She was an Olympic medalist, a national heroine in her native Poland and a community leader in her adopted home of Cleveland, but Stella Walsh lived for 69 years in fear of her own biological secret.
She held at one time more than 60 world records, captured five Olympic gold medals and four silver medals, was the first woman to run the 100-yard dash in under 10 seconds. But, says a friend, she lived a "tragic" life of shame and ridicule.
On Dec. 4, Stella Walsh was shot dead in an attempted robbery, and in the weeks since, the secret of her childhood has turned into a seamy and controversial story on Cleveland television. The question is, was Stella Walsh a man?
The Polish-American community in Cleveland is outraged over the reports and they have formed a Stella Walsh Defense Fund to restore her reputation. Her husband, with whom she has not lived in many years, is besieged with so many phone calls he "can't even live." The newspapers have avoided the story, and the television station that first raised the issue stands by its reports.
There are few facts, only rumors and tips to newspapers and television stations in the city. The county coroner's office, which is conducting a chromosone test on Walsh's body, has not completed its investigation and the coroner, Dr. Samuel Gerber, won't say how quickly he will release those results.
Even then, the findings may not resolve the controversy. The issue has now become public and the value of her achievements has been questioned.
She was born Stanislawa Walasiewiscz in Poland in 1911, came to the United States before she was 5 years old and startled the track and field world at 15 when she equalled the American women's record in the 50-yard dash.
She failed to gain a spot on the 1928 U.S. Olympic team, began training in earnest and, in 1929, was invited to represent her native Poland in track and field competition after winning the women's all-round scoring title at an international meet in Europe. In 1932, she could have competed for either the United States or Poland in the Olympic games. Shortly before the summer games that year, she took a job with the Polish consulate in New York City and joined the Polish team, winning the gold medal in the 100-meter dash with a record time of 11.9 seconds.
She lived what seemed to be a glamorous life, competing in international events, traveling across the Atlantic regularly, once being detained by authorities, who believed she might be a spy. At age 43, she won her fifth U.S. pentathlon championship.
In almost 30 years of competition, Stella Walsh won more than 1,100 awards, but her career as an athlete ended sadly. In 1955, declaring that the Polish government which she once represented "does not exist," she announced that if she could not compete on the U.S. Olympic team, she would retire from competition. U.S. authorities said that because she had competed for Poland in 1932 and 1936, she was ineligible for the American team. But in August 1956, she announced she had married Harry Olson, an aviation company draftsman, in Las Vegas, an act that assured her eligibility.
"I have competed five times for my native country, Poland, in Olympics and women's Olympiads," she told an audience in Washington on the eve of the 1956 trials. "But my greatest ambition is to run for my adopted country, America, in the November Olympics at Melbourne, Australia."
But on Aug. 25, at American University, she finished third in the 200-meter heat and failed to make the team. "This is the end," she said with tears in her eyes.
Last May, the Polish government awarded her the Cross of Merit, that country's highest award, in ceremonies in Cleveland. Other recipients include Pope John Paul II and President Kennedy.
That was her life until the night of Dec. 4, when she was gunned down in a parking lot near a discount department store in Cleveland. She was there to purchase ribbons for medals that were to be given the members of the Polish women's basketball team that was coming to play at nearby Kent State University. Her death prompted an outpouring of grief among residents of Cleveland, especially its large Polish-American community.
Then, on the night before her funeral, WKYC-TV and WEWS-TV reported that police were investigating "findings" that Stella Walsh had male sex organs.
"Our primary motivation was that confidential police sources said this was an angle they might pursue to find her killer," said Cliff Abromats, news director for WKYC. "It was a top for the story.
"Stella Walsh was an active community leader," he said. "It was obvious we'd get backlash from the viewers. We got 100 to 200 calls." "Some sources say she had the sex organs of a male, some say she had both, others swear she was a woman," said Bob McGruder, city editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "We've been reluctant to say what she is before we know what she is."
The television reports angered Walsh's friends, and at her funeral last week, one man tried to keep television cameras out. But her friends were only trying to keep the public from knowing what many of them had known for years, that Stella Walsh apparently had both male and female sexual organs.
"When she grew up, a couple of blocks from where I live, other boys and girls knew she had these physical deformities," said Casimir Bielen, who had been with Walsh minutes before she was shot. "She was ridiculed. We knew this. She was a hermaphrodite. It was common knowledge that she had this accident of nature.She wasn't 100 percent pure female.
"She was a self-conscious woman. She lived a tragic life. She was known throughout the world, but she had a hard time making a living. She lived with her bedridden mother, who is 85, in a modest house. She lived on Social Security. I got her a job with the city. She started at $10,000 and she told me that was the highest she'd ever been paid, and she was happy that she earned it for something she loved to do."
Bielen is angry at the television stations, particularly WKYC. "There was shame on her part, ridicule from other children," he said. "She was a low-key person who seldom wanted to be overbearing.Channel 3 turned it into a sensational story, hoping they would have her medals taken away."
Bielen said that despite her biological makeup, she had been examined "hundreds of times" and was allowed to compete against other women. And out of friendship to Stella Walsh, he and others have formed a committee to restore her reputation.
"We are urging a boycott of advertisers of Channel 3 and we have secured legal assistance for a potential anti-defamation lawsuit," said Bielen, who is president of Nationality Newspapers and Services and is active in many Polish-American organizations. Meanwhile, the man Stella Walsh married is trying to find out the truth. Harry Olson, who now lives in California, parted with his wife many years ago and had not been in touch with her since 1964, when she returned to Cleveland. Her violent death and the sordid reports about her sexuality have stunned him.
He told Knight-Ridder newspapers that he had had sexual relations with Walsh "a couple of times, and she wouldn't let me have any lights on." Yesterday, he said he would answer no more questions about their relationship.
"Strangers call me and expect me to divulge my whole life over the phone," he said. "It's very tiring. I feel my life's not my own."