Fanny Blankers Koen with her children 2
Fanny Blankers Koen with her children and husband.

We meet competitive people all the time. Some of them can be jerks – for them, winning is everything, and relationships are secondary. As this Psychology Today article hints, competitive people can be overly narcissistic and self-centered, “not seeing you as a separate human being, but more as an extension of themselves.” The article also explains that competitive people could have issues of self esteem. “When they are doing well, they feel great and even superior to others, whereas when they encounter setbacks, they tend to feel shame and self-doubt. This results in anxiety and vigilance around social status and performance.”

Sometimes, we learn that even our heroes are prone to this kind of behavior. Arguably one of the greatest stories of the 1948 London Olympics was Fanny Blankers-Koen. The “Flying Dutchwoman” as the woman from Holland was called, won an amazing four gold medals in the 100-meter dash, the 80-meter hurdles, the 200-meters and the 4×100 relay.

Often described as a shy, gangly 30-year-old housewife, people were amazed at her accomplishments, often wondering what her medal would have been if the Olympics were not canceled in 1940 and 1944, arguably Blanker-Koen’s prime years. In 1999, the IAAF recognized her as the sportswoman of the 20th century. As written in the journal of the International Society of Olympic Historians, as celebrated as Fanny Blankers-Koen was, she was not beloved by those closest to her.

Een Koningin Met Mannenbenen_Fanny Blankers-Koen

This article mentions a book called, in Dutch, Een Koningin Met Mannenbenen written by Kees Kooman, a sportswriter, author and investigative journalist. Although not yet translated in English, the title would be something like – “A Queen with Man’s Legs”. According to Kees, Blankers-Koen ahd this to say about her mother:

I think my mother never loved herself; while the other way around she could not give love and friendship herself to other people! Laying an arm around your shoulder like my father used to do, was an impossibility for her.

Here is another quote from the book in this article in The Independent:

Fanny Snr’s brother, Huib Koen, told Kooman: “My sisterwas a girl who always did what she wanted to do but, to be honest with you, she was really always a bitch.”

Kees, a sports writer of good repute, explains in The Independent article that she was very much a competitive personality, and it got in the way of relationships:

Fanny wasn’t only the shy, nice Dutch housewife. Sport was everything to her and she wanted to win in everything. If she was out on her bike and someone was ahead of her she had to beat them. When she was 65 and she was told about someone knitting a sweater in a week, she was so jealous she had to do it herself.

Sport was more important to her than her children. Her daughter and her son were both critical of her. As her daughter said, she didn’t love herself. She had problems with confidence. I think she was searching for it on the track.

 

Fanny Blankers-Koen winning 200 meters in London
Fanny Blankers-Koen winning 200 meters in London

 

When Fanny Blankers-Koen won four gold medals at the 1948 London Olympics, she was 30 years old and a mother of two.

Despite the fact that the war-ravaged years of the 1940s resulted in athletes of all ages, she was considered too old. The Smithsonian noted the reaction of TeamGB’s team manager, Jack Crump, who “took one look at Blankers-Koen and said she was ‘too old to make the grade.’”

Even more amazingly, Blankers-Koen won the gold in the 100-meters, the 80-meter hurdles, the 200-meters and the 4×100 relay while 3 months pregnant! If the press was aware of that, it’s possible Blankers-Koen would have been attacked more aggressively. And yet, the what the press wrote must have rankled, typically being described as the “shy, towering, drably domesticated” housewife.

According to The Economist, she was reported to say, “I got very many bad letters”, people writing that I must stay home with my children and that I should not be allowed to run on a track with…short trousers.”

The Smithsonian noted that the press was commonly patronizing of her, “hyping Blankers-Koen as the ‘Flying Housewife…’ Newspaper coverage of her exploits reflected the sexism of the time in other ways. One reporter wrote that she ran ‘like she was chasing the kids out of the pantry.’ Another observed that she ‘fled through her trial heats as though racing to the kitchen to rescue a batch of burning biscuits.'”

And yet, Blankers-Koen was indeed in conflict between personal achievement and family. After she had won her second gold medal in the 80-meters, barely, she was ready to go home. The unending criticism and the pressure to win combined made her homesick. But her husband and coach, Jan Blankers, convinced her that glory was hers for the taking. So Blankers-Koen trooped on, still breaking down in tears after a 200-meter heat.

Fanny Blankers Koen with her children

The Flying Dutchwoman went on to win gold in the 200 meters and 4×100 relay, convincingly, establishing her place in the Olympic Pantheon of greats. Blankers-Koen set 16 world records in eight different athletic disciplines. In 1999, she was voted female athlete of the 20th century by the International Association of Athletics.

