Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management
University of Manitoba
In The Forgotten Legacy of Stella Walsh, Sheldon Anderson makes the case that Polish-American runner Stella Walsh should be remembered as the greatest female athlete of her generation. While Walsh earned gold and silver medals in the 100 m at the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, won seven medals in the sprint events at the Women’s World Games in 1930 and 1934, set dozens of world, American, and Polish records, and competed for more than three decades at the national and international levels, many people today know her by the derogatory nickname, ‘Stella the fella,’ and continue to accuse her, posthumously, of ‘masquerading’ as a woman to compete in women’s events. Her role in the IOC and IAAF’s continued interest in verifying women athletes’ sex, and preventing athletes with disorders of sex development (DSD, formerly intersex) from competing in women’s events, has overshadowed her significant athletic accomplishments—something Anderson seeks to rectify.
Anderson traces Walsh’s childhood and athletic career, beginning with her parents’ move from Wierzchownia, Poland, to Cleveland, USA, in 1911 when she was just three months old. In doing so, he pieces together a convincing argument that her contributions to women’s sport history have been unforgivably overlooked and downplayed. As a diplomatic historian whose recent publications have focused on sport, Anderson infuses his narrative of Walsh’s life with astute observations about the social forces and politics at play throughout her career in America and Poland. Particularly in the first half of the book, Anderson intersects Walsh’s life with the stories of other prominent Polish American and Clevelandian athletes, film stars, and politicians.
Anderson presents Walsh as a dedicated athlete, a model representative of Avery Brundage’s amateur ideal, and a shy Polish-American young woman tenaciously following her passion for sport in a time when women weren’t encouraged to do so. From photographs included in the book, it is clear Anderson traveled to many locations Walsh was known to frequent to learn more about her, including the schools she attended, sports clubs at which she trained, and her gravesite. His investigative work, drawing on newspaper coverage, archival research, and interviews with people who knew her, successfully uncovers previously unknown details of Walsh’s life and personal interests.American newspaper coverage described both Stephens and Walsh’s bodies as strong, masculine, and unfeminine, yet it was only Stephens at the time who faced speculation about being a man competing in the women’s category.
Walsh’s most well-known race, where running for Poland she finished second to American Helen Stephens at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, receives considerable attention. Walsh was attempting to defend her Olympic 100 m title earned during the previous Games in Los Angeles. When she placed second, Polish officials speculated publically that Stephens was a man. Anderson demonstrates that American newspaper coverage described both Stephens and Walsh’s bodies as strong, masculine, and unfeminine, yet it was only Stephens at the time who faced speculation about being a man competing in the women’s category. Anderson merely foreshadows the controversy that would arise decades later regarding Walsh’s sex, noting in different places that Walsh showed up to all competitions in track gear, never showered in the locker room after practices or events, and refused to accept being assigned a roommate. Anderson chronicles Walsh’s subsequent two decades of international track and field competition without explicitly noting that the same questions about sex and gender would be raised about Walsh following her murder in 1980. He instead focuses intentionally on Walsh’s achievements in the context of both Cold War diplomacy and Polish American history.
Stella Walsh continued to medal at the U.S. national championships in the 100 m, 200 m, long jump, and discus events throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, winning her last American title in 1951 at age 40. As Anderson describes, “in the United States, vocation often defines a person’s identity, and running was Stella Walsh” (132). When she finally stopped competing, Walsh had amassed 32 track and field national titles in the sprints, discus, and pentathlon, while also excelling in softball, golf, and basketball. Her commitment to women’s track and field is evident not only in her personal participation well into her 50s, but in her support of the next generation of American athletes. Her volunteer coaching, motivated by a desire to see the American women keep up with their Soviet rivals (142), highlights her commitment to growing women’s sport. Walsh volunteered her time to train and coach the next generation of female sprinters and advocated for the equal funding of women and girl’s sports. Analysis of Walsh’s feminism and advocacy are a unique contribution of Anderson’s work relative to other sources addressing the Stella Walsh story.
Anderson calls out sport historians who continue to slander Walsh with claims she won by cheating, intended to deceive, and ‘faked’ being a woman. From all accounts Anderson accessed, Walsh was declared female at birth by doctors and lived her life as a girl and then woman. As Anderson notes, “her birth certificate listed her as a female, she was given a female name and raised female, and she thought of herself as a woman throughout her life. That was her gender identity” (175). Moreover, “the autopsy that revealed Walsh’s genital ambiguity was a cruel conclusion to an inspirational story. Walsh made her name in sports, and now that legacy was being questioned” (188).
Anderson’s book accomplishes two goals: first, to present the most thorough and well-researched biography of Walsh available to date, and secondly, to try to reframe the historical narrative to focus on her accomplishments, rather than the more well-known, post-murder speculation about her chromosomal patterns. As he concludes, “Stella Walsh’s legacy is not at rest.” (191). Historians will appreciate the additional details of Walsh’s life uncovered by Anderson, while readers previously unaware of Walsh’s contributions to American and Polish sport history will gain a balanced understanding of the controversy surrounding her inclusion among the greatest women athletes of all time.
Copyright © Sarah Teetzel 2019