grew up, a couple of blocks from where I live, other boys and girls knew she had these physical deformities," longtime friend Casimir Bielen told The Washington Post shortly after her death. "She was ridiculed. We knew this. . . . It was common knowledge that she had this accident of nature. She wasn't 100 percent pure female."

Another friend, Beverly Perret Conyers, said Walsh mentioned the issue to her once, albeit briefly and somewhat vaguely. "She asked me if God did this to her,'' Conyers said. "I said, 'No, it was a mistake.' "

Perhaps the most startling, and startled, reaction came from Harry Olson, who was married to Walsh for about two months in the 1950s. Olson, estranged from his wife for many years, told a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "I feel stupid as hell for marrying her. . . . I'm very shook up about all this." He said he and Walsh had had sex only "a couple of times, and she wouldn't let me have any lights on."

Subsequent media accounts ranged from puzzled to cruel. Some newspapers declared Walsh "Stella the Fella." Many felt Walsh had cheated in her long and celebrated athletic career. Hilda Strike, the Canadian who finished second to Walsh in the 1932 Games, was among those who thought the gold medal from 1932 was rightfully hers. "I won't ask for it," declared Strike, who died in 1989. "They know where I am."

The International Olympic Committee has declined to reopen the case, saying there were no "gender verification" tests available when Walsh was an Olympian (sex testing for world-class athletes didn't begin until 1966).

But the issue still reverberates. At the Olympics in Beijing, officials have set up a lab to administer tests to determine whether biological males are competing as females. The tests, which are given to women whose appearance and performance raise suspicion, involve taking a blood sample to evaluate the athlete's hormone levels and genes. Athletes who fail (there have been no cases reported so far) also must undergo physiological inspections, which have been criticized in the past as invasive.

Modern scientific techniques might have provided an answer to an old question: Did Stella Walsh really cheat?

The answer appears to be no.

Experts on human sexual development say it's not accurate to call Walsh a man, as many media sources have in the years since her death. The reality, in fact, is far more complicated.

Walsh's condition is uncommon, but not unheard of. Severe cases of sexual abnormality -- "testicular feminization," in which a genetic male has some or all of the characteristics of a female -- occur in about one in 20,000 births, according to the National Institutes of Health. Milder sexual abnormalities, such as an undescended testicle, occur in about 1 percent of all births.

These abnormalities occur in the developing fetus and go by various medical names -- congenital adrenal hyperplasia and androgen insensitivity syndrome, among others. The labels for children with mixed anatomical or genetic characteristics are ever-evolving and much more imprecise: "mosaics," "hermaphrodites," "intersex."

The confusion over Walsh's sex appears to have started immediately after her birth in rural Poland. Although Walsh's first name in Polish was often given as Stanislawa -- a traditional female name -- the Austrian historian Erich Kamper found a birth certificate sometime after her death that indicated she was baptized with a boy's name.

When Walsh was born in 1911, parents of intersex children had few options; they essentially chose their children's sex and raised them accordingly.

Starting in the 1950s, parents began sending such children to surgeons for genital reconstruction procedures. But the children often suffered from sexual identity issues as they matured. The contemporary approach is to wait until a child reaches puberty or later, at which point the child can make his or her own decision, says psychiatrist William G. Reiner, who has studied 400 children with genital abnormalities. The best way to determine such children's sexual identity, says Reiner, who directs the University of Oklahoma's psychosexual development clinic, is simply to ask them.

In Reiner's view, Walsh shouldn't be penalized. "To say she cheated, that's not quite accurate or fair," he says. "She was never diagnosed." Walsh might not even have been aware of the degree of her difference, he says. Although she would have known that she didn't menstruate, she would have had no idea about her genes or her internal organs without surgery or modern imaging techniques. "I suspect she saw herself as a woman," he says.

The question of whether Walsh had some inherent athletic advantage over her competitors isn't clear-cut, either. The mere presence of male chromosomes doesn't bestow male strength upon a person who has mixed genetic characteristics. Yet such women continue to be suspect; at the 2006 Asian Games, Indian runner Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of her silver medal in the 800-meter race after she failed a chromosome test.

The critical factor, Reiner says, is how receptive Walsh's body was to androgens, the muscle-building hormones (including testosterone) that make men stronger, on average, than women. Men produce more of these hormones than women. Contemporary female athletes are disqualified if their testosterone levels exceed certain levels, because a large amount of testosterone is considered evidence of illegal doping.

Walsh had no access to steroids in her day. And since her male organs were nonfunctional, Reiner says, she probably had partial or complete androgen resistance, which makes the body unable to produce or use the small amounts of testosterone that most women have. So it's even possible that Walsh was at a disadvantage compared with her competitors.

Athletic gender tests have drawn criticism from feminists and scientists for years. Eric Vilain, a leading authority on genetics and sexual development at UCLA's medical school, says that in ambiguous cases, no one test can strictly define what's "male" or "female."

"I'd be damned if I could judge" sexuality, Vilain concludes. "There would certainly be cases where I could not come up with a definitive answer. . . . If you abide by some social construct hoping it will give you a clear-cut distinction, I think you're in for a lot of trouble."

In the end, the strange saga of Stella Walsh might have left behind a legacy of more than records and medals. Her track career raises some profound questions about human beings.

Such as: What's a man? And what's a woman?

"What it tells us is there are different degrees of maleness and femaleness -- a range," says Bill Mallon, an Olympic historian, a former pro golfer and an orthopedic surgeon who practices in North Carolina. "There are," he says, "all sorts of shades of gray."

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