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Poland At The Rio Olympics

Poland sportsmen have won a total of 291 Olympic medals so far

WARSAW – The 2016 Olympics being held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from August 5th to 21st, will be the Poland’s 21st appearance at the Summer Games. More than Polish 200 athletes are competing in 22 different categories including track, boxing, cycling, sailing, fencing and weightlifting.

Poland, which had re-emerged as an independent country in 1918 after 123 years of foreign occupation, first participated in the 1924 Paris Olympics and managed to win two medals. Since then, Polish athletes have brought home a total of 291 medals in the course of 16 Olympic performances: 132 bronze,  89 silver and 70 gold. Of the countries that have yet to host Olympic Games, Poland is the third most successful nation.

Poland has captured the majority of its medals at the summer games as opposed to only 20 in winter competition. Polish representatives have won the most gold medals (23) in athletics, and its boxing team has brought home eight so far.  Poles have also done well in wrestling, weightlifting and fencing. Although football (soccer) is not a traditonal Olympic sport, Poland won the gold medal in that department at the 1972 Munich games, and silver ones at Montreal (1976) and Barcelona (1992).

There was an interesting Polish-American twist to the amazing but ultimately tragic story of Stanisława (Stasia) Walasiewiczówna, a Polish immigrant whose family had settled in Cleveland. A promising track-and-field star known in America as Stella Walsh, she was expected to win a gold medal for the US in the 100-meter dash at the 1932 Los Angles Olympics.

But, having lost her job at the height of the Depression, Stella lacked the money to get from New York to LA and instead accepted the Polish Consulate’s to compete for her ancestral homeland. She went on to win Olympic gold for Poland and traveled to her old homeland, where she had become a national heroine. She continued her sporting career, before returning to the US in 1946.

Between 1929 and 1950 she was Polish champion on 24 different occasions and set 51 Polish records. On seven occasions, Stasia represented Poland in international competition in 33 different sports. Her career included setting eight European records and winning US championships 40 times. She had long since retired from athletic rivalry when, in December 1980, Walsh was fatally shot during the hold-up of a Cleveland store. The autopsy required in such cases revealed that the Polish-American track star had been an intersex, neither fully male nor female.

Earlier the same year, politics had entered the Olympic picture in the Old Country. Russian spectators, brainwashed by the Kremlin’s anti-Solidarity propaganda, jeered, booed and whistled at Polish pole-vaulter Mikołaj Kozakiewicz when he won the gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He responded by giving the Russians the vulgar bent-elbow sign, Europe’s equivalent of America’s “one-finger salute”. It has been known as the Kozakiewicz gesture ever since.

Since the West had boycotted the Moscow games over fears of a possible Soviet invasion of Poland during Solidarity’s heyday, the USSR retaliated by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, forcing Poland and other then Soviet satellites to stay away. Five years later, after communist rule had collapsed, that was no longer the case.

By Robert Strybel
Warsaw Correspondent