Thursday 19 January 2012

Olympic Countdown

Since this article first appeared a lot of new information has been revealed and new research has been carried out. This article should be seen as a mere snapshot of the information known at the date of its publication. Several facts may now be outdated or inaccurate.

The earliest identified gay Olympic athlete is German runner Otto Peltzer at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, which saw the introduction of the Olympic flame and cauldron. Otto rose to become a hero of the German athletics world, only to fall to the depths under the Nazis. His story will be told on 27th January.

Sports organisations have never really accepted that gay men can (or should) do sports. Women athletes too have not always been accepted. Way back at the ancient Olympics women weren’t allowed to watch let alone compete. The modern Olympics were formed when women weren’t even allowed to vote, but women were accepted as competitors in some sports – as long as it was men who decided which ones.

After the 1920 Olympics female track and field athletes requested to be included in 1924. The IOC (mainly de Courbertin) refused and this led to the creation of the first Women’s Olympics. They were the brainchild of French athlete Alice Milliat who created the Fédération Sportive Féminine International (FSFI) in 1921 after organising a Women’s Olympiad in Monaco. The FSFI organised the first proper Women’s Olympics in Paris in 1922. The 2nd were held in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1926.

Before the 3rd Women’s Olympics in Prague 1930 the IOC protested (not for the last time) to the name “Olympic” being used. The FSFI was forced to drop the title and the games were renamed the Women’s World Games. Even though the IOC accepted female track and field events at the 1928 Olympics (again, against de Coubertin’s wishes) the FSFI organised its 4th games in London in 1934. A 5th games to be held in Vienna in 1938 was abandoned after the FSFI ceased operations in 1936.

The Women’s Games featured 3 identified lgbt athletes. Mary Weston (UK) competed in the 2nd Women’s Olympics in 1926 and, with Zdena Koubkova (Czechosolvakia), competed at the last games in London 1934. Zdena won the 800m gold medal, breaking the world record. Within 2 years both women had undergone gender reassignment and were living as men and banned from competitive sport.

The 3rd athlete competed in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and in Berlin 1936. She was Polish athlete Stella Walsiewicz (aka Stella Walsh). Born in Poland in 1911 Stella’s family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, some months later. Except for a brief period this was Stella’s home for the rest of her life. She excelled in athletics from an early age, but couldn’t compete for the US because she wasn’t given US citizenship until 1947. She represented Poland at both of her Olympics.

During her career Stella held 18 world records, 8 European records and 3 Women’s Olympics gold medals in short distance running, becoming a famous female athlete. She won her only Olympic gold medal in her first games but was beaten to the gold medal in 1936 by American Helen Stephens. The Polish media accused Stephens of being a man and she was subjected to physical inspection. The accusation proved false. However, what happened 44 years later brought a whole new perspective to the incident.

On a crisp December evening in 1980, 69-year-old Stella Walsh went shopping for party ribbon. As she walked back to her car she was ambushed by an armed man. After a brief struggle a gunshot rang out and the man ran away. Stella slumped to the ground, fatally shot. Her death shocked the sporting world. But her murder was over-shadowed by reports of the autopsy which revealed Stella had been born intersex - with both female and male sexual organs. The sensationalist uproar took unnecessary attention away from what is still an unsolved murder.

The most successful female multi-sport champion of all time is Mildred Didrickson Zaharias. She is the earliest identified lesbian Olympian, competing in 1932 in Los Angeles winning 3 medals in hurdles, javelin and high jump.

Born to immigrant Norwegian parents in Texas “Babe”, as she was usually called, started out playing basketball for an amateur team which won the 1931 Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) championship. Moving to track and field Babe won 8 events at the 1932 AAU championships, breaking 8 world records in the process. Later that year she was chosen for the US Olympic team in Los Angeles, winning 2 gold medals and 1 silver. Her high jump result was controversial. She tied with fellow American Jean Shiley for first place, so the judges ordered a jump-off.  After they both cleared the same record-breaking height the judges decided that Babe’s new style of rolling over the bar was illegal. Babe settled for silver medal, but shared the height record with Shiley. Not long afterwards Babe’s “rolling” jump was legalized.

After 1932 Babe Zaharias excelled at other sports, particularly golf, becoming a celebrity in the process. In a golfing career spanning 21 years she won 48 professional titles. In 1950 the Associated Press named Babe Zaharias the greatest female athlete of the first half of the 20th century. In 1999 they named her the greatest female athlete of the whole 20th century.

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