Tamara Press, Olympian Whose Feats Raised Questions, Dies at 83

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Tamara Press, Olympian Whose Feats Raised Questions, Dies at 83

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

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

Press, who was 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds, began to attract international attention in 1958 when she won the gold medal in discus and bronze in the shot put at the European Athletics Championships in Stockholm.

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

But Press and her sister Irina, who won gold medals in the 80-meter hurdles in Rome and the Pentathlon in Tokyo, got more than fame from their athletic careers.

They heard gruesome ridicules of her size, some of them from sports journalists, who compared Tamara to a defensive device. She and Irina were sometimes called the "press brothers".

"I am a champion, but you can see that I am 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 about the fitness of intersex athletes – those born with gender characteristics that do not match the binary descriptions of men and women.

Caster Semenya, two-time Olympic champion at 800 meters, has so far unsuccessfully questioned the rules of the World Athletics, the athletics governing body. These rules require intersex athletes who identify as female to suppress their natural testosterone levels below those of men before they can participate in women's races from a quarter mile to a mile.

World Athletics has recognized that the restrictions are discriminatory but says they are necessary to level the 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 years old, her career (as well as that of her sister) came to an almost complete end when she decided to retire from the European Athletics Championships in Budapest.

It's not clear why the press decided to pull out. Had she taken anabolic steroids to gain strength, endurance, and mass, she might have aroused suspicion, but she would have been at little risk of being discovered since drug tests were still in their infancy in those days.

If she were intersex, Press may have feared failing a new test introduced at track and field championships: the so-called nude parade, which required female athletes to appear before a medical panel that would determine their suitability.

"The press nurses had something different," said John Hoberman, historian of doping in sport and author of "Testosterone Dreams: Rejuvenation, Aphrodisia, Doping" (2005). He added that it was "not impossible" that both things were true – that the sisters were intersex and that they also used steroids.

All Soviet officials would say about the sisters' absence from the meeting is 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 beginning of World War II. Her father was in the Soviet military and died in battle in 1942. At the age of 18 Tamara moved to Leningrad to train under Viktor Aleksyev, a renowned athletics coach.

From 1959 to 1965 she set 11 world records, including her personal best: 18.59 meters in the shot put and 59.70 meters in the discus.

Recognition…Ullstein Bild / ullstein Bild, via Getty Images

After the press sisters' decision not to compete in Budapest, Tamara Press remained active until 1967. At one of her last meetings – the Moscow Spartakiad, an all-Soviet event that did not require sex testing – she won the shot put. She retired that year.

In the years after she stopped competing, Press worked as an engineer and trainer. In 1996 she helped Boris Yeltsin to be re-elected as Russian President. She was also the 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 and said in a statement: "You have earned the respect of your opponents and the love of millions of fans."

Information about their survivors was not immediately available. Her sister died in 2004.

In 1996, when the Atlanta Summer Olympics were being held, the press told The Christian Science Monitor that their success in the 1960 and 1964 Games "was a victory for our country," adding, "Communism – that's another question."

And she remembered being so focused at the Tokyo Olympics that at some point she no longer knew that one of her competitors had dropped the shot on her thigh.

"There was so much tension that I didn't even notice," she said. "After the competition, I saw a black mark on my leg and thought, 'What is that? "

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