Stella Walsh Olson and Helen Stephens: Who’s the Man?

Stanisława Walasiewicz, also known as Stella Walsh, was a Polish athlete. In the 1932 Summer Olympics, Stella Walsh won the 100m, equaling the world record of 11.9s and she instantly became a well-known personality in Poland.

In 1935, Stella Walsh, known by that time as the fastest woman on earth, came up against a rising American sprinter named Helen Stephens. While the spectators had come to see Walsh, it was Stephens who equaled the record in the 50m event beating Walsh in the process. And when the spectators congratulated Helen Stephens on beating Walsh, Stephens asked, “Who is Stella Walsh?” which angered Walsh even further. After this meet, Stephen’s regularly beat Walsh in footraces and Walsh responded by saying that the reason that Helen Stephens was beating her all the time was that Helen was a boy.

Stanisława Walasiewicz
Stanisława Walasiewicz better known as Stella Walsh

In the 1936 Olympics at Berlin, Walsh was attempting to retain her title. She completed the 100m race in 11.7s but was beaten by Helen Stephens by 0.2s. Walsh protested to officials claiming that Stephens was really a man, as no woman could run that fast, and the Polish press supported her. This resulted in the Olympics committee performing a physical check on Stephens and it was confirmed that she was a woman.

Helen Stephens
Helen Stephens

Later Walsh became an American citizen and married boxer Neil Olson. Though the marriage didn’t last long, she kept the name Stella Walsh Olson for the rest of her life.

On 4 December, 1980, Stella Walsh Olson was killed by a stray bullet during an armed robbery attempt in Cleveland, Ohio. Her autopsy showed that she had a condition known as mosaicism, which meant that, chromosomally, she was mostly, but not all, male. In other words she had ambiguous genitalia and was intersex. Ironically, Stella Walsh suffered from the very condition she had accused Helen Stephens of having.

The controversy of Walsh’s biological sex remains unresolved, and the situation is further complicated by the fact that many earlier documents, including her birth record, state that she was female. Her case is often regarded as one of the reasons why the IOC has gradually dropped gender determination tests.

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