And while it may not have seemed so at the time, Blankers-Koen made a difference. So thought Sebastian Coe head of the organizing committee for the 2012 London Olympics:

“She moved the discussion on about the ability of women, particularly post World War II. A lot of things came together at the same time, particularly women who were taking up jobs that were often vacated by men” (who did not survive the fighting). “Women were showing that they were physically the equals of those jobs when it was assumed that they were not.”

She was 18 years old at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a competitor in the high jump and the 4×100 relay. She did not win any medals but the tall woman from Lage Vuursche in Holland, but she did get the autograph of one Jesse Owens.

Owens was the star of the 1936 Games, reportedly showing up der Fuhrer by winning four gold medals. Fanny Blankers-Koen would also go on to win four gold medals in the Olympics, but she would have to wait 12 more years, as the Olympics were cancelled during the war years, before she could compete on the highest stage.

Watch the video above of the first woman to win four gold medals, which she did at the 1948 London Olympics. Blankers-Koen was absolutely dominant.

In her first competition, Blankers-Koen led the 100-meter dash nearly from start to finish.

In her next event, she had to work the hardest, coming from behind to barely win the 80-meter hurdles, but still in Olympic record time.

Fanny Blankers-Koen winning 80 meter hurdles in London
Fanny Blankers-Koen winning the 80 meter hurdles in London in 1948.

In her third triumph, Blankers-Koen won the 200-meters in the first lane, eating up the water-drenched track like a locomotive, well ahead of the 2nd place finisher, in Olympic record time.

And finally, in 4×100 meter relay, the Dutch team, in their orange shorts, were trailing in third when their anchor, Blankers-Koen took the baton. And like a rocket, she shot to the lead and crossed the line with her fourth gold medal.

Like her hero in Berlin, Jesse Owens, Blankers-Koen won four gold medals, the first woman ever to do so.   According to the Smithsonian, Blankers-Koen met Owens again, this time in Munich in 1972.

“I still have your autograph,” she told her hero.  “I’m Fanny Blankers-Koen.”

“You don’t have to tell me who you are,” Owens replied. “I know everything about you.”

Jesse Owens

What is an amateur today?

Decades ago, the Olympics represented the very best of the so-called “amateur” athlete, those who excelled at a sporting discipline and did not receive financial gain from it. The Sullivan Award has had a storied history of recognizing the very best athletes in the United States who happened to be amateurs, including such greats as golfer Bobby Jones, basketball player Bill Bradley, swimmer Mark Spitz and American football quarterback Peyton Manning.

Today, athletes in a much wider variety of sports have ways to make an income in their sport, via competition prize money, professional leagues, and sponsorship deals, which render the pool for Sullivan Award recipients shallower than decades past.

And yet, when the obvious choice for the Sullivan Award winner of 1936 was Jesse Owens, arguably the athlete with the most significant accomplishments of the Berlin Olympics, the powers that be selected Glenn Morris, the winner of the Olympic decathlon. Winning the gold in the decathlon, perhaps in another year, should have been enough to win the Sullivan. But Owens, who was a black American, took four gold medals under the glare of Adolph Hitler in a clearly bigoted regime. Morris was white, and that may have been the overriding criteria for the judges.

“We have overlooked people,” Roger J. Goudy, president of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) acknowledged in this New York Times article. “Jesse Owens went to Berlin and won four Olympic gold medals in 1936. He did not win the Sullivan, which went to his white teammate Glenn Morris in a close vote, 1,106 to 1,013. Owens had been the overwhelming winner of The Associated Press poll for the best athlete of the year, amateur or professional.”

But yesterday, on April 11, 2017, a wrong was righted. Jesse Owens was awarded the inaugural Gussie Crawford Lifetime Achievement Award. The award was presented to Owen’s granddaughter, Gina Hemphill-Strachan. She had this to say about her grandfather:

I would say the thing that makes me most proud of his legacy is the fact that he does have a legacy. At 80 years after his accomplishments in Berlin, that he’s still relevant. People still speak about him with such passion and compassion and reverence. He certainly left a mark with so many young people because he was an unofficial ambassador, traveled all over the world, speaking to so many young people, encouraging young people, training and all that.

Carl Lewis, no slouch himself in track and field, reflected on the amazing athletic accomplishments of Owens:

“I tell you something, it is tough to win the long jump and something else, period,” he added. “I think we kind of overstate how easy it (winning four events at one meet) is. And for him to do it back then with all he had to deal with…I looked at him as someone to aspire to, someone to emulate, not just athletically.”

