Zdena / Zdeněk: the interwar Czech champion who changed genders

Zdena Koubková

Zdena Koubková won two medals for Czechoslovakia at the Women’s World Games in 1934. Two years later, at the age of 22, she underwent gender reassignment surgery and became Zdeněk Koubek – who saw his former self’s sporting achievements erased from the books: national titles in the long and high jump and world records in running.

Born in December 1913, to a poor family in a Silesian town near the Polish border, Zdena Koubková was raised in Brno, the regional capital. It was there that Zdena, in her late teens, joined the local chapter of Orel, a Catholic youth group focused on sports. She loved to ice skate, and but found she excelled in track and field.

Hands down, she was Czechoslovakia’s best runner in the 1930s, and among the top women athletes in the world, a celebrity as well known as the national football squad. As such, Zdena’s gender reassignment surgery caused a sensation – it was the biggest sports scandal of the First Republic, says journalist Pavel Kovář, author of Story of a Czech Recordwoman. Although a sports journalist himself, he only came across the name Zdena Koubková quite by chance.

Pavel Kovář | Photo: Jan Sklenář,  Czech Radio

“It was a coincidence. The 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney were approaching, and I was preparing an article on the history of the Olympics. So, I was flipping through the various record books. Suddenly, I came across her name and found that this woman had set two world records in 1934 – and then disappeared!

“She changed gender and just disappeared from the scene. So, I started searching through athletic journalists of the era and in archival books, encyclopaedias... It was such a detective story. I could only find a few people who knew her (as a woman) in the 1930s.”

In 1934, Zdena Koubková won five national titles, in the 100-, 200- and 800-metre races, as well as in high jump and long jump. That June, she set her first world record, in the 800-metre dash with a time of 2:16.4. (The current women’s world record, as it happens, was also set half a century later by a Czech woman – Jarmila Kratochvílová – clocking in at 1:53.28).

Zdena’s next world record came in the medley relay (2×100 metres, 200 metres and 800 metres), at 3:14.4. That August, she won the 800-metre event at the 1934 Women's World Games, in a new world record time of 2:12.4 and finished third in the long jump with a national record of 5.70 metres.

“gender testing” and “sex cheats”

Lída Merlínová | Photo: University of Southampton,  Wikimedia Commons,  Fair Use

During the games, a British journalist wrote that some women competing there appeared “better suited to trousers than skirts”, mentioning Zdena Koubková and a Slovak athlete, Štefanie Pekarová, who in fact also changed gender three years later. (Already there were demands that “gender testing” be instated to uncover “sex cheats” among female athletes).

The following year, in 1935, a writer and advocate for sexual and gender equality best known today for having authored the first “lesbian novel” in the Czech language, published a book based on the star athlete’s early life and sports career, called Zdena’s World Record (Zdenin světový rekord).

The author Lída Merlínová’s highly stylised biographical novel was one of many that she wrote focusing on adventures for independent modern girls.

In Zdena’s World Record, the protagonist – a simple country girl, finding her way in the big city and on the track field –befriends a rich composer who loves her like a daughter, challenges an amorous New York businessman to Greco-Roman wrestling match in a luxurious apartment in Prague’s upscale Vinohrady neighbourhood.

In the end, Zdena falls in love with an unattractive, unhealthy poet, who betrays her with another woman. The novel ends with its heroine’s only desire to graduate university and become a professor of physical education.

The novel was patently “absurd”, says Pavel Kovář – who sees it as a classic example of a “red library” novel, a Czech term for overly sentimental, romantic novels for women and girls. It also had a political agenda: the true emancipation of women.

"I confess that I am one of those passengers that Fate put in the wrong train. Should I have caused an alarm? I chose the second, quieter way: I applied for a rewrite of the ticket.”
Zdeněk Koubek

A ‘red library’ for women’s emancipation

“It’s just such a red library! It did feature authentic photos of Zdena from the race, authentic news photos. Merlínová wrote several good novels, film screenplays, etc. But she portrayed Koubková in her own way, made her such a modern female heroine, as part an emancipatory campaign.

