Michael Waters spent three years researching and writing "The Other Olympians" and sees it as a window on yesterday and how the issue affects us today. | Michael Waters

The current contentions over transgender athletes, intersex athletes and how differences in sexual development affect sports have roots that stretch to the beginnings of modern elite sports worldwide. However, such is largely the domain of historians, scholars, and the few journalists willing to dive in.

Journalist Michael Waters’ new book, “The Other Olympians: Fascism, Queerness And The Makings Of Modern Sports”, seeks to bring this history into a broad, accessible focus without diluting its scholarship or analysis. More than three years of research and study of not just sport, but of society in a period of the early 20th century, yields a read that intersects a sports history and a queer history that gives a better understanding to what we are seeing today.

“This started from an ongoing interest in queer history,” Waters told Outsports. “What is always wild to me about looking at the arc of queerness anywhere is that you can find these moments of community and visible queerness in different ways in these eras before the traditional narratives.”

The book delves into a great deal of the early history of elite sport, including the formation of the modern Olympic Games. It also reads much like a dramatic novel in terms how it provides history and backstory of not just some key figures of the period, but also their lives and motivations against the backdrop of world changing in terms of athletics and the larger society building to a climax at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

At the center of a colorful cast of real-life characters however is Zednêk Koubek, a Czech track athlete who came into prominence in the 1930s as one of the best in women’s competition. Koubek’s published memoirs, written after his transition in 1936, provide a great deal of the foundation of this complex and descriptive portrait.

As Koubek was becoming a sprinting star, the fledgling International Amateur Athletic Federation and the International Olympic Committee were grudgingly bringing women’s competition into the fold. Both male-led governing bodies were forcing Alice Millat’s firebrand Women’s World Games to surrender. Her pioneering sports events were a direct response to the chauvinism of modern Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The success through four editions of the World Women’s Games in 1920s and early 1930s was seen as a threat.

He was also coming of age as societies were changing amid inner questions about his own identity. A queerness that Waters aptly describes while also drawing the parallels with Europe’s libertine 1920s, with Weimar Germany at the forefront, clashing with the coming fascist storm brewing.

Such context ably denotes how sport and society were influenced. Koubek, would later transition as live openly as a man prior to the 1936 games. He and other athletes we would probably identify as queer in current parlance such as Belgian cycling champion Willy de Bruyn and British thrower Mark Weston, were examples of the early exploration of the times and provides an eye-opening sketch on an early exploration on sex and gender.

“It was in 1936 terminology to describe what we may would call gender in the popular press you had people discussing at least the idea that there is some kind of spectrum that we all exist on,” Waters said. “What I took away in reading this history is that in the 1930s we had a chance at a different discussion on how we could classify sports and how we could include people in these categories in sports.”

This volume also looks at behind-the-scenes of the run up, and rancor, toward the Olympics coming to Berlin. The history of the Games being a showcase for the Nazi regime in Germany, the debate of American participation and the rise of Avery Brundage as a patron for Berlin’s Olympics, and later czar of all things Olympics, are highlighted extensively.

Waters also gives extensive account of a story within the headlines, the role of Wilhelm Knoll as head of the International Federation of Sports Medicine. His organization was an advisory group to the IOC and IAAF and Knoll was a loyal member of the Nazi Party with strong ties to the Hitler regime.

Koubek’s transition, which had been public prior to the Games, was an affront to sports in Knoll’s opinion. This, plus the questions surrounding top women’s athletes such as sprint rivals Stella Walsh of Poland and American speedster Helen Stephens, led to Knoll calling for widespread testing against what he called “a strange phenomenon in women’s sports that serious pathological traits and is likely to damage really good women’s sports.”

Sprint rivals Stella Walsh of Poland (right) and Helen Stephens of the USA were among those who were seen as reasons for Knoll and USOC president Avery Brundage’s calls for “sex testing” then (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Where have we heard such sentiments recently?

Knoll planted the seeds that Brundage would germinate for Olympiads to come as IOC president. Some of those policies that stemmed from these early discussion are being considered and implemented today. The scrutiny surrounding a Koubeck or a Walsh has a link to what we see with a Caster Semenya or a Lia Thomas now.

“What the IAAF did in 1936 is start to codify the idea that you can separate people into the these clear-cut categories of man or woman,” Waters said. “They promoted this idea of who could go into which category and it something we are rolling back today. I think it’s a trickle down of these policies where they are these categories and there is a rigid group of people who fit into these categories and every else is excluded.

“Maybe if there had been a different discussion in the 1930 and perhaps these categories were a little more open maybe that logic would have trickled down,” he added. “Maybe we would be having a different discussion today.”

As a sports history alone, “The Other Olympians” is definitely worth prime space on a bookshelf. Yet this is a rare sports history that looks at the intersections and connections where the stadium meets the larger society.

Academicians and sports historians will read it. Sports journalists and heads sporting governing bodies need to read it. Waters has provided a learned tome on yesterday that shows the roots of where we are in sports and inclusion now, and why the situation is where it is today.

If you look to know more about the book and the author check out Michael Waters’ website.