Stella Walsh PDF Print E-mail
Sunday, 15 July 2012 08:59

File:StanisławaWalasiewicz.jpgStanisława Walasiewicz, also known as Stefania Walasiewicz, Stanisława Walasiewiczówna and Stella Walsh

Born: 3 April 1911 Wierzchownia (now in Brodnica County), Congress Poland.

Died: 4 December 1980, Cleveland, Ohio

Age: 69

Cause of death: Was a bystander at an armed robbery when hit by a stray bullet.

Notable because: Won gold in the women's 100 meters at the 32 Los Angeles Olympics and silver at the Nazi games of 36. After dying in a shooting accident in 1980, the autopsy revealed she was not a woman after all. Now a favourite name in lists of Olympic cheats.

Stella Walsh was a Polish athlete, who became a women's Olympic champion. It was later learned that Walasiewicz had ambiguous genitalia and could not easily be identified as either biologically male or female.

Walasiewicz was born on 3 April 1911 in Wierzchownia (now in Brodnica County), Congress Poland. Her family emigrated to the United States when she was only three months old. Her father, Julian Walasiewicz, settled in Cleveland, where he found a job as a steel mill worker. Her family called her Stasia, a common Polish diminutive of her Christian name, which later gave birth to the American version of her name, Stella.NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: Polish-American athlete Stella March returns to New York aboard the Gdynia America Motorliner Batoy, 30 September 1937, after hanging up four new world records in track meets in Poland and Germany. (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

Athletics career

She started her athletic career in a public school in Cleveland. Fast and agile, in 1927 she easily won the competition for a place in the American Olympic team started by the Cleveland Press newspaper. However, Walasiewicz was not an American citizen and could not obtain citizenship under the age of 21. The success of Halina Konopacka, a Polish athlete who won gold in the discus throw at the 1928 Summer Olympics, inspired Walasiewicz to join the local branch of Sokół, a Polish sports and patriotic organization active among the Polish diaspora. During the Pan-Slavic meeting of the Sokół movement in Poznań, she scored her first major international victories. She won five gold medals: in running for 60, 100, 200 and 400 metres, as well as long jump. She was asked to stay in Poland and join the Polish national athletic team; she also continued to run in various American challenges and games.

In the late 1920s, she was already a well-known athlete. As an amateur, she was also working as a clerk in Cleveland. While still not a U.S. citizen, Walasiewicz did participate in, and won, numerous American national championships, usually under the name of Stella Walsh. For her part in interstate athletic championships, the city of Cleveland awarded her a car. She was finally offered American citizenship, probably under the insistence of the Amateur Athletic Union, whose members envisioned Walasiewicz—or Stella Walsh, as she was referred to in the USA—as a future gold medalist at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. However, just two days prior to her Oath of Citizenship, she changed her mind and instead adopted Polish citizenship, offered to her by the Polish consulate in New York. In 1930, she was chosen the most popular Polish athlete by readers of the Przegląd Sportowy (Sports Review) daily.

In the 1932 Summer Olympics, she represented Poland. In both the heats and the semi-finals of the 100 m, Walasiewicz equaled the current world record of 11.9 seconds, a feat she repeated in the final, which she won. The same day, she also finished 6th out of 9 in the discus throw event. Upon her return to Poland, she almost instantly became a well-known personality. She was welcomed by gigantic crowds in the port of Gdynia, and a few days later, she was awarded the Golden Cross of Merit for her achievements. She was also again chosen the most popular Polish person in sports, and held that title for three years.

She started the following season of 1933 with an injury, which made her abandon her plans to run in the Polish Skating Championships. However, she quickly recovered and returned to an active career, with a failed run in Prague. In the spring, she appeared at the Championships of Warsaw, where she seized 9 gold medals, including one for 80 metres hurdling, one for 4 x 200 relay, and one for long jump. On 17 September, in Poznań, she beat two world records in one day: 7.4 seconds for 60 m and 11.8 seconds for 100 m. A week later, in Lwów, she beat her own lifetime record of 7.3 for 60 m. Her Olympic success also won her a scholarship at the Warsaw Institute of Physical Education, where she met with some of the most notable Polish athletes of the epoch, including Jadwiga Wajs, Feliksa Schabińska, Maria Kwaśniewska, and Janusz Kusociński.

In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, she attempted to defend her Olympic title; but, as the World Record holder by now, she was beaten to the title by Helen Stephens of the U.S. She came in second, in 11.7 seconds. Ironically in hindsight, Stephens was accused of being male and was forced to submit to a genital inspection to prove otherwise. After the Olympic Games, Walasiewicz declared her plans to retire from an active sports career, but changed her mind and instead moved to the U.S., where she resumed her amateur career. During and after World War II, she continued to appear at various championships, but the days of her spectacular successes were mostly over. After the war, Poland had been overrun by the Soviet Union, and Walasiewicz decided to stay in the United States. In 1947, she finally accepted American citizenship and married boxer Neil Olson. Although the marriage did not last long, she continued to use the name Stella Walsh Olson for the rest of her life. She won her last U.S. title at age forty, in 1951, and she was inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975.

Post-athletics career

After her retirement, she continued to be active in a variety of Polish sport associations in the U.S., where she organized championships and helped young athletes. She also funded a variety of awards for Polish sportspeople living in America.

Death and controversy

Walsh was a bystander in an armed robbery in Cleveland, Ohio on 4 December 1980, and was killed at the age of 69. An autopsy showed that she possessed male genitalia, although some sources suggest she also displayed some female characteristics. Detailed investigation has also revealed that she had both an XX and an XY pair of chromosomes.

The controversy of her 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.  There was also some controversy as to whether all her records and achievements should be erased.


The case of Stanisława Walasiewicz is often regarded as one of the reasons why the IOC has gradually dropped gender determination tests. The International Association of Athletics Federations ordered gender determination testing on South African Caster Semenya in August 2009, and in July 2010 a decision in favour of Semenya was declared, allowing her to compete as a woman.

In Cleveland, on Broadway Avenue, there is a city-owned recreational center named after Stella Walsh. It is attached to Cleveland South High School. She is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.


Throughout her life, Walasiewicz set over 100 national and world records, including 51 Polish records, 18 world records, and 8 European records. Her European record for 100 yards remains unbeaten as of 2006, although races measured in yards are rare today.

Last Updated on Sunday, 15 July 2012 09:09

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