“Koubková appears as such a brave girl who struggles with her suitors. Physically. She boxes with them, and nothing much happens. An absurd novel. I understand that the boys, the athletes, were really upset how she was portrayed by Koubková. That was wrong of Merlínová. But apparently these were emancipatory efforts.”

Zdena Koubková,  Veronika Kohlbach | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Merlínová knew that Zdena Koubková was conflicted about her gender and sexual orientation. It is quite possible, says Pavel Kovář, that there was a mutual attraction, perhaps a romantic relationship. But none of their correspondence, if there was any, has been found.

“It cannot be ruled out, because Zdena Koubková – well, let’s reveal her secret. She was half man, half woman. She was born in the town of Paskov in 1913, the midwife told them they had a girl, her parents dressed her and raised her as a girl. Only when she was past puberty and started doing sports did she suddenly start to discover these boyish tendencies aroused in her.

“And in fact, it was related to physiognomy. She suddenly had masculine features. She wasn’t interested in fashion. She didn’t make friends with girls but with boys – she played football with them, and so on. Suddenly, she was questioning who she really was. And what can I do about it?”

Zdena Koubková was intersex – what was then called a hermaphrodite – with a decidedly male frame. She never used the girls’ showers after training or a sporting event, says Pavel Kovář, and although several men tried to woo her, she never had a romantic relationship one. But she loved to play football and rugby with them.

Zdena Koubková | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

After the Women’s World Games of 1934, suspicions about Zdena Koubková’s gender were circulating widely. She retired from competition, considering it unfair to compete against women and struggling with her own identity. In late 1935, some months after the publication of Lída Merlínová’s romanticized biographical novel, Zdena revealed in an interview that she planned to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Pavel Kovář again:

“It seemed strange and just unfair to her. Plus, she didn’t really know how to act like a girl and was ashamed to go to the ladies’ showers. Plus, the women, her opponents, also knew that she had a different body structure and that it was probably not normal. And as a human being, she longed for a relationship, but she knew she didn’t want a relationship with a guy.”

“It was an extremely prudish time, and such matters were taboo. It was not talked about in decent company. And she, in despair, consulted with doctors and told them about her problems. They found that she really was a hermaphrodite, with both male and female genitalia… So, she started some hormonal treatment and then had surgery.

“And this, in fact, was written about in the newspapers, some explicitly speculative, in the tabloid tone. But she approached it very bravely and honestly. She sought out a journalist, a serious one from České Slovo, and gave him an interview. It was published in the paper. And she was extremely relieved.”

Many national sports officials were outraged – as were athletic associations abroad, which objected that Czechoslovakia was sending “men disguised as women” to compete abroad. Professionally, Zdena Koubková had gone from celebrity to outcast. After transitioning to Zdeněk Koubek, he found himself without a profession, no income, and not even a high school diploma.

And so he jumped at an offer to go on a paid “lecture” tour of the United States to tell his story – in fact, it was akin to a circus sideshow, says Pavel Kovář.

‘They exhibited him like a trained bear’

Photo: Pejdlova Rosička

“Some kind of managers wanted to make money on his story, the presentation of his story. One negotiated a tour of the United States, where he was to be ‘lecturing’ about his difficult life. Lecturing! He didn’t speak English, nor did he actually teach anything there. They exhibited him like a trained bear. That was embarrassing.

“He was in revue shows, entertaining in various clubs, and he simply ran around silly artificial tracks, some in casinos, ran circuits 50 metres around. He was lit against a black velvet background. He had a white jersey and a nice figure. And the people, these snobs went for it. And they probably enjoyed it, they applauded him. It was very embarrassing for him.”

That unfortunate episode aside, Zdeněk Koubek did find acceptance on a personal level – he soon got married, passed his high school leaving exam, found work in the Jawa motorcycle factory, remained close to his large conservative Catholic family, and joined his brother’s rugby team in Říčany.

Friends and family say that although deeply religious, Zdeněk Koubek delighted in telling off-colour jokes. And simply in being an ordinary man.