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Tamara Press, Olympian whose exploits have raised questions, dies at 83

Tamara Press, a Soviet dominant shot put and discus thrower who won three Olympic gold medals in the 1960s but was the subject of gender speculation because of her physique, died on 26 April. She was 83 years old.

Her death was announced by the Russian Sports Ministry, which did not specify where she died or cite the cause.

Press, who was 5 feet 11 inches and 225 pounds, began to gain the attention of the international community in 1958, when she won the gold in discus and bronze in the shot put at the National Championships. European athletics in Stockholm.

More successes followed. At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, she won a gold in the shot put and a silver in the discus. Four years later, at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, she set Olympic records while winning gold medals in both events.

But Press and his sister Irina – who won gold medals in the 80-meter hurdles in Rome and the pentathlon in Tokyo – have received more than glory from their athletic careers.

They heard cruel taunts about their height, some from sports journalists who compared Tamara to a defensive tackle. She and Irina were sometimes called the “brothers of the press”.

“I’m a champion, but you can see I’m a woman,” Tamara Press told The Associated Press in 1964. “The fact that a girl is an athlete has nothing to do with femininity.”

Seven decades later, a controversial debate continues in athletics regarding the eligibility of intersex athletes – those born with sexual characteristics that do not conform to binary descriptions of men and women.

Caster Semenya, two-time Olympic champion in the 800 meters, has so far defied the rules of World Athletics’ governing body in athletics, unsuccessfully. These rules require intersex athletes who identify as women to suppress their lower natural testosterone levels than men before they can compete in women’s quarter-mile to one-mile races.

World Athletics has acknowledged that the restrictions are discriminatory, but nonetheless asserts that they are necessary to provide a level playing field during competition. Critics, including the World Medical Association and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, have called the rules unnecessary and humiliating.

In 1966, when Press was 29, his career (and that of his sister) came to an almost complete end when they decided to withdraw from the European Athletics Championships in Budapest.

It is not known why Press decided to withdraw. If she had taken anabolic steroids to gain strength, stamina, and bulk, she might have aroused suspicion, but she would have faced little risk of being detected as drug testing was too much. in its infancy at this time.

If she was intersex, Press could have feared failing a new test instituted at the track and field championships: the so-called naked parade, which required female athletes to appear before a medical jury that would determine their eligibility.

“There was something different about the sisters of the press,” said John Hoberman, historian of doping in sport and author of “Testosterone Dreams: Rejuvenation, Aphrodisia, Doping” (2005). He added that it was “not out of the question” that both things were true – that the sisters were intersex and also used steroids.

All Soviet officials would say about the sisters’ absence from the meeting was that they had to stay home to care for their sick mother.

Tamara Natanovna Press was born on May 10, 1937 in Kharkov, Ukraine, and lived there until her family was evacuated to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, at the start of World War II. Her father was in the Soviet Army and died in action in 1942. At 18, Tamara moved to Leningrad to train with Viktor Aleksyev, a renowned athletics trainer.

From 1959 to 1965, she set 11 world records, including her personal bests: 18.59 meters (or 60.9 feet) in the shot put and 59.70 meters (195.9 feet) in the discus.

Credit…Ullstein Bild / ullstein bild, via Getty Images

Following the decision of the Press Sisters not to compete in Budapest, Tamara Press remained active until 1967. At one of its last meetings – the Moskow Spartakiad, an entirely Soviet event that did not require testing kind – she won the shot put. She retired that year.

In the years following the cessation of competition, Press worked as an engineer and trainer. In 1996, she helped re-elect Boris Yeltsin as President of Russia. She was also vice-president of the Physical Culture and Health Fund, a charity that helps promising Russian athletes, and the author of several books, including “The Price of Victory”.

In 2012, President Vladimir Putin wished the press a happy 75th birthday, saying in a statement: “You have won the respect of opponents and the love of millions of fans.”

Information on his survivors was not immediately available. Her sister died in 2004.

In 1996, as the Summer Olympics were being held in Atlanta, Press told the Christian Science Monitor that its success at the 1960 and 1964 Games “was a victory for our country,” adding, “Communism – that is. another question.”

And she recalled that she was so focused at the Tokyo Olympics that at one point she was unaware that one of her contestants dropped the ball on her thigh.

“There was so much tension that I didn’t even notice,” she says. “After the competition I saw a black mark on my leg and I was like, ‘What is this?’”

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