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.
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.”