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Human Velocity

A conversation with Michael Waters

Just in time for the Paris Summer Olympics and in the middle of a cultural firestorm about whether or not trans athletes belong in sports, Michael Waters’s book The Other Olympians: Fascism, Queerness, and the Making of Modern Sports upends long-held assumptions about trans people’s participation in sports. The book tells the stories of Zdeněk Koubek, one of the most famous sprinters in European women’s sports, and the celebrated British field athlete Mark Weston, both of whom transitioned gender in the mid-1930s and were the catalysts for the first sex-testing policies in sports.

By examining the history of the gender-diverse athletes who have always competed, as well as the systems that have tried to limit their participation, Waters’s book is as relevant today as it would have been during the events it chronicles. In fact, it’s eerie how the debates Waters recounts mirror the ones we’re currently having. In showing us our history, Waters’s book seems to suggest, we will perhaps not be doomed to repeat it.

We spoke last month over Zoom about his new book, the Olympics, sex-testing policies, and Josephine Baker. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

—Frankie de la Cretaz


Frankie de la Cretaz: When did you start reporting this book, and how did you come across these stories?

Michael Waters: I first started on this in 2021. I found the story while looking through It’s this incredible resource of digitized newspapers. I have a background writing about queer history, and I’m always interested in really trying to identify those stories of queer people or communities that exist, especially in these moments in time when, from the contemporary vantage point, we don’t expect them—which is just to say that I’m often searching different phrases related to sexuality or gender on

I started getting obsessed with this trans woman named Barbara Ann Richards, who, in 1941, petitioned the Los Angeles Superior Court to have her identity documents changed to reflect her transition. In some of those articles there were references like, “You might remember a few years ago, these two athletes also really publicly transitioned gender.” I was like, “I’ve never heard of these people,” in this case, Zdeněk Koubek and Mark Weston. I was sure they’d been pretty widely covered in some way and started digging and there wasn’t a lot out there about them as people, and not just as footnotes in history. That’s where the obsession started.

FDLC: It’s sometimes shocking when you come across stories that should have such historical significance and then you don’t find it. I had a similar experience when I was reporting my own book, Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League. How quickly did you realize that, beyond just the personal stories of these athletes, there was this massive cultural and political underpinning to it that, as we’ll talk about, is very relevant today?

MW: I first got that context, honestly, by reading other scholars. Lindsay [Parks] Pieper, for instance, has written this book, Sex Testing. I read that pretty early on after discovering Koubek and Weston. She was the one who had really situated their stories in this larger context for me, and told me that there was meaning to these athletes. Pieper’s book is incredible if you want the full history of sex testing, and then mine is the 1930s with gestures toward the present. But I really wanted to have a tight timeline for mine.

FDLC: From a craft perspective, how did you decide what the scope of the story was going to be?

MW: I really wanted to narrativize what happened in the 1930s to show all of the different subjective forces and individual people, with their own host of biases and flaws, that came together to first create these sex-testing policies in 1936. It was important to me to show, on this almost tactile level, who these people were because sports bureaucracies are very good about hiding the people behind them. I think you can really only do that justice in a tight timeframe.

That was one big motivation. And the other is just that I had this incredible document that Koubek had left that chronicled his life from the late 1920s into the 1930s. That was the grounding structural force for the whole book. Those things converge—I can show Koubek’s story and then also show the very specific group of individuals who made sex-testing policies and show why, ever since, it’s been such a flawed policy.

FDLC: What was your relationship to sports prior to this project?

MW: I definitely come from the queer history background and not the sports background. I have been exposed to sports history through the work of people focusing on queer sports history, women’s sports history, these marginalized sports histories. But it was definitely a process of learning the ins and outs of how the Olympics operates and how the sports federations operate because, for me, the story was initially these two athletes, and I think the administrative aspects of it came a little bit later.

FDLC: This is something I struggle with currently, when I’m writing about trans athletes. It’s so much more complicated than people realize. You have those direct people—the bureaucracy—and then you have the political climate that is influencing the bureaucracy. Not only that, to make administrative and bureaucratic meetings interesting for a reader is a really difficult task. How did you manage to do that?

MW: I think, ultimately, that’s how these bureaucratic systems are able to hide what they do and hide the implications and the people behind different policies, just because it is such a confusing web, and it is really hard to articulate. It is hard to dramatize for people. One thing I was really surprised about is just how sparse a lot of the meeting minutes were from the early [International Association of Athletics Federations] IAAF, which is now World Athletics [the international governing body of track and field], and [International Olympic Committee] IOC meetings.

The public treated the story with a sense of possibility, and I think this very small group of sports officials treated it as a cause for concern.

It was very frustrating as a researcher, because I would get these meeting minutes from the 1930s, and there would be some sections that would be really detailed. Discussions of how wind velocity could affect world records would have paragraphs of notes on the back and forth discussion with names attached and the different arguments being made. And then you get to this question of sex testing and it would be one to two tiny paragraphs, maximum.

