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.”

opening ceremonies 2017 Sapporo Asian Winter Games
Opening ceremonies 2017 Sapporo Asian Winter Games

The Olympics could be back in Japan in 2026.

Eight years after the Summer Olympics were held in Tokyo in 1964, the Winter Olympics were held in Sapporo. It’s possible that Sapporo could become the host again of the Winter Olympics, this time only 6 years after the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Sapporo hosted the 8th Asian Winter Games from February 17 to 24 in 2017, and by many accounts, was a major success. A record 32 nations, and over 1,200 athletes attended the nine-day Games. And despite the cloud of doping over every major sporting championship, the OCA’s Medical Committee and Anti-Doping Commission gave the Asian Winter Games a huge stamp of approval – no positive drug tests.

2017 Asian Winter Games logo“The Medical Committee and Anti-Doping Commission of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) is delighted to announce the absence of any adverse analytical findings for doping during the recent 8th Sapporo Asian Winter Games,” Tan Sri Dr. Jegathesan, chairman of the OCA Medical Committee and Anti-Doping Commission, said in a statement. “This allows the Games to earn the accolade ‘Clean Games’. All lab reports were negative,” he confirmed.

IOC President, Thomas Bach, also welcomes a bid from Sapporo, and was not concerned that a Sapporo selection would mean a succession of Olympics in Asia (ie: 2018 in PyeongChang, Korea, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan, and 2022 in Beijing, China).

“We have always in the IOC a kind of informal rotation of Olympic host cities, but we also have to see in the past this was very much Europe-centered. And now with the real globalization of the world, the growing importance of Asia, not only in sport but in all areas of life, I think it is more or less normal that we have more Olympic Games taking place in Asia.”

stamps 2

A friend of mine in Denmark recently sent me a wonderful gift – a commemorative souvenir stamp sheet that went on sale on October 10, 1964, the opening day of XVIII Olympiad in Tokyo.

It is a beautiful set that show off some of the iconic venues of the Tokyo Games, including the 30-yen stamp featuring the Nippon Budokan Hall. The popular Japanese martial art of judo was debuting at the 1964 Games, and the Japanese government decided to build  a structure just for judo at the Olympics.

Not only was the stamp publicizing the Budokan, it was helping to pay for it.

From the first Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens, governments have raised funds for Olympiads through the issuance of stamps. According to the IOC, more than 50 million Olympic stamp series have been issued since 1896, generating revenue for Olympic operating committees through surcharges on stamps.

Receipts of Olympic Fund Raising Association
From the final report of the Olympic Games

An organization called the Olympic Fund Raising Association was created in December, 1960, mandated with raising funds primarily from private sources. The Association was responsible for raising funds for the Olympic Organizing Committee, the Japan Amateur Sports Associations to help raise the performance level of athletes in Japan, as well as for the construction of the Budokan.

And according to the final report of the Olympic Games published by the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, stamps were the Association’s best money maker, as you can see in the table below. What’s also interesting is the number of fund raising projects the Association oversaw: advertising in telephone books and trains. And not only did they make money off of selling cigarettes, but also thanks to legalized gambling in motorboat, bicycle and motorcycle racing, among many other things.

The Olympic Fund Raising Association raised a total of around JPY6 billion (USD16 million), and 16% or JPY963 million was due to stamps.

 

Stamps 1
The inside of the commemorative stamp booklet.
Paea Wolfgramm defeats Duncan Dokiwari
Paea Wolfgramm defeats Duncan Dokiwari

Pita Nikolas Taufatofua put Tonga on the map during the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Carrying his nation’s flag, his torso bare, muscles rippling and golden skin gleaming, Taufatofua had tongues hanging and wagging.

But Taufatofua didn’t last the entire bout of even his first match, eliminated from the Olympics due to mercy rules, losing 16-1 to Sajjad Mardani. To be fair, Tonga is so small, the Pacific archipelago’s population is a bit above 100,000, which is probably about the population of my neighborhood in Tokyo. So the numbers alone make it unlikely for a world champion to emerge from Tonga.

But the tiny kingdom of Tonga, participating in the Olympics since 1984, beat the odds and claimed a silver medal in 1996. Paea Wolfgramm was a student at the university of Auckland in New Zealand where he played rugby when a schoolmate suggested that Wolfgramm give boxing a try in 1990. After 24 bouts in and around the Pacific islands circuit, Wolfgramm found himself the super heavyweight representative of Tonga, and was going to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Wolfgramm was a big man, 185 cm tall and 140 kgs in weight, but as he had no international track record, he was a total unknown among the American, Cuban and European boxers expected to medal.

Pita Nikolas Taufatofua
Pita Nikolas Taufatofua

First up for Wolfgramm was a boxer from Belarus, Sergei Dahovich, whom Wolfgramm snuck by on points, 10-9. This set up a match with the Cuban, Alexis Rubalcaba. The Cuban boxers were always considered a threat. But Wolfgramm, a devout Morman, surprised essentially everyone, taking the fight to Rubalcaba, pummeling him at the ropes, and sending the Cuban to two standing eight counts. Wolfgramm won on points 17-12, and in that moment, to the chants of “Ton-ga! Ton-ga!” from the Atlanta crowd, went from unknown to unbelievable.

The entire island nation of Tonga was already celebrating its greatest Olympic moment as Wolfgramm had secured the nation’s first medal, guaranteed a bronze medal with the Cuban’s defeat. While the match between Wolfgramm and the Nigerian boxer Duncan Dokiwari was not televised in Tonga, the entire populace was on pins and needles when Wolfgramm took to the ring for semi-final bout.

The fight between Wolfgramm and the 1994 Victoria Commonwealth Games champion was a tight affair, tied 6-6 going into the third and final round. And the match stayed tied at 6 until the very final seconds, when Wolfgramm landed a punch to Dokiwari’s face to get the decisive point. Wolfgramm was going to the gold-medal round!

But there was a cost. Not only did Wolfgramm have a broken nose, he had broken his wrist in his desperate match against Dokiwari. And he was up against Vladimir Klitschko. The brainy PhD from the Ukraine, Klitschko would also go on to become a world heavyweight champion, in fact, the second longest reigning heavyweight champion of all time. (Joe Louis reigned for nearly 12 years, while Klitschko was champion for nearly 10.)

Wolfgramm had said that if this had not been a championship bout, he probably would have not gotten into the ring. But this was for gold, and he was reported to have said, “If I won a gold medal, I could not even imagine. I would die first, coach would die next and the king would give me half of Tonga.”

The Tongan did not win, although he made the fight a fight. After the second round, Wolfgramm was down only 3-2. But the third round was the Ukrainian’s. Klitschko pummelled away, and won the gold-medal match 7-3. Despite the lack of resources and support, the broken nose and wrist, Wolfgramm battled for himself and for an entire nation. Of his wrist, Wolfgramm was quoted as saying, “I was willing for it to break into 2,000 pieces if necessary.

Wolfgramm would turn professional soon after the Atlanta Games, and go onto a successful career, winning his first 14 bouts, and retiring with a career record of 20-4.

Vladimir Klitschko defeats Paea Wolfgramm
Vladimir Klitschko defeats Paea Wolfgramm

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!