Szewińska and her Tokyo medals
Szewińska and her Tokyo medals

In 1964, one of the more powerful track and field teams at the Tokyo Olympics was the team from Poland. Jozef Szmidt won his second straight gold in the triple jump. Andrzej Badenski took bronze in a tough men’s 400-meter competition, and the Polish men from the 100-meters relay team took silver behind the Americans.

The 4×100 women’s relay team did even better, streaking to gold and an (apparent) world record in Tokyo. The women who ran the second leg was Irena Kirszenstein Szewinska. The then-20-year-old from Warsaw was starting a career that would carry her through five consecutive Olympiads. In that period, she captured an amazing total of seven Olympic track and field medals.

In addition to her gold medal in the 100-meter relays and a silver in the 200 meters, she was a silver medalist in the long jump as well. But she was indeed a sprinter at heart, and set 10 world records in the 100 meters, 200 meters and the 400 meter sprints.

At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, she won her first individual sprinting gold medal in the 200-meter sprint finals in come-from-behind style. Seemingly behind 4 or 5 other runners, when she hit the straightaway, she accelerated and pulled away with ease, as you can see in the video below.

After winning a bronze medal in the 200 meters at the Munich Olympics in 1972, Kirszenstein Szewinska reinvented herself. In 1973, she began competing in the longer 400 meters, and as her IAAF Hall of Fame profile page states, “she quickly proved very adept at the new distance. The following year she became the first woman to break 50 seconds over one lap of the track.”

“My favorite event was the 200 meters because deep down I felt like a sprinter,” she said in this short video on the Polish Olympian. “My heart always belonged to sprint. Nevertheless, I always treated the 400 meters as a long spring, and that’s why I was successful at that distance as well.”

Szewińska 400 meter finals Montreal
Szewińska pulling away in the 400 meter finals at Montreal

In Montreal, at the age of 30, she punished the competition, set a world record, and won her most satisfying gold medal.

“I had been running for 20 years. During that time, there were many important moments. But I suppose the most important moment of all of them was the last gold medal I won at the Montreal Games for the 400 meters.”

One of the greatest women track and field stars of the 20th century, Kirszenstein Szewinska has continued her career in sports as an administrator, including Vice-President (1995-1999) then Executive Board Member (1999-2003) of the World Olympians’ Association (WOA), member of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) Women’s Committee (1984-2007).

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?

One of my go-to books for great images from the Tokyo Olympics is the coffee table to me, “Tokyo Olympiad 1964” published by the Kyodo News Agency. On one page, the book tells a wonderful story about the joy of victory through three fantastic pictures.

Ewa Klobukowska anchored a Polish women’s team that won gold in the 4 X 100 relay race, and set a world record time of 43.0 seconds, defeating the American and British teams that took silver and bronze respectively. Klobukowska, who also took bronze in the women’s 100 meter compeition, was so happy in victory that when requested by an official to return the baton, she didn’t want to give it back. I’ve provided the captions from the book below.

“Hannah, we’ve made it.” Poland’s anchor Eva Klobukowska (center) embraces Teresa Barbara Ciepla (extreme right), excited over the world record their team set in the Women’s 400 M Relay.
“Say, young lady, you can’t take it with you!”
“But I want to. I love this baton.” – Poland’s Eva Klobukowska.

“Eva, give it to me.” Poland’s Teresa Barbara Ciepla takes the baton past the official into the dugout.

Five years later,