Betty Cuthbert 2_with torch at Sydney Olympics
Betty Cuthbert with torch at The 2000 Sydney Olympics

Rhonda Gilam was a typical woman living in Mandurah, a city south of Perth, Australia. In 1985, she was middle aged, married, and her three children were adults. She ran a bus charter business with her husband Keith, and she enjoyed golf, tennis and taking trips in her buses. But she gave it up when she said she received a message from God telling her to give up that life, which she did.

In 1991, Gilam heard a second message, according to this article in the Weekend Australian. The message is: “Ring Betty Cuthbert.” So she does.

Thus began an incredible friendship between Gilam and one of the 20th century’s greatest sprinters, Betty Cuthbert, the only athlete, male or female, to win Olympic championships in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races. The two had met only briefly once before. As they had both recently experienced a dramatic re-awakening of their relationship with God as born-again Christians, they connected immediately over the phone. Gilam told Cuthbert that “she had been called by God to care for Betty Cuthbert.”

In her autobiography, Golden Girl, Cuthbert wrote that was surprised by the call, but when she was invited to take a weekend break with Gilam in Mandurah, Cuthbert agreed to join her. After a wonderful weekend with Gilam, Cuthbert decided to leave her home in Perth and move to Mandurah so she could be near Gilam, allowing herself to be dependent on someone.Golden Girl

This is no ordinary friendship. For the next 24 years, Gilam took care of Cuthbert, who was a far cry from her physical self of the 1950s and 1960s. Cuthbert had MS, or multiple sclerosis, a debilitating condition that impacts the nervous system, leaves her fatigued, impacts her motor skills and her eyesight, and currently requires her to be in an electric wheelchair. Cuthbert had lived with MS since the early 1970s without telling people beyond close family members and friends, and in fact left her family in Sydney so she would not be treated like a person with a disability.

Betty Cuthbert 3_with Rhonda Gilam
Betty Cuthbert with Rhonda Gilam

Gilam’s life became one of devotion to the care of Cuthbert. Until Cuthbert moved into a nursing home in 2015, Gilam kept Cuthbert’s apartment clean, transported her, showered her, massaged her, answered her fan mail, cleaned her clothes…everything. Another legendary Australian track star, Ron Clarke, a close friend of Cuthbert’s, was also grateful to Gilam according to the magazine article.

“I was just upset that she had done so much to be such a legend of Australian sport and then no one was helping her. I was disgusted. She was our greatest athlete. But she was also fiercely independent. So needing assistance was something foreign to her.” For years Clarke watched Betty fight her disease largely alone as she actively fought off first a wheelchair and later the notion of full-time care, relenting, at last, to the divine intervention of Rhonda. “When you get the call, you get the call,” Clarke says. “You have no idea what Rhonda’s done. She took her in, her and her husband, and they looked after her. Phenomenal. Had it not been for Rhonda, I don’t know what would have happened to her after that.”

Thanks to that special bond between Gilam and Cuthbert, the legendary winner of the 400-meter finals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is still flashing her radiant smile.

betty Cuthbert 8_Ann Packer extends a hand to Cuthbert
Ann Packer (55) extends a congratulatory hand to Betty Cuthbert (12), after the finals of the 400-meter sprint. Judy Amoore (11) is to Cuthbert’s left.

At 18, Melbourne was a brilliant blur. At 22, in her prime, Rome was a frustrating flameout. But at the experienced age of 26, Tokyo was a blessing.

When Australian Betty Cuthbert won the finals in the 400-meter finals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and her fourth career gold medal, she was grateful.

I snapped the tape and realised I’d won. I felt so full of gratitude and humility that I clasped my hands in front of me, closed my eyes and said a silent prayer of thanks to God. Never before had I shown my appreciation so openly at the end of a race. I’d been able to control my emotions before. But not this time. I’d just won the final of the 400 metres at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. I couldn’t cry. I was just too happy.

Cuthbert, as she wrote in her autobiography, Golden Girl, had climbed a mountain. She achieved great success effortlessly in Melbourne and then failed to compete in Rome, sending her off into quiet retirement. But her inner passion to run and compete would not die. So she trained for the Tokyo Olympics, demonstrated little performance throughout 1963 and the first half of 1964, and essentially gave the press and the public little reason to believe that their Golden Girl, from Merrylands, New South Wales, was going to have any impact at the first Olympics in Asia.

But she believed. And she wanted to win. Cuthbert wrote of her nervousness the night before the finals of the women’s 400 meter sprint, and how she failed to fall asleep. She was going up against Britain’s Ann Packer, who was considered a strong favorite, and played over and over in her mind how she was running in the dreaded 8th lane.

