She was 46 years old, and she walked around Tokyo with an air of confidence and style. Fanny Blankers-Koen was in Tokyo for the 1964 Summer Olympics, and the Japanese press followed her around – after all, she was one of the most accomplished Olympians in town. At the age of 30 at the 1948 London Olympics, she became the first woman to win four gold medals in a single Games, replicating the 1936 accomplishments of her hero, Jesse Owens.
In the October 23, 1964 edition of the Japanese magazine, Asahi Graf, Blankers-Koen was featured in a photo spread, looking relaxed and glamourous. The article shows her walking about town, relaxing in the Olympic Village, describing her as a tall woman with golden hair and light blue eyes.
The article states she is the “chaperone” to the Netherland’s women’s athletics steam, but as fellow Dutch and Olympian, Ada Kok, wrote to me, she was actually one of several coaches on the Dutch Olympic squad.
The article quotes a Japanese swimmer, Hiroshi Furubashi, who knew Blankers-Koen, saying that she was a hero to the Dutch after her dramatic accomplishments in London in 1948. But as I wrote in previous posts, despite her historic accomplishments, she was never embraced in her home country as she was outside it. Kok said that the Dutch team at the 1964 Olympics treated Blankers-Koen as they did everyone else, quite neutrally, as just another member of the team.
“It may be a very bad Dutch habit, but our well known sportspeople were more recognised and honoured abroad then in the Netherlands,” said Kok. “The Dutch are more like, ‘act normal and keep both feet on the ground’, no matter how famous you become in your sport.”
And as I wrote in this post, Blankers-Koen was a very complex person, who was driven by a need to win at everything, and to be recognized as an achiever. It is unlikely she got that sense of fulfillment in her home culture. But when she came to Japan, she was a star.