One figure stands out above all those who took part in the 1948 Games: 30 year old Dutch woman Fanny Blankers-Koen. Olympic historians Nigel Blundel and Duncan Mackay
An extraordinary performance at the London Olympics
By Roger Childs
As a teenager Fanny Blankers-Koen had been unplaced in the high jump at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Twelve years later, as a 30 year old mother of two, her chances of doing well in London were written off by some experts because of her age. Also she wasn’t competing in the two events in which she held world records: the high jump and long jump. However the Flying Dutchwoman would astound the sporting world by winning four gold medals in 1948: a feat that has never been matched by another woman in Olympic history.
The “austerity games” of 1948
The shattering Second World War had only been over three years when London took up the challenge to run the Olympics. European nations were still recovering from the six year conflict; governments had limited funds available, so travelling beyond the continent for sport was out of the question.
Britain was short of food, fuel and building materials, and rationing was a fact of life for the general public. Nevertheless the government decided that an eight day sporting spectacle would be great for raising morale.
The Games were run on a tiny budget of £600,000 (the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics Cost $US 51,000,000,000!), and athletes were housed in schools, military barracks and private homes. The famous soccer stadium at Wembley was transformed into a modern cinder athletics track and this surrounded grassed space for field events.
For the first time photography was to be used in determining places in close finishes like the sprints. This would be crucial in two of Fanny’s races.
I remember thinking how strange that I had made so many people happy. But times were harsh and I think people were just glad of the opportunity to celebrate anything. It made me very proud to know that I had been able to bring joy into people’s lives. Fanny Blankers-Koen
- 100m: Fanny was a clear favourite after easily winning her heats. She won the final comfortably in 11.9 seconds
- 200m: Another easy victory by .7 of a second on a very wet track.
- 80m hurdles: Of the six finalists Fanny got a poor start and was behind at the first hurdle. However she clawed her way back and won in a photo finish despite hitting the last hurdle. Second place getter, Britain’s Maureen Gardiner, was given the same world record time: 11.2. The Guardian recently put this race as number 10 in its Top Stunning Olympic Moments. (See photo above.)
Fortunately she arrived back in time to run the anchor lap. She needed her three fellow runners to set her up to bring the Dutch team home in first place.
They were third at the last changeover, but the Flying Dutchwoman overtook the Canadian runner and pipped Joyce King from Australia on the line.
Fanny Blankers-Koen had won four gold medals, a record for a female athlete that still stands in 2014. She had also put women’s track running on the map.
As Norman Giller, a sports writer at the time, observed: She, more than anybody, made women athletes worthy of respect and attention, with a series of stunning performances in the London Olympics.
Recognition for a star
In an athletics career spanning nearly 20 years Fanny set 16 world records at eight different events: 100 yards, 100m, 200m, high hurdles, high jump, long jump, pentathlon and 4×110 yard relay.
~ In 1948, she was chosen as the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year.
~ In 1980, she was inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
~ In 1998, she was invited to New York to receive the Jesse Owens Award.
~ The International Association of Athletics Federations named her the Female Athlete of the 20th Century. (See alongside, Fanny with Carl Lewis)
Fanny was always humble and modest about her success and kept her fitness into old age. In her eighties she was still playing tennis regularly. She died in 2004.
She is one of the greatest athletes of all time, especially because at the age of 30, running in baggy shorts and a T shirt with a collar, she won four gold medals at the austerity games.
When people said in 1948 that she was too old, Fanny responded:
That was just the thing to rouse me, to make me go out there and prove to them that, even if I was 30 years old and the mother of two children, I could still be a champion.