When she finally got out of bed, and headed to the Australian team HQ, she learned to her delight that she had drawn lane 2, with her teammate and friend Judy Amoore in lane 3. The morning was starting off well

Thirty minutes prior to the start of the finals, Cuthbert hammered in her starting blocks, and took a quick jog to stay warm in the cool, damp October weather. And then she was reminded, by a shout from the stands – “Make use of the wind.” The wind that crossed through the stadium in a way that provided both tailwind and headwind, depending on what side of the track you were running. Most runners had to deal with it, particularly those in the inner lanes. The key was to be mentally prepared for it.

I got a wonderful start and went flat out as soon as I straight­ened up. For the first 100 metres I gave it everything I had and was gaining on Judy with every stride. She was the only one I was worried about at that stage. Ann would come later. As we raced down the back straight I felt the wind whip in behind me. Judy must have sensed me right at her heels because she spurted off a yard or so. I let her go. I told myself not to get flurried and to stick to my plan. I was having that little mental breather before really turning it on. Before I knew it we were coming to the curve. I caught Judy going into the bend, about 180 metres from home.

Halfway through the 400-meter final, which takes the runners around one full lap of the stadium track, Cuthbert saw her rival, Packer, when the wind came into play again.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Ann just a fraction behind me. Then the wind hit us. It was like running into a brick wall, but I was determined not to let it straighten me up and kept telling myself to lean forward into it. I could still see Ann. The wind was terrible and was like an invisible hand pushing against me. I was awfully tired then but forced myself to keep driving ahead. I didn’t think it would ever come to an end. My legs were getting heavier as the line edged closer. I wondered how Ann was going and if she had the strength to catch me. I felt her right on my heels and knew she must have been just as tired as I was. But I wasn’t going to be the first to give in. Keep going I said to myself…hold her off…it’s not far now. Ten metres, nine metres, eight metres…. An Australian television commentator shouted to his audience: ‘My God, she’s going to win it!’ Then I was just a stride from the tape. I knew I’d done it. I’d won!

Betty Cuthbert 1_ with Tokyo gold medal
Betty Cuthbert and her 1964 Tokyo gold medal

Cuthbert had accomplished something that no man or woman had done before or since – take the gold medal in all three individual sprints: the 100, 200 and 400 meters. As she stood on the award podium, on Saturday, October 17, 1964, Cuthbert was overwhelmed with emotion as she watched her country’s flag rise, with the Olympic flame “jumping and dancing in the breeze.”

Nothing had ever touched me as much as that medal cere­mony. Eight years before in Melbourne I had been too young fully to realise just what I had accomplished in winning three gold medals. But there in Tokyo I had at last achieved some­ thing I’d wanted for so long, sacrificed so much for and worked so hard to get. It was a dream come true.

Over 50 years later, Cuthbert lives in a nursing home near Perth, Australia. Her room is unadorned with her sporting triumphs, except for a single picture of her days as an athlete, according to this article – “a shot of her crossing the finish line in her finest hour, her mighty comeback race in the first Olympic women’s 400m final: Tokyo, 1964.”

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!

Garcetti Bach Hidalgo
Eric Garcetti, IOC President Thomas Bach, and Anne Hidalgo

Most Olympians who do not win a gold medal are happy to receive a silver or bronze medal. But in the dramatic selection process, in which IOC members choose an Olympic host city through a series of votes that thousands of people in candidate cities watch with hands clasped in prayer, there has been no silver medal.

Years of planning and millions of dollars spent in putting together a powerful bid can go to waste as a city’s mayor watches powerlessly in a winner-take-all vote by the IOC.

But this year, the mayors of the two top bids for the 2024 Summer Olympics, Anne Hidalgo of Paris and Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, have an opportunity to do something that no other mayor has had: to choose when their city holds an Olympic Games. The choices, albeit, are not that broad – the IOC voted on July 11, 2017 to accept the bids of both Paris and LA for 2024 and 2028.

The bids of both cities were too strong to drop either of them. And the fear of having fewer cities bidding down the road was too great, as cities like Hamburg, Rome and Budapest pulled themselves out of the campaign to host in 2024. They withdrew primarily due to growing local unpopularity of hosting expensive big-tent events. For those reasons, the IOC decided – yes, we have two gold medal winners.

According to this BBC article, “The IOC wants….the cities to reach an agreement on who hosts in 2028 by then.” And if the two cities don’t agree to who hosts in 2028, then the IOC reverts back to the original plan of voting death-match at the 131st IOC session on September 13 in Lima, Peru.

Most pundits are saying that a likely scenario is Paris going first. Both cities have many of the major venues and much of the critical infrastructure in place, unlike Rio and Sochi in recent years. But Paris does not yet have an Olympic Village, and keeping the property available for the building of the Village for a period beyond 2024 would be difficult, Paris organizers say.

According to this ESPN article, the mayors Hidalgo and Garcetti understand that this is a historic moment, when the mayors have the decision in their hands, and that they are willing to work together to make it work.

