Ewa Klubokowska’s Timing was Right in 1964, But Wrong in 1967: The Inexact Science of Gender Testing in the 1960s

Halina Górecka and Ewa Kłobukowska 1964
Ewa Kłobukowska in 1964

Can you come in second and still set a world record? In the 1960s, the answer was “Yes”.

Take a close look at the table below. The winners of the Women’s 4X100 relay at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was Poland, followed quickly by the United States and Great Britain.

4x100 womens relay 1964 results table

Do you see it?

That’s right. A world record was set at the Tokyo Games, but it was credited to the United States team with a time of 43.9 seconds, this despite Poland’s faster time of 43.6 seconds.

While Poland’s anchor, Ewa Klobukowska finished 0.3 seconds ahead of US anchor Edith McGuire, it took McGuire and the US team another three years to overtake Klobukowska and the Poland team. And it happened under unusual circumstances.

Klubowska, seen here triumphantly at the end of the 1964 4×100 relay finals, was a year away from achieving Olympic glory at the 1968 Mexico City Games when she failed a gender test. There was significant attention given to female athletes, particularly those from the Soviet bloc nations, due to physically masculine characteristics. Due to the failed test, she was unceremoniously banned from competing in athletics. She was not accused of doping, but instead was found to have “one chromosome too many”, as the IAAF put it at the time.

As we learn in school, men have a combination of one X and one Y chromosome, while women have two X chromosomes. Apparently, Klobukowska was found in 1967 to have, as Wikipedia put it, “a genetic mosaic of XX/XXY”. But the science of gender genetics was advancing quickly, and a year later a different test was used to determine gender, one called the Barr Body test. A Barr Body, as far as I can understand it, is a cell that has more than one X chromosome. In other words, women would have Barr Bodies, while men would not.

From the Mexico City Games in 1968, the International Olympic Committee began using the Barr Body test. If Klobukowska had been tested in 1968 instead of 1967, it would have been revealed that she had a Barr Body despite the additional “Y” chromosome, and thus should have been classified as female.

Ewa Klobukowska portrait

When Klobukowska was tested in 1967, and found to have a Y chromosome, the IOC ruled that the Poland team could remain gold-medal champions in their 1964 race, but that their world record time would be discounted. Since the time of the silver-medal team from US was also faster than the previous world record, they were granted recognition of having broken the record. Perhaps IOC’s decision was an acknowledgement of the inexact science that was (and is) gender genetics. But the test revelation created a cloud of shame over Klobukowska, in hindsight, one that should have never emerged.

One unanswered question for me – if the Barr Body test in 1968 would likely have not resulted in Klobukowska’s ban, why does the IOC not restore Poland’s world record time in 1964?