The fact that there was so little about the sex-testing policy became the story. It was clear that everyone had something to say about wind velocity, but no one had much to say about sex testing, which is wild. I don’t know that I even successfully narrativize that except to point out who the people were who brought these topics to discussion, and then perhaps their individual points of view. Just by seeing who these people are, you also see why that conversation didn’t happen and the consequences of that ever since.

FDLC: This still happens. I wrote a piece just a few months ago for The Nation about a horrible trans policy that was passed by the sport of climbing. When you actually look at the board of directors voting to approve this policy, they didn’t even read it in the meeting. They just trusted that other people who should have read it had read it, and then signed off on it. This is people’s lives and livelihoods that people are being so flip about.

MW: If you’re a casual viewer of sports, you can fall into the misconception that there was some deep discussion and there’s some logic behind any policy that you see. When you have the power of an institution, it’s really easy to get away with seeming like you had the full conversation. I’m not writing about the present, but in the 1930s, it’s really clear that they didn’t have a real conversation and that these policies just were not thought through. And obviously the harm is trans and intersex athletes being pushed out of sports in all these different ways.

FDLC: What was the reporting process like for you?

MW: The big, grounding source is this short memoir that Koubek wrote in 1936, for a Czech magazine, and that was in a Czech archive. I got that translated into English by this wonderful translator named Meghan Forbes. Koubek is so funny, which I didn’t expect.

FDLC: I will say, I think you did a really good job of infusing his personality into the book. I was like, “Oh, he’s a hater.” I love a hater.

MW: Yeah, he definitely is a hater.

FDLC: That’s another queer tradition.

MW: Absolutely. But everything else is pieced together through a mix of a lot of different newspaper articles. These athletes, in particular, were discussed in the press, sometimes erroneously, so [it was a matter of] trying to match up all the newspaper articles and find the potentially true narrative. And then, in terms of the sports bureaucracy stuff, I visited the IOC archives, I visited [former IOC president] Avery Brundage’s archives. It was a lot of looking through sports archives, and then randomly emailing people who had written about these kinds of obscure sports organizations who maybe had some documents.

It’s interesting, especially when you’re looking at women’s sports, just how few of the meeting minutes or records from women’s sports groups in the 1930s were saved. There are a few pivotal organizations that don’t have any kind of centralized archive. I was able to find some meeting minutes for the South African women’s sports federation by emailing this one scholar in South Africa who’d written something about them before, and he just had these meeting minutes on his computer.

FDLC: Something that really stands out for me in reading this book is, those of us that write about this issue today, we throw around ideas about a lot of the surveillance and policing of bodies as being very fascist. And I think people are sometimes a little bit flip about how they use this language, especially in comparison to Nazis. But in reading your book, it’s like, “literally Nazis, though.” Can you talk a little bit about the political climate that was happening at the time that allowed these policies to be passed?

MW: The 1936 Olympics in Nazi Berlin is responsible for a lot of really important legacies of the Olympics, for better and for worse. It is framed as this really pivotal moment for the Games. We see its legacy in terms of the Torch Run, for example. A lot of the prominent sports officials with a lot of influence over the IOC are members of the Nazi Party or are in some ways sympathetic to the Nazi Party, like in the case of Avery Brundage.

It’s a very specific group of people with a very specific ideology—or ideological sympathies—who are governing these things. And so when you have this discussion bubbling up of athletes transitioning gender, it just fit with the framework of the sports officials that this would inherently be a problem. They didn’t actually interrogate whether what they were doing made sense, either. In Koubek and Weston’s case, they played women’s sports before transitioning but then after they transitioned, Weston was retired and Koubek wanted to play men’s sports. It didn’t logically make sense as to why you would even pass a policy in response to these two athletes that would restrict who can play in women’s sports, considering neither of them even wanted to do that.

It really is stark in contrast to how the public received these athletes. When you’re looking at the press coverage in the United States, for instance, there’s this real sense of curiosity about Koubek and Weston and about the idea of moving between these [gender] categories. The coverage was definitely sensational and some of the language wouldn’t fly today, but I think the public treated the story with a sense of possibility, and I think this very small group of sports officials treated it as a cause for concern. And you can only understand why they took it as such a reason for concern by interrogating what their other political beliefs were.

FDLC: Jules Gill-Peterson has written about sports being almost like an entry point to this kind of bigotry. There’s something about sport that makes it one of the only acceptable places to really police bodies in this way. Do you have any thoughts about why that is?

MW: That’s such a good question. Do you have any thoughts on that? I’d love to hear your perspective.

FDLC: There’s a bunch of stuff that happens around sports, and particularly women’s sports. There’s the sexist ideas of “protecting” women, and the paternalistic ideas that spring up in the Victorian era that sports were bad for women’s bodies. All of that already has people wary of women’s sports, so anything that might look like a threat to cis women, in particular, becomes cause for concern.

It’s really easy to use language around sport that sounds reasonable to the average person. Sport is based on bodies and even if we know how subjective outcomes actually are and how different everybody’s body is because the end result is a time or a score or a number—something that people see as so concrete—these policies seem “neutral” in a way they’re actually not.

