Australia’s Golden Girl Betty Cuthbert Part 2: Golden Girl Loses Her Luster, Shakes the Spotlight and Finds Herself

Betty Cuthbert 5_young Betty Cuthbert working in the family nursery
Young Betty Cuthbert working in the family nursery

For introverts, people who have a preference for small groups, long solitary periods absorbed in books or thought, success in the glare of the spotlight comes with ambiguity, an appreciation for the recognition, but an annoyance at the loss of private time.

For the shy gangly teenager, Betty Cuthbert, who had emerged as Golden Girl after winning three gold medals at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the parades, the parties, the celebratory profiles – it was becoming too much, as she wrote in her autobiography, Golden Girl:

All the attention was very flattering, but I also found it terribly draining. I slowly realized that my identity was disappearing. I was no longer Betty Cuthbert, the ordinary girl, but Betty Cuthbert, the athlete. My life wasn’t my own any more. Many people would probably have wallowed in the limelight but frankly I loathed it. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate what people did for me. I did. But how I wished I could have been just one of the crowd watching someone else up on that official platform. Gradually it all became too much for me and I began to have nightmares or dream that I was shaking hands with people. It was terrible but there was nothing I could do. I didn’t want to disappoint everybody who was trying to be so nice to me. But no matter what I did I never became used to the publicity.

Cuthbert continued to train and run in competitions, having a bit of success here, and a bit of disappointment there. As a member of the Australian team at the Cardiff Empire Games in late 1958, Cuthbert said she began to dabble in the 440 yards to help her team get pints. In fact, she ended up winning, equaling the world record time of 55.6 second.

The Olympics were moving to Rome, Italy in 1960. For an Aussie, that means Northern Hemisphere. And when you’re down under, the summer months in Europe are the winter months in Australia, traditionally an out-of-season rest period athletes. But the Australian team had to gear up for the Olympics in July, so train they did. And unfortunately for Cuthbert, the worst possible thing happened. At an impromptu tune up for the Rome Olympics, Cuthbert and other women were invited to run against the fastest Australian man, Denis Tipping, during the half-time of a Rugby League game. As she wrote in her book,

Around the 75 yards mark I was leading when I heard Denis drawing up on me. I was trying hard to stay in front of him when … BANG … my right leg went on me. I’d torn a hamstring muscle. I missed about three weeks’ competition while I was treated by a physiotherapist.

Cuthbert was on the road to recovery, but on the plane to Italy, her legs stiffened badly on the long flight. And when she began running on the cinder tracks in Rome, the injury began to re-emerge. Practice and marching in the Opening Ceremony were out of the question. When she lined up for her first heat in the 100-meters, she had a bad feeling. And when she tried to push it, she felt her hamstring pull back. She finished fourth and was out of the competition for the 100. She tried to make the 200s, but the pain in her leg told her no. And just like that, she was out of the Rome Olympics.

Rome was a bitter blow to me. I shouldn’t have rushed back to competition as soon as I did after tearing the hamie’ but there was nothing else I could do. Another week or a fortnight and I probably would have been as good as gold. But there hadn’t been the time for that. If I had stayed out much longer than I did theres not much doubt that I would have had to be dropped from the Olympic team.

Betty Cuthbert 6_on the medal stand at the 1956 Olympics
Betty Cuthbert (center) on the medal stand at the 1956 Olympics

Many people have said that Cuthbert retired after the Rome Olympics because of her injuries or disappointment. But she emphasized in her book that she was tired of being the Golden Girl.

I hated being a public figure to be looked at, talked about and pointed out every time I stepped outside my own front door. I’d been secretly nursing that hatred for four long years, ever since my wins in the Melbourne Games. Few knew how I felt. I’d never whispered a word to anybody but my family and closest friends. But finally it became unbearable. There were few places I could go without people recognizing me, wanting to touch me, shake my hand or get my autograph. It got to the point where I didn’t want to go out. I realized that being a successful athlete went hand-in-hand with being a public figure, but how I wished it hadn’t. I wanted to become just an ordinary girl like Midge (her twin sister). I wanted to go to dances, shows and parties whenever I felt like it, to wear a dress more than a track-suit, to play other sports where I didn’t have to worry about hurting my legs. I wanted to become a normal twenty-two year-old girl.

And so for a year, the retired and retiring Cuthbert, discovered what life was like as an ordinary girl. And the public began to ignore her. And she loved it. Until she didn’t. And then, as she was working in a nursery, her family’s business, “it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I needed to take up athletics again. I thought: ‘What a dreadful idea!’ But I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It was like a voice in my head that kept saying over and over: ‘Run again. Run again. Run again.'”

She would hear that voice again on other days over a two-month period, and she began to believe that God was speaking to her. And once she realized that she was speaking to God, she finally relented, and said, “Okay, you win. I’ll run again.”

That was January, 1962. That was two years and nine months prior to the 1964 Tokyo Games. That was a fateful decision that would take her to Japan and cement her legacy as one of the greatest women’s track athletes of the 20th century.