who was Zdeněk Koubek?

“Do not look upon me as a person who wants to be shown for effect at the entrance to a zoo. Not that. Look at me as a citizen, who after a brief, unpleasant delay wants to get on the right track and ultimately reach the intended destination via a peaceful path of progress.” 

— Zdeněk Koubek in The Prague Illustrated Reporter, 1936 

(Read my more in-depth account of Koubek's life at The New Yorker.) 

Early life 

Born on December 8, 1913, in the Czech city of Paskov, Zdeněk Koubek grew up knowing he was different. Most people perceived him as a girl, including his mother and father. Koubek’s mother forced him to start wearing a blue bow in his hair, which Koubek hated. 

He thought the bow made him look like an obedient poodle, and soon the nickname stuck: the boys at school, especially the mean ones, nicknamed him “the poodle.” In a small act of rebellion, Koubek wore trousers that he borrowed from his brothers.

Sports career

In 1929, while balancing his job at a haberdashery, Koubek joined a local women's sports league. He tried different track-and-field competitions, but he was always a sprinter at heart. He ran track for VS Brno, a club in the city of Brno. Within a few years, VS Praha, based in Prague, recruited him.

There, he began training for what would become his career capstone: the 1934 installment of the Women’s World Games, then the largest global competition for athletes in the women’s category. 

When the time came, Koubek came from behind to win gold in the 800-meter dash. He was still at the finish line, gasping for breath, when he heard the first notes of the Czech national anthem. Someone raised the Czech flag. 

At some point, a teammate or a coach or an official told him that he’d broken a world record. His time was 2 minutes and 12.4 seconds, over four seconds ahead of the previous best. 

Gender transition

In December 1935, Koubek told the press that he had decided to start living as a man. 

The announcement catapulted Koubek into an international celebrity. News stories across the world splashed photos of him in his sleeveless track-and-field jerseys across the front page. 

The coverage was bombastic—but not all that negative. To London Life, a British magazine with a penchant for covering stories that challenged popular understandings of sex and sexuality, Koubek’s transition was a “marvellous story” that “definitively proved” that gender transition was possible in humans: “Within the last five years there have been at least six authenticated cases in this country of women becoming men, and men becoming women.” 

The world’s curiosity had been awoken, and on August 5, 1936, Koubek set sail for the United States, where he performed on Broadway in the Folies d’Amour. 

American reporters couldn’t get enough. Neither could producers. Koubek claimed that he was in talks to star in a Hollywood movie based on his life. 

After leaving New York, Koubek traveled to Paris, where he danced alongside Josephine Baker. 

Decades later, in 2001, a Canadian woman recalled catching him at intermission. As she wrote in a letter to The Vancouver Sun, “There he was, all in white, wearing runners, shorts and a sleeveless top, smiling and flexing his muscles.” 

Read the full story in The Other Olympians: Fascism, Queerness, and the Making of Modern Sports

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