Jesse Owens in Tokyo_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha
Jesse Owens in Tokyo_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha

According to Ron Perelmen of the Sports Examiner, this belated recognition of Owens was due to Peter Cava, a former communications director for the AAU.

“Soon after I went to work for AAU in 1974, the ’73 Sullivan Award winner was announced,” said Cava. “Looking over the list of previous winners, it was shocking to see that Jesse Owens’ name wasn’t on the list.” When Cava noted at the Rio Olympics that it was the 80th anniversary of Owens’ historical accomplishments, he thought it was about time to recognize him. “The Sullivan Award has been called ‘An Oscar for Amateurs,’ said Cava. “The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents Oscar Awards for lifetime accomplishments.”  

So here we are, 80 years later, finally recognizing Jess Owens as we should – as one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Mary Rand and Whillye White in the UK 2
Mary Rand and Whillye White in the UK

It was February 19, 1965, a few months after the Tokyo Olympic Games. A collection of international track stars, many fresh from medaling in Tokyo, gathered at Madison Square Garden in New York City for the AAU National Indoor Track Championships.

Billy Mills, the first and only American to win the gold in the 10,000 meters in the Olympics, won the three-mile race. In a rematch of the Tokyo Olympics men’s long jump, USSR’s Igor Ter-Ovesyan outdistanced America’s Ralph Boston. Tamara Press repeated as champion in the shot put. Iolanda Balas of Romania continued her dominance in the high jump. And Mary Rand was also in town.

But the women’s long jump champion of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics faded quickly in Madison Square Garden, crashing out in the preliminary rounds by fouling two of her three jumps. The runway for the long jump did have a quirky quality: there were two take-off boards on the runway, the white indicators that tell the athlete exactly how far they can step before they launch themselves into the air. But she didn’t feel that was the reason for her poor performance, as she wrote in her autobiography, “Mary Mary“.

We were having problems because on the long jump approach there were two take-off boards very close to each other. You had to pass over the first one just before taking off, which was a bit distracting. I wasn’t jumping particularly well. In fact I was fed-up with my jumping more than irritated by the other board.

Mary Rand second stripe
Mary Rand jumping from the second take-off board. Click on the image to watch the actual video.

So Rand was in her hotel room when she heard a knocking on her door. It was American long jumper, Whillye White, silver medalist in the long jump at the 1956 Melbourne Games, and silver medalist in the 4X100 relay at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. White came to explain to Rand that she had protested the outcome of the preliminary round because the first take-off stripe should not have been on the track in the first place. White said to Rand that she had told officials that the first stripe upset her, and it must have upset the other competitors as well, and that she said Rand could join the other six in the finals.

I might have said something about it being “stupid” – but I would never have dreamed of protesting. I said I wouldn’t come back unless it was absolutely all right with all the other jumpers, because it did mean that I might go ahead and win. But Willye had already put it to all the other athletes, I was told, and they had all agreed.

So Rand returned, and she landed a jump of 20 feet 4 inches, over a foot shorter than her Olympic record in Tokyo, but good enough for first place in New York. Thanks to Whillye White!

Mary Rand at home

When you emerge victorious far from home, people may say that the hometown folks are all so excited about your accomplishments. But you don’t understand that until you finally make it home. Just in the recent Rio Olympics, the greetings that Joseph Schooling got in Singapore and the Fijian Rugby 7’s team got on their return home were beyond what any average citizen can comprehend.

Even back in 1964, decades before the internet brought us instantaneous news, in many cases, Olympic medalist often returned home as conquering heroes. The same was true for Brit Mary Rand, who won three medals at the Tokyo Olympics: a gold in the long jump, a silver in the pentathlon and a bronze in the 4×100 relay. But in the 1960s, athletes had to deal with the extra burden of deciding whether to go professional or not, regaled with offers that often seemed irresistible.

Along with her fellow members of TeamGB, Rand landed after a long flight from Japan, had a champagne breakfast at 6 am, and were told they had to ready for lunch at Buckingham Palace, to meet the Queen of England.

As Rand related in her autobiography, “Mary Mary“, the Queen said she explained to her son, Prince Andrew, how far Rand had jumped by measuring out the Olympic record of 6.52 meters on the floor in the palace. The conversation about the Queen’s son reminded Rand that she still had not seen her own daughter, Alison. They had not seen in each other in weeks, and so Rand’s description of the mother-child reunion is charming:

She came into the room with Diane. She looked at me and I could see she wanted to come to me, but she was looking at me as if to say, “If you think I’m going to make a fuss of you when you’ve been away this long, you’re wrong.” But she came over, and then she in my arms, I was terribly cut-up and I had to hold back the tears so as not to upset her.