The IOC is lucky in the sense that it wound up with two 2024 bid committees capable of cooperating and a pair of mayors who have an established relationship. What if the only cities left standing had come from countries with hostile relations or diametrically opposed forms of government? How likely is a repeat of this juxtaposition of two urban areas capable of handling and absorbing the unwieldy event and possibly — an important qualifier — emerging without serious post-Games issues?

Lance Wyman
Lance Wyman

Lance Wyman was an aspiring graphic designer in 1966 when he learned that the International Olympic Committee and the Mexican Olympic Committee were looking to hire a team to create the emblem and associated design concept for the entire 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games.

He and his partner, Peter Murdoch, thought to themselves, why not us? They booked a one-way ticket to Mexico City, which is all they could afford, according to this brilliant podcast from 99 Percent Invisible, hoping to make a name for themselves.

Wyman_Mexico_68_Olympics_radiating

One disadvantage the two American designers may have had initially was that they had never been to Mexico, and knew practically nothing about the country’s culture or history. So they embarked on a crash course immediately. When they visited the Museum of Anthropology, examining the stone murals of the Aztec and Mayan civilizations, they were struck by the similarities in artwork centuries before to the 1960s, when op-art was a popular form of expression.

“I actually was floored by some of the early cultures,” says Wyman in the podcast, “because they were doing things that we were doing in a contemporary way with geometry and with graphics.” The podcast went to explain that the bold lines and bright colors and geometric shapes reminded Wyman of the kind of Op art that was popular among contemporary artists back in New York.

lance wyman peter murdoch
Lance Wyman, his wife Neila, and Peter Murdoch (1966)

 

Wyman thought that they should take advantage of the circles in the digits of ’68, which is the year of the Mexico City Olympics, and blend those circles into the five Olympic rings. Additionally, the techniques of op-art, also known as optical art, which uses techniques of contrast and geometry to create an illusion of movement, were employed as waves of lines surrounding the text and numbers. Those lines were based on a new font Wyman and Murdoch created, made up of three lines that always curved, but never bent.

Their design was so impactful, that the Olympic organizing committee began employing their design in collaterals even before they informed Wyman and Murdoch that they had won the competition.

But the reason why the 99 Percent Invisible podcast is so fascinating is that Wyman’s design concept was so powerful, it was co-opted by a group in some ways trying to undermine the Olympics. And Wyman didn’t mind.

Mexico was undergoing a significant socio-economic and political transformation, brought on by a stronger economy. But there was reason to believe that the fruits of the growing economy was not trickling down to the middle classes or the masses, or at least not fast enough. In Mexico City, anti-government protests were happening frequently enough in the summer of 1968, that the government began to get uneasy that their Olympic Games, scheduled to open in October of that year, were under threat.

As related in a previous post, a series of anti-government protests in Mexico City culminated in a protest where around 10,000 university and high school students met at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas on October 2. The government decided enough was enough, and sent armed troops through the crowds and opened fired. Only 10 days prior to the start of the Mexico City Olympics, dozens, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands were killed that day.

As the podcast explains, students began to co-opt Wyman’s designs. One common image was one of a white dove that was ever present in Mexico – a white image on black. The students went all over town painting red splotches on the dove’s white breast as if it had been pierced by a bullet or a knife.

dove-protest-600x150

As this 99 PI article describes, Wyman’s designs were so universal they could serve both sides of the political war:

Despite his relative isolation at work, Wyman heard about the massacre. “When I heard about it and how severe it was it was a very difficult situation because I was working for the government and I couldn’t do anything about it,” he says. He empathized with the students and had mixed feelings about continuing his work.  But, in a way, he didn’t need to choose between the government and the protesters. His designs found a way to serve both sides.

phelps vs shark

Jesse Owens was without a doubt the star of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. A black man winning four gold medals in Arayan Germany was interpreted as a symbol of America’s strength in diversity. And yet, when Owens returned to America, he struggled to earn a consistent income, unthinkable if he were a star today.

One way Owens earned a living – he was an owner of a Negro baseball league team, The Portland Rosebuds. In order to bring fans in, I suppose, he footraced against horses between games at double headers.

Michael Phelps never had to do that to make a living.

And yet, the single most decorated Olympian ever, including a record 23 gold medals, Phelps is engaging an even more absurd race….against a shark.

In promotion of Discovery Channel’s annual “Shark Week”, Phelps will swim a race against a great white shark on July 23, 2017.

What can I say? This is the height of absurdity.

I can see in my head what a race with a horse looks like. I cannot imagine what a race between a man and shark is. How long would the race be? Since sharks are always in motion, does this particular great white shark getting a running start, as it were? Are man and shark racing together, in the same ocean lane? If yes, I imagine that would motivate Phelps in a uniquely visceral way.

But the simple reason why this whole exercise is clearly a gimmick, according to this article, great white sharks reach speeds of 25-35 mph, while a swimmer of Phelps’ caliber tops out at 6.

So silly. But, I’ll watch.