From Rosie Ruiz to ‘Stella the Fella’
Call them fakes, frauds, or victims of their own ambition: here are some famous athletes who weren’t quite what they seemed.
DANNY ALMONTE was a sports sensation in the summer of 2001. A 12-year-old pitcher with a 70-MPH fastball, he led his team of all-stars from The Bronx to the Little League World Series, where he pitched a perfect game on national TV and became a sudden media darling. His team, dubbed the Baby Bronx Bombers, finished third in the tournament.
A few days later a Sports Illustrated reporter turned up documents in the Dominican Republic, Almonte’s home country, suggesting that the boy was actually 14 years old. Investigations by Dominican officials confirmed that Almonte was 14; his father had registered the boy’s birth twice, the second time shaving two years off his age. Almonte and his team had their dream season wiped from the record books. Almonte’s father and coach were banned from Little League for life, but Almonte, considered more victim than perpetrator, was not punished.
ROSIE RUIZ was one of the first frauds to be caught on video. In the 1980 Boston Marathon the unknown runner came out of nowhere to claim a shocking victory in the women’s race. She was crowned with the traditional laurel wreath, received congratulations from the mayor and had triumphant interviews on TV.
Race experts were immediately suspicious: Rosie Ruiz, a complete unknown, had just run the third-fastest women’s marathon in world history. Spectators and other runners couldn’t remember seeing her, and videotapes from race checkpoints sealed the deal: they showed no sign of Ruiz. Officials determined that Ruiz had started the race normally but then hopped a subway to a spot near the race’s finish, where she slipped back onto the street and ran to “victory.” Ruiz was disqualified and the win was given to real first-place finisher, Canada’s Jacqueline Gareau.
A Polish citizen living in America, STELLA WALSH won the women’s 100-meter dash at the 1932 Olympics. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics she took silver, beaten by her American rival Helen Stephens, the “Fulton Flash.” Walsh’s supporters demanded that Stephens be examined by a doctor, suggesting that she was so fast that she must be a man competing as a woman. German doctors did check Stephens and announced that she was, in fact, female. The matter was forgotten for four decades.
In 1980, Walsh was shot and killed in a Cleveland parking lot, an innocent bystander to a botched shopping center robbery. An autopsy revealed a startling fact: Walsh was a male. She had a man’s XY chromosomes and genitals, along with some female chromosomes and traits — a condition known as mosaicism. With the surprise discovery coming so long after the fact, no effort was made to delete Walsh from the record books.