MW: That makes a lot of sense. I also wonder how the legacy of the fact that there has been such regimented sex testing in sports for so long also impacts transphobic policies being passed in other places throughout history. The Olympics has had some variation of this policy on the books since the 1930s. Does the fact that sports leagues have instituted these policies for so long also make it feel more reasonable when they go further and further? I just wonder if suddenly it feels like a natural part of sports that you can look at someone or measure someone and then assign them like a male or female category, which, as we know, does not actually scientifically make sense. But it does feel like the sports leagues have gotten away with that idea, or maybe have further enshrined the idea just by doing it for so long.

FDLC: I think you’re right. It’s an argument that I’ve made actually, about how the passage of Title IX in the United States, which is often heralded as so much progress for women’s sports, also codified sex-segregated sports into law and has actually harmed overall trans inclusion because it made people think that that was just the most logical way to organize sports. People don’t question it because it’s the law. So I think it’s similar, for sure.

What was significant to me is the fact that the athletes you found were track athletes. The IAAF—today, World Athletics—has always had the strictest policies around this. A lot of the really high-profile cases of gender questioning that we’ve seen have come out of the track and field space. When you were reporting this, did anything stand out to you about why it was track, specifically, where this happened?

MW: Historically, the reason why women’s track and field was such a fixation for sports officials and such a cause for panic has a lot to do with race and class. In the early history, there were very few sports for women at the Olympics. Those sports that are available are sports like tennis or golf, which at the time, you had to be a member of a club in order to play and therefore only upper-class white women in the early 1900s could have had access to. Track and field is much more democratized. People from across race and class lines can just more easily access that sport.

Treating one set of sports as inherently masculine, and one as being inherently not is ridiculous, as we know. But I think the fact that sports officials were able to cast tennis and golf as being feminine and track and field as being this masculinizing set of sports for women speaks to who was able to participate in these sports. The context for that is that everyone who’s governing sports at this time, in the IOC, it’s all upper-class white men. Do you have any thoughts on that?

FDLC: It goes back to these issues that you’re talking about in your book—in the beginning, which countries were represented at the Olympics? This was all about establishing the supremacy of the white male, in their athletic prowess and as this show of strength. If you open the Games up to other countries and suddenly, the white male is not as strong and dominant as you thought he was, that challenges the white supremacist view of the world, and that’s a threat to that whole ideology. It’s just racism, plain and simple.

MW: Absolutely.

FDLC: When we talk about trans athletes, we’re usually talking about transfeminine athletes trying to compete in women’s sports—that is really who these policies are overwhelmingly impacting. And yet, as you write, their roots are targeting athletes who are assigned female at birth and weren’t even trying to compete in the women’s division. I’m curious to hear from you what we can learn about that, because these policies that weren’t designed for trans women have really ended up impacting trans women.

MW: To understand why Koubek and Weston, these two transmasc athletes, were used as the justification for sex-testing policies in the 1930s, it goes back to how gender was understood in the 1930s. At the time, there was no concept of gender as this psychological or social concept distinct from biological sex. And so, when Koubek and Weston transitioned, the way the newspapers covered them was that there was something that their physical bodies had “metamorphosized.” That was literally the language you would see in this coverage like, spontaneously, they realized that their bodies were changing and then all of a sudden, it aligned more with a man’s and so now they’re going to begin to live as men.

When sports officials read that, what they saw was that perhaps there was always something about these athletes that meant they didn’t align perfectly with this definition of “femaleness” that sports officials in the 1930s had. That’s why there’s this confusing fact that these two transmasculine athletes who didn’t even want to do women’s sports anymore would be the justification for these policies.

But you do see parallels to the ways in which sex testing is used today, predominantly, as you said, against transfeminine athletes. The justification for sex testing at the time was, as it is now, about “protecting” women’s sports and these athletes who are overly masculine in some way, like Koubek and Weston, were seen as a threat to the sport. It was using this idea of people who didn’t fit a very specific definition of femininity as being a threat to women’s sports, that was the rhetoric that was used to pass these policies. So while it doesn’t seem to make sense on paper, when you read their logic you see the parallel to today and you see how this could grow to become a thing that has kept so many transfeminine and intersex women out of sports for decades, in different ways.

FDLC: Was there anything you thought was cool or surprising that you found during your reporting that you haven’t gotten to talk about yet?

MW: One thing I loved about researching this story is just the ways in which Koubek and Weston’s stories folded into the lives of these other iconic figures of the era. One of my favorite facts is that Koubek, after he transitions and temporarily retires from sports, he goes on Broadway in New York and is kind of a celebrity. And then he goes to Paris, and he dances with Josephine Baker.

I just love knowing that Koubek’s story is on that same continuum, that Baker and Koubek knew each other in some way, that Josephine Baker is so iconic also for her anti-fascism work. Often these histories are way more intertwined than we realize, and that was one small moment that really drove that home for me. I didn’t research this thinking that Koubek would have met Josephine Baker and that they would be billed together in a performance. The fact that they were just shows how connected all of these histories are.