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.

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!

Yoshinobu_Miyake_and_Isaac_Berger_1964
Yoshinobu Miyake and Isaac Berger (right) at the 1964 Olympic

Hiromi Miyake recently won the women’s 48-kg bronze medal at the weightlifting world championships in Houston, Texas. The silver medalist from the London Games in 2012 is the daughter of Yoshiyuki Miyake, who won a bronze medal at the Mexico City Olympic Games.

It is Hiromi’s uncle, Yoshinobu Miyake, who started the family dynasty. Yoshinobu won silver in Rome in the 56 kg bantam weight class, and then took gold in both Tokyo and Mexico City at the 60kg featherweight class.

In 1964, when the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc dominated weightlifting, taking 15 of a possible 21 medals, Yoshinobu Miyake was the sole champion outside that Communist bloc. Miyake was so dominant that he was the only gold medalist weightlifter out of seven weight classes not to fail a lift. In other words, his competitors didn’t come close to pushing Miyake.

Yoshinobu Miyake had a technique named after him, like the “Ali Shuffle” or the “Fosbury Flop”. In fact, there were two names for that technique: the “Miyake Pull”, or more famously, “Frog Style”. When the 1.5 meter (5 foot 1 inch) man from Miyagi, Japan settled in front of his weights, his heels would sit close together, with his knees spread and toes pointed outwards at a 60 degree angle – as the picture below shows, he is said to resemble a frog. This frog style helped Miyake set 25 world records, reigning as the champ through much of the 1960s.

Miyake Pull

But Miyake worked at his technique. As a member of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, making some 12,000 yen (then $33) a month, he borrowed 80,000 yen (then $240) to buy a movie camera to film himself lifting, leading to a perfection of his technique, and eventually Olympic glory.

You can watch the frog style technique in this short video. You can see Miyake lifting at 18 second mark.

press pass _revisedThis was my father’s identity card for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Through his work for NBC News, and NBC’s sustained relationship to the Olympic Games, I was a fan of the greatest sports competition in the world. I was only one years-old at the time of the Tokyo Olympic Games, and of course remember nothing of it. But come 2020, when the Summer Games return to Tokyo, I will be there.

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