In celebration of London 2012, Left Foot Forward will be running a series of profile features on Olympic heroines past and present, and potential female stars of the future. London 2012 is the first year that all teams have a female competitor yet women are still severely under-represented in sport, especially when it comes to coverage and sponsorship. The success of female athletes in this year’s Olympics needs to trigger cultural change.
In the face of criticism that she was too old to compete, Holland’s Fanny Blankers-Koen – a 30-year-old mother of two – won four gold medals at the 1948 London Olympics:
It was a time when women, especially those who were also mothers, were not considered serious athletes. Remarkably, Koen had competed in the European Championships two years before in 1946 just six weeks after giving birth to her youngest child.
The Guardian praised her thus:
“The Dutchwoman… [demolished] prejudices about gender, age and motherhood and, as a pioneer and standard-bearer who inspired millions, establishing the legitimacy of women’s sport in an Olympic movement that had been the preserve of male competitors until 1928.”
One person who did not doubt her ability was Fanny’s father. It was Arnold Koen – a shot and discus competitor himself – who encouraged young Fanny to take up athletics. He would take her to his own meets where she impressed, and she joined Amsterdam Dames’ Athletic Club in 1935 at the age of 16.
After breaking the world-record for the 800m at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, Blankers-Koen was sent to her first Olympic games in 1936. She came sixth in high jump and fifth as part of the 4x100m relay.
Her successes in the 1938 European Championships led to her being tipped as the one-to-watch in the 1940 Olympics, but she would have to wait until 1948 following the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939.
Meanwhile, Blankers-Koen achieved four world records through domestic sport; the high jump, long jump, 80m hurdles, 100 yard dash, 4×110 yard relay and 4x200m relay. She faced criticism for not retiring once her son was born; something modern woman could probably empathise with.
She told the New York Times in 1982:
“I got very many bad letters, people writing that I must stay home with my children and that I should not be allowed to run on a track with – how do you say it? – short trousers.
“But I was a good mother. I had no time for much besides my house chores and training, and when I went shopping it was only to buy food for the family and never to buy dresses.
“One newspaperman wrote that I was too old to run, that I should stay at home and take care of my children. When I got to London, I pointed my finger at him and I said: ‘I show you.’”
The 1948 London Olympics were Fanny Blankers-Koen’s event – she won four gold medals, gaining nicknames ‘the Flying housewife’ and ‘the Flying Dutchmann’. However, the event saw nothing close to the excesses of London 2012 as the British economy was suffering post-war and couldn’t even afford to supply food for the visitors.
As The Guardian reported in 1948:
“Blankers-Koen is easily the outstanding all-round woman athlete of her day. Off the track she is as feminine as man’s capricious heart could wish.
“On it not only is she as expert technically as most men champions but her actual foot and leg movements are straight like a man’s rather than a woman’s and temperamentally she is a lesson to all. She is cheerful before going to her mark, is as steady as a rock on it and then starts as though she herself had been fired.”
To this day, Fanny Blankers-Koen’s achievements during the 1948 Olympics are yet to be repeated by a female track and field athlete in a single Games.