There were the ticker tape parades, first in Henley, and then in her hometown of Wells. Then came the invitations to dinners and luncheons, opening and to shows….and as she explained of her quandary: “you were really expected to do all these things – it was very hard to say no – and a woman can’t just turn up in the same old dress each time.”

Mary Rand_Mary Mary 3
From the autobiography, Mary Mary

Mary Rand was not only a hero, she was marketable. Seen as part sexy siren and girl next door, accentuated by being Great Britain’s first female gold medalist, commercial opportunities came flying her way. But going commercial would come at a cost.

I could make money if I wanted to, straightaway. In Tokyo I’d get a telegram offering me a contract to feature in advertisements. Every day a lot more offers were coming in. Possibly there was much as GBP20,000 to be made. Of course it would mean giving up my amateur status and never competing again. But when you love a sport it’s hard to resign yourself to just suddenly giving up forever. You’re scared of committing yourself and then eventually thinking, one fine morning, how great it would be to get out on with our new house, there lots of financial commitments to be met, and the money was very tempting.

Fortunately, she found an agent who helped think it through. Were there opportunities out there that would not jeopardize her amateur status and maintain her potential to continue competing? One job they settled on quickly – a column for the Sunday Mirror, which paid her to write about housekeeping. She was safe as long as she didn’t write about athletics! (Yes, those days are long gone.)

When Rand was in Cannes for the debut of Kon Ichikawa’s film on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics at the film festival, she was approached with a very intriguing idea by film producers:

The idea was for a series of ‘women James Bond’ films. They said they thought I’d be great as a female 007, with my build and athletic ability. It was a fantastic idea, they said, it could be a huge success, on the other hand it could be a complete flop. They talked about locations like the South Sea Islands, the South Pole, Japan. It was terribly exciting but I was wary too. I wasn’t sure how provocative I was going to have to be in the roles – and how long it would mean being away from home. I told them I’d have to talk it over with my husband.

Rand was actually offered a contract for the female Bond films. When she examined the details, she realized that she would be away from home for such long stretches that it would take her away from what she wanted to be: a mother, and an athlete.

So it was no for “Rand. Mary Rand.”

Carlo Airoldi
Carlo Airoldi

He wasn’t high born. He was a farmer from Origgio, Italy. And he could run, and run, and run – Forrest Gump-style. In the 1890’s, Carlo Airoldi was one of the best long-distance runners in Europe. In 1895, the year before the inaugural Olympics in Athens, Airoldi won the Milano-Barcelona footrace, a 12-leg competition of 1,050 kilometers!

So when Airoldi heard about the Athens Olympics, he likely thought a 42-kilometer marathon would not be a problem at all. Unfortunately, there was another problem. He was not a man of means like the majority of athletes attending the Athens Olympics. He could not afford to take trains or ships from Italy to Greece.

So he decided to walk. Two thousand kilometers. So that he could run 42.

He convinced an Italian magazine, La Bicicletta, to sponsor his expenses in exchange for his story. He figured if he walked and jogged some 70 kilometers a day, he could make it to Athens in a month. So, according to this article in Italian, he departed Milan on February 28, 1896, taking his first steps in the cold and windy winter weather. The book, The Olympics: A Very Peculiar History, explains that after making it 700 kilometers to Ragusa, Yugosloavia, Airoldi bought a ticket for a boat to Pattras in Western Greece, before walking another 200 kilometers to Athens.

It took Airoldi a little over a month, but he made it!

Carlo-Airoldi--il-librodi-manuel-sgarella
Not quite the build you’d expect of a marathon runner….

Airoldi arrived in the Greek capital in early April, just in time for the start of the Olympic Games. Unfortunately for him, these weren’t the Games of the ancient Greeks. These were the Games of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who believed in the purity of amateur athletics, that only those who were not tainted by victory prizes were allowed to compete.

When asked by members of the organizing committee whether he have ever received money in a competition, Airoldi replied sincerely that he indeed had, the previous year, after winning the Milan-Barcelona race a year before. Perhaps, as the Italian article explains, there was also concern that this renown distance runner from Italy was a threat to the favored Greeks in the marathon. Whatever the reason, a shocked Airoldi was declined eligibility to run in the marathon.

“If only they could walk a mile in my shoes…,” he may have thought.