We may earn a commission through product links on this page. But we only recommend stuff we love.

‘The Other Olympians’ Is Essential Reading Heading Into This Year’s Summer Olympics

When track-and-field stars Zdeněk Koubek and Mark Weston began undergoing gender-affirming treatment in the mid-1930s, neither of them could’ve possibly predicted the ways their names and stories would be invoked by athletic officials, journalists, and the general public over the course of the following two decades. What began in the press as sympathetic and, sometimes, compassionate coverage of their difficulties living within the limitations of their assigned sex and their journey towards transition quickly got turned into disingenuous accusation and sensationalism that would later come to haunt the way we view and understand sex and gender in sports — and in our society in general — ever since. Fascism, the power of the Nazis, and the belief and practice of eugenics across Europe (and the U.S.) collided directly into the making of the modern Olympics as we now know it and created a vision of women’s participation in sports that still dictates how women’s sports are conducted today.

In his debut, The Other Olympians: Fascism, Queerness, and the Making of Modern Sports, Michael Waters introduces us to a host of historical characters to help illustrate how the controversial yet widely accepted sex-testing policies used to govern participation in women’s athletic competitions came to life. On one side, we have Koubek and Weston and several other trans athletes of the period, such as Willy De Bruyn and Witold Smętek, who participated in and became record holders in women’s athletic competitions prior to pursuing transition. On another is Alice Milliat, a French sports administrator who helped organize the Women’s World Games, an all-female international amateur athletic competition that began before women were allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. And finally, we’re introduced to the pernicious and malevolent men — some actual Nazis, others totally unbothered by the genocidal Nazi regime — who made up the International Olympic Committee, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (the governing body of track-and-field sports), and the Amateur Athletic Union (the U.S. equivalent to the IAAF).

Using a series of archival material, literally everything from magazine and newspaper articles to newsreels and early video clips to actual IOC, IAAF, and AAU meeting minutes, Waters connects this otherwise forgotten history of sex testing in the Olympic Games to the conversations we’re currently having about women’s sports and to the institutionalization and codification of the strict gender binary in general. As Waters points out, the early part of the 20th century was a particularly interesting time for the science of sex and gender. Doctors not only knew there were no stable definitions of the “male” sex and the “female” sex because of the variability of the human body, but they often said as much in public, in scientific journals, and even in popular periodicals of the time. As a result, “in the 1930s, few regulatory bodies had yet taken it upon themselves to build out regimes of gender surveillance,” with the exception of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration.

However, all of that would begin to change once news of Koubek’s, then Weston’s, and then, most controversially, Heinz Ratjen’s medical and social transitions began to circulate widely in the 1930s and 1940s. IOC and IAAF officials, along with Nazi representatives and other members representative of international governments — who had long been skeptical about women’s participation in sports and who had a particular disdain for the participation of “masculine-looking” women — jumped at the opportunity to figure out a way to exclude women whose bodies challenged the traditional notion of femininity, intersex people, and, of course, trans women. In the process, the IOC, with the help of Avery Brundage, then president of the AAU and Nazi sympathizer, actually helped birth a system of gender surveillance that has only increased in severity over the last eight decades: “In pushing forward sex testing policies, Brundage was doing something radical — taking a concept of sex that even medial professionals had not resolved, and enshrining it into institutional policy. He was codifying the idea that ‘male’ and ‘female’ were distinct biological categories, ones that not only could be but should be identified and measured. Even as doctors around him were struggling to define methods to clearly distinguish men from women, Brundage was reinforcing the misconception that sex distinctions were natural.”

As they were debating and drafting these new regulations for sex testing, the IOC continually claimed that the work they were doing was in service of female athletes. They claimed they were trying to ensure fairness across women’s sports. They pointed to people like Koubek, Weston, and Ratjen as examples of why sex testing was needed: to keep men out of women’s sports. But this completely disregarded the fact that none of these athletes had any intentions to keep competing in women’s sports. Koubek, especially, was very vocal about wanting to compete with and against other men. And that’s because it never really mattered. As Waters writes, “From the start of the Olympics, panic about masculine women always focused on track-and-field sports. In the context of the Olympics, track-and-field attracted the highest shares of working-class women and women of color, who were deemed less feminine than their rich, white counterparts.” Consequently, gender surveillance just became another tool by which the ruling class members of the IOC, IAAF, and AAU could judge who does and does not belong in amateur athletic competitions.

Sex testing officially began at the London Olympics in 1948 and has been an official part of Olympic participation in women’s sports ever since. In instituting these policies, the IOC and the IAAF ensured that there would be an institutionally established binary between “men” and “women,” and that they had a way to enforce it. As time has gone on, the gender surveillance birthed as a result of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the events that followed would become more and more entrenched into not only the world of athletic competitions but also in every aspect of our society. Although the IOC and many other athletic organizations have outwardly banned the participation of trans athletes, Waters points out in the book how, historically, these sex tests have always had consequences for women of varying body types, chromosomal compositions, and hormonal make-ups. By the time the Olympics kicked off in the late 1960s, it seemed as if everyone involved forgot the fascist origins of sex testing and were satisfied with the explanation that it was purely a technicality to ensure competition between women was right and fair. Now, it’s become so interwoven with our idea of how sports should be that people are afraid of what might happen if we decide to reverse course: “Sex testing became part of the fiction that ‘men’s sports’ and ‘women’s sports’ were logical concepts. Abolishing sex testing would mean acknowledging that people cannot be sorted so inherently into male and female categories. And if human sex is not built on a binary, fans might start to ask: Why, then, should sports be?”

It’s a fascinating and, oftentimes, frustrating exploration of how we got to where we are in both the sports and gender debate and the limitation of trans rights in general. In a moment when it doesn’t seem like a day goes by without some kind of anti-trans legislation being passed somewhere, this book uncovers the often forgotten but, more likely, purposely hidden history behind the backlash we’re seeing right now. Waters’s meticulous research spans the course of over 100 years and features the direct testimony of so many important characters in this story, whether from the main subjects of the text or from doctors, journalists, and other officials of the period. His research proves, over and over again, how arbitrary the methods involved in upholding a system of gender surveillance were and have become. Sex testing — and gender surveillance more generally — never had the intention of making women’s athletic competitions more fair because there wasn’t (and still isn’t) definitive proof that one kind of woman has an athletic advantage over another kind of woman. It’s just another method of control meant to keep us in line and the current systems in place.

What is most interesting about Waters’s book, though, is how surprising some of this history will be to people who read it. As Waters points out in his Author’s Note at the end of the book, people often think of the unfolding of history as a linear process: Living was more difficult, but then society progressed and our lives got better. In a lot of ways, The Other Olympians challenges that notion directly. In fact, what you’re getting when you read it is not only a reminder of just how far we haven’t come but also concrete proof that everything we think is set in stone is much more fluid than it appears. Although he never says it outright, Waters’s cinematic and wonderfully animated storytelling helps present a world of possibility open to us so long as we’re willing to keep challenging the mandates of the status quo. Through these sometimes incredible, sometimes rage-inducing accounts, Waters’s reconstruction of this tumultuous and violent history should help everyone see that the deconstruction of these systems is not only necessary, but it’s absolutely possible.

The Other Olympians: Fascism, Queerness, and the Making of Modern Sports by Michael Waters is out now.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 89 articles for us.

1 Comment

  1. Very excited to read this! As someone who was educated in the Southern US, I wish it didn’t constantly surprise me how much queer history has been erased from mainstream narratives. Thanks for the spotlight and thoughtful review!

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!