Australia’s Golden Girl Betty Cuthbert Part 1: Three Golds at the Melbourne Olympics and Three-Quarters the Way to History

Betty Cuthbert 4_winning gold in the 200-meters at the 1956 Melbourne Games
Betty Cuthbert edges Christa Stubnick in 200-meter finals at the Melbourne Games

No one’s ever done it – man or woman.

Betty Cuthbert won gold in the 100-meter, 200-meter sprints and 4×100 meter relay at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, and then added another in the 400-meter sprint 8 years later at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The Merrylands, New South Wales native, was Olympic champion in the three major individual sprints. Think of it. Usain Bolt and Carl Lewis never did it. Florence Griffith Joyner came somewhat close, winning silver in the 4×400 at the 1988 Seoul Olympics to complement her individual 100 and 200-meter golds. But no one has shown such individual¬†sprinting virtuosity over a career as Cuthbert.

Ever since winning local carnival picnic races as a primary school student, the shy tomboy was hooked on winning footraces. By the time she turned 18, Cuthbert had a reputation not only for winning, but for high knee lifts, long strides and wide-open mouth during her sprints.

At the Australian track and field championships in 1956, Cuthbert got eliminated in the 100-yard sprint, but won the 220-yard sprint, earning her a berth on the Australian squad headed to the Melbourne Olympics later that year.

After an overwhelming opening ceremony, witnessing her country’s biggest splash in the international arena, Cuthbert got ready for the 100-meter heats. After zipping through a very fast 11.4 in the first heat, the 18-year old eased up in her semi-final heat, letting East German Christa Stubnick fly by her at the end. Finishing second qualified her for the finals, but more importantly, the shock of losing the race at the end, even in a qualifier, was the motivation she needed to keep her focus.

Two days later, Cuthbert jumped to a lead, her mouth in her customary gape, and never relinquished it. One gold down.

A few days later, Cuthbert lined up for the finals of the 200 meter sprint. She had set the world record in the 200 (23.2 seconds), her first of many, only a few months earlier in an Olympic tune up. Having just won gold in the 100 meters, she was the favorite for the 200. And as it turned out, the winners of the gold, silver and bronze – Cuthbert, Stubnick and fellow Aussie, Marlene Matthews – were the same winners in the same order as the 100 meter race.

Two gold down for Cuthbert. And suddenly, she was dubbed in the press, “Golden Girl.”

Betty Cuthbert 7_Australia's Golden Girls of the Melbourne Olympics
Australia’s Golden Girls of the Melbourne Olympics: Flour Mellor, Norma Croker, Betty Cuthbert and Shirley Strickland with gold medals

Golden Girl had a chance for the trifecta – gold in the 4×100. In the heats, both Germany and Australia set world record times at 44.9 seconds. In the finals, Australia fell behind in the first leg. When Shirley Strickland handed the baton over, Norma Croker made up the time on the British team that had started out in the lead. Fleur Mellor held her own against her British counterpart until Cuthbert took the baton for the anchor run. Running ahead of Heather Armitrage of Britain, who was slowed by the handoff, Cuthbert held her slight lead all the way to the end and won gold for Australia. Here’s how she describes the feeling in her autobiography, Golden Girl:

We were stride-for-stride all the way down the straight till just before the tape when I managed to inch clear and win it. The four of us danced for joy and did an extra little jig when the time was called at 44.5s. We’d knocked seven-tenths of a second off the world record and four-tenths off the time we’d run in the heat!