The STELLA WALSH CONTROVERSY was a high-profile affair that began soon after WALSH, (WALASIEWICZ), STELLA (STANISLAWA) was shot to death in a parking lot during an attempted robbery on December 4, 1980. An autopsy performed after her death opened a debate about her participation in women’s sports and her reputation as one of the best female athletes of the twentieth century.
On the night before Walsh’s funeral, WKYC (Channel 3) in Cleveland published a report that questioned whether Walsh had been a man or a woman based on a claim that police were investigating findings that Walsh had male sex organs. Cleveland’s Polish community was outraged at the story, and BIELEN, CASIMIR, the president of the Nationality Newspapers and Services in Cleveland, began organizing the Stella Walsh Defense Fund to take legal action against the station. WKYC submitted a request to the Cuyahoga County Coroner to release the findings on Walsh to confirm their story, but the coroner, Dr. Samuel Gerber, refused to release his report until his findings were complete. At the time, he reported only that Walsh’s birth certificate and death certificate identified her as female. Following Walsh’s funeral, WKYC Channel 3 filed a lawsuit against the coroner’s office to force the release of the autopsy report. On January 23, 1981, after a judge sided with WKYC, Gerber published his findings.
The publication of Gerber’s autopsy report led to increased controversy surrounding Walsh. Gerber wrote in his report that “socially, culturally and legally, Stella Walsh was accepted as a female for 69 years. She lived and died a female.” However, he found that Stella Walsh had been intersex, having an anatomy that differed from typical male or female sex characteristics. Specifically, Walsh had a form of mosaicism in which most of her sex chromosomes were male, or XY chromosomes, but some were found to be abnormal female sex chromosomes, or XO chromosomes. Gerber also found that Walsh had no female sexual organs but had nonfunctional male sexual organs which would have been ambiguous at birth, enabling her to be raised either as male or female. Dr. William Angus Muir, the director of the Genetic Center at Case Western Reserve University at the time, argued alongside Gerber that Walsh’s biological characteristics did not negate the fact that she lived as a woman, stating that, “You have to take into consideration the whole human being. And if biologically you can call someone a male or female by their chromosomes, functionally or psychologically they may be in fact the other.”
Prior to her death, Walsh had been involved in controversies over gender in women’s sports, but they were not her own. In 1936, following Walsh’s loss in the 100 meter race to Helen Stephens at the Berlin Olympics, a rumor was circulated by a Polish newspaper that Stephens was a man and that the United States Olympic committee had knowingly permitted her to run in the woman’s race. As a result, the United States Olympic committee advanced a motion to subject all women entering the Olympic games to an examination to determine their sex. Additionally, German Olympic officials disclosed that they had examined Stephens to determine her sex prior to allowing her to compete in the 1936 Olympic games. After Walsh’s death, amidst the national media sensation over her autopsy findings, there was speculation that Walsh may have started the rumors about Helen Stephens in order to draw attention away from herself.
Walsh had been known as one of the greatest woman athletes of all time, but the realization that she was intersex prompted questions about the legitimacy of her titles. Reporters began to find athletes who had lost to Walsh in competition and asked them to comment on the findings. Hilda Strike, who came second to Walsh in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, claimed that the gold medal should have gone to her in 1984. However, the controversy over Walsh’s Olympic titles was settled in 1981 by Eduardo Hay, a member of the International Olympic Committee and the Vice Chairman of the Medical Commission, who examined the case in the Olympic Review. Hay wrote that “it is obvious that she would not have been allowed to participate nowadays” due to the implementation of sex confirmation for competitors in 1968, but he concluded that Walsh had not had any desire to break the regulations on competing in women’s events at the time and had no awareness of doing so. Stella Walsh’s Olympic titles were left intact, but issues surrounding gender in women’s sports have continued to generate significant controversy.
Last Updated: 6/30/2022
“Coroner's Report Says Stella Walsh 'Lived and Died' a Woman.” United Press International, February 11, 1981.
Hay, Eduardo. “The Stella Walsh Case.” Olympic Review 162 (April 1981): 221–22.
“Stella Walsh Slain.” The New York Times, December 6, 1980.