I had tended to think of Dutch athlete, Fanny Blankers-Koen, simply in terms of considerable athleticism and her four Gold Medals at the London 1948 Olympic Games. But she was much more. She was a game-change in world athletics and, more importantly, for all women athletes.
LONDON 1948: WE’VE COME A LONG WAY, BUT THERE’S STILL A LONG WAY TO GO
Fanny Blankers-Koen made her Olympic debut at Berlin 1936 as an 18-year-old. She came sixth in the women’s long jump; the Dutch 4x100m relay team came last; and she managed to snare the much-coveted autograph of the great Jesse Owens.
Blankers-Koen had taken up athletics only two years earlier after trying swimming, fencing and gymnastics as a girl in a household of four brothers who were sport-crazy. Her favoured event was the 800m but there it was not included in the Olympics from 1932 to 1956.
Then came the Second World War. International athletics competitions were stopped. The Olympic Games wouldn’t happen again for another 12 years.
Blankers-Koen married her athletics coach and had two children – a boy in 1942 and a girl in 1945. She also continued to train concentrating on her speed, technique and power. Even though she could only take part in domestic competition, she became the world record-holder in the 80m hurdles, the high jump and long jump.
In the first European athletics championships after the war, Blankers-Koen, now 28, showed just how much she had mastered her craft by easily winning the 80m hurdles and anchoring the 4x100m relay team to a Gold Medal. Next on her agenda was London 1948.
Despite the demands of two young children, Blankers-Koen continued to improve, breaking world records along the way.
But she met enormous opposition and negativity from conservative Olympic authorities, media and the general public who reflected the prevailing cultural attitude of the day. First, being 30 was too old for a woman athlete; and second, a mother of two really ought to be at home looking after her kids.
This was 68 years ago. The strength of the criticism and public opprobrium might have made many people take the easier option – forget athletics and go home to the kids.
But not Blankers-Koen. She was supremely talented, had strong self-belief and a determination to be the best she could be regardless of her gender or parental status. She may not have realised it at the time but by choosing to pursue her own field of dreams, despite the controversy, she was breaking new ground and cementing her place in history regardless of how she ran.
Supported unreservedly by her husband and coach, former triple jumper Jan Blankers, the criticism spurred her on. Blankers once told media that he only had to shout “You’re too old Fanny!” at training to make her pick-up her pace.
Due to an IOC rule restricting women to three individual events, Blankers-Koen was forced to drop long jump and high jump from her London programme – events in which she held the world records at the time – in favour of the 100m, 200m and 80m hurdles. Her fourth event was the 4x100m relay.
She easily won the 100m, and won a photo-finish after a poor start in the 80m hurdles. Two events, two Gold Medals.
At home in the Netherlands, she was adored and expectations were sky high. But everywhere else, she faced the confected outrage of what we now refer to as the ‘chattering classes’ simply because she was a mum. It was bad enough that a 30-year-old woman would turn-up at the Olympics and win; it was even more outrageous to many that she was also a mother! (Can you imagine what it would be like if social media had existed back then?!)
Blankers-Koen wanted to pull out of the 200m but her husband – or was it her coach? – convinced her that if she did, she would regret it. He was right. She blitzed the field winning by a huge time gap of 0.7 seconds.
Her fourth Gold Medal came in the 4x100m relay in which Blankers-Koen powered the Dutch team home from fourth position at the final baton change.
Twelve years after being in awe of the mighty achievements of Owens in 1936, Blankers-Koen had emulated his feat by winning four Gold Medals at a single Olympics. At the time of writing, she is still the only woman athlete to have done so.
Fanny Blankers-Koen was the defining face of the London 1948 Olympics. In 1999, she was named Female Athlete of the Century.
The narrative of her athletic career, in which she challenged societal norms and attitudes and became a true game-changer, means that she will forever be remembered as the defining role model for women athletes who was instrumental in establishing the legitimacy of women’s sport.
In a biography published in Dutch one year before her death in 2004, Blankers-Koen is referred to by some of those closest to her – most notably her daughter – in the pejorative as ‘driven by competition and focused on winning’. Such traits in male athletes would be lauded and celebrated.
We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.