Re: ‘Flying Housewife’ changed Olympic perceptions

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The Electronic Telegraph

Monday 26 January 2004

David Miller

Fanny Blankers-Koen, one of the foremost competitors in the history of

the Olympic Games, died in Holland at the age of 85 yesterday.

The impact of this Dutch athlete on the Games and upon track and field

was the greater for two factors. Firstly, Nazi occupation interrupted

the prime of her career, and secondly, when she appeared at the Games in

London in 1948 she was already 30 and the mother of two children.

In the middle of the 20th century motherhood was widely regarded as

almost a disqualification from athletic excellence, and her unparalleled

achievement of four gold medals stunned not only the British but a

worldwide audience.

Blankers-Koen was already the creator of seven world records, though a

largely uninformed British public were unaware of this background. Her

four victories in nine days, often in foul weather, changed social


Only in the 80 metres hurdles was she seriously challenged – by

Britain’s favourite woman athlete Maureen Gardner. Indeed in the 200

metres, held for the first time in a Games, she won by the largest

margin ever in the sprints by man or woman, 0.7 seconds.

She would surely additionally have won the long jump, had her husband

and coach, Jan, not advised her to withdraw to preserve herself for the

final of the hurdles, which took place in the afternoon after the long

jump preliminaries.

Aged 18, Fanny had competed at the Berlin Games in 1936, finishing sixth

in the high jump and fifth in the sprint relay when the last German

runner dropped the baton.

She said the highlight of Berlin for her was getting the autograph of

Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals. They met again at the 1972 Games

in Munich. “I said: ‘I still have your autograph. I’m Fanny

Blankers-Koen,’ ” she recalled. “He said: ‘You don’t have to tell me who

you are, I know everything about you.’ Isn’t that incredible? Jesse

Owens knew who I was.”

Maintaining her fitness during the war, she was often competing against

men, and set women’s world records in high jump, long jump, hurdles and

100 metres. By the time of the London Games, having a boy of seven and

girl of two, she had improved her 100m record to 11.5sec. On a wet track

she took the 100m title in 11.9sec ahead of Dorothy Manley, of Britain.

Blankers-Koen confessed to being exceedingly nervous before the hurdles

final, holding Gardner in some awe. “I’d realised, warming up

beforehand, that she was as nervous as I was,” she recalled.

“For the final I was drawn in the next lane, which was a help, but I had

one of my worst starts and was a metre down by the first flight. But

then I raced as never before, so fast that I was too close to the fifth

flight. From then on it was a struggle and I only just made it.”

Waiting for the announcement, the National Anthem sounded on the public

address, and she thought she had lost, “but they were playing the anthem

because the Royal Family had just arrived.”

Arriving home in Amsterdam she was greeted by a huge crowd and a

horse-drawn carriage with four horses. A statue of her was erected in

the city.

Yet she soon retired to become a housewife, having broken 20 world

records and captured 58 Dutch national titles. “These days everybody has

their own sponsor,” she said recently. “I think I had more fun.”

Sebastian Coe, the British Olympics runner, said: “As we salivate at the

thought of bringing the Games back to London 64 years later, we have

much to be grateful to the ‘flying housewife’ from Baarn. She was in the

vanguard of changing the perception of women in sport.”