world-record-certificate_cockie-gastelaars
Certification of proof of a world record in the freestyle 100 meters for Cocky Gastelaars of the Netherlands_from the collection of Cocky Gastelaars

She was the fastest swimmer in the world. On March 3, 1956, the Dutch swimmer, Cocky Gastelaars, swam the 100-meter freestyle in 1 minute and 4.2 seconds. The record had been held by fellow Dutch swimmer, Willy den Ouden for two decades until then.

Above is a certificate that Gastelaars received from the FINA, the international swimming governing body.

When she broke a world record, Gastelaars told me that special evenings were organized for her, and that she got lots of presents, like food baskets or a pen. She even got a dog.

In early 1956, Gastelaars and her coach knew that the world record was vulnerable, and they planned and trained with a vision of breaking that record. When a person is believed to be on the verge of breaking records, very often the community is alerted so that official timers and lots of witnesses are on hand.

“I made progress every month.” she told me. “I knew it was coming. I broke the record in Amsterdam in a swimming event against other Dutch competitors. It was rather big crowd for the time. My mom and friends were there. My father had to work. He was running an operation of 36 big boats, but he stayed near the telephone. As it turned out, the station interrupted regular radio programming, and my father was able to hear the broadcast on the radio.”

cocky-gastelaars-after-breaking-world-record
Cocky Gastelaars with trainer Dries Peute after breaking world record March 3, 1956

Five weeks later, Gastelaars did it again.

Eight months later, Gastelaars was primed to win gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics….when the unthinkable happened. The Netherlands government decided to boycott the Olympics, joining Spain and Switzerland in a protest of the Soviet Union invasion of Hungary. As you can imagine, members of the Dutch Olympic squad were shocked, angry and devastated by the news. Gastelaars never took off for Australia. At the peak of her powers as the fastest swimmer in the world, she was not allowed to prove her championship mettle because of two countries that had nothing directly to do with either Australia or the Netherlands.

I was so sad. All the swimmers were. We trained every day together. When the Games (for us )was cancelled, (our dream) was all gone. So we just went back to school. We didn’t say much. People asked us how we feel, but we didn’t talk about it. I felt awful. You work so hard for something and suddenly it’s over. We definitely would have had a lot of chances for medals. In fact, after the Olympics, we held relays in the Netherlands in all the Olympic events. I think we broke three world records in the relays, and the women’s medley.

Only recently have officials in the Netherlands recognized the 1956 Olympians who never got the chance to compete. The belated recognition is of course good. But to paraphrase Shakespeare, it is perhaps better to have competed and lost, than to have never competed at all.

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1956 Dutch Olympic Team Rehabilitation lunch at Kurhaus Hotel in Scheveningen
The Rehabilitation Lunch for the 1956 Dutch Olympic Team, organized by the Dutch Olympic Committee at the Kurhaus Hotel in Scheveningen, Holland.

“Melbourne is THE black page in the Olympic History of the Netherlands,” wrote Ada Kok in an email to me. Kok was not only a two-time Olympian in 1964 and 1968, she was the President of the Dutch Olympians Association for 11 years.

And when she was president, you could join the association only if you were an Olympian. Thus, the unfortunate members of the 1956 Dutch National Team were forbidden from competing once the Dutch government decided to boycott the Melbourne Games. As related in a previous post, some of the Dutch national team, including world-record swimmer, Cocky Gastelaars, were already in Melbourne preparing when the decision was made.

Ada and Cocky
Ada Kok and Cocky Gastelaars

“Some athletes were already present in Melbourne to train and they were whistled back home by the Dutch Olympic Committee and the Dutch Government,” wrote Kok. “For Cocky this was a traumatic decision as this was her chance to win a gold medal being a world-record holder. But not only was Cocky disappointed. Then, we had a lot of potential gold medal winners who were part of this Dutch Olympic Melbourne Team in 1956. The sad thing was they all just received a telegram to announce the Olympic Team was not travelling to Melbourne, and for those who were already in Melbourne, they were ordered to leave the Olympic Village, not to wear their Olympic outfits anymore and travel home immediately.”

Kok provided me with a copy of that telegram dated November 7, 1956, seen below.

telegram Dutch boycott

DUTCH OLYMPIC TEAM                                                                                                              HEIDELBERG-VICTORIA-ASUSTRLIA

AT EXTRAORDINARY MEETING THE DUTCH OLYMPIC PARTICIPATION TO WITHDRAW DUE TO HUNGARY STOP LEAVE OLYMPIC VILLAGE – FIND OTHER PLACE TO STAY STOP WEAR CIVILIAN CLOTHES – IF IMPOSSIBLE REMOVE BADGE STOP WAIT FOR PAULEN LEAVING 11 NOVEMBER FLIGHT 845 FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS STOP CANCEL ALL HOTEL RESERVATIONS BUT RESERVE HOTEL WINDSOR PAULEN AND CHARLES LEAVING 15 NOVEMBER SORRY ALL THE BEST

NOC  (National Olympic Committee )

To a world-class athlete preparing years for this moment, the telegram above must have been a dagger in their backs. “No further explanation,” wrote Kok. “This was so sad! And this caused over the years a lot of bad feelings among the Dutch Olympians from 1956.”

It took a while, but in 2014, a step was taken to recognize these athletes whose lives were so abruptly and rudely changed that day in November 1956. Erica Terpstra, who was the President of the Dutch Olympic Committee, worked with Ada Kok to arrange a day of