The biggest star of the 1948 Olympics was a 30-year-old mother of two who survived Nazi occupation and was thought to have missed her best chances at gold when two Olympics were canceled.
Francina “Fanny” Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands easily plowed through the muddy, red cinder running track at Wembley Stadium, leaving younger competitors behind and winning four gold medals. She was favored in two other events, but Olympic rules barred her from entering more than four.
During World War II, women built planes, ships and tanks, operated factories and offices, drove buses and fire engines, all while running households. Some were killed in combat or captured as prisoners of war.
But when the Olympics returned, women were still forbidden from equestrian, shooting, rowing and yachting. Women could compete in gymnastics only as a team, they could swim no farther than 400 meters, and run no farther than 200 meters.
The IOC even required women to produce medical certificates proving they were women.
Blankers-Koen was born into an athletic family with four brothers. She reached two Olympic finals at 18 at the 1936 Berlin Games. The highlight for her was an autograph from Jesse Owens.
Jan Blankers, a coach and former Olympic triple jumper, saw in Fanny an ultra-competitive perfectionist. He guided her training and she began achieving world records from 1938.
They married and sought races even as two Olympic Games were canceled in her prime and while life under Nazi Occupation was scary and impoverished.
She was not slowed by the arrival of a son, Jan, in 1941, and a daughter, Fanny, in 1946. New mothers were expected to stop athletics careers, but Blankers-Koen ran to training pushing a stroller.
The oldest woman competing in track at the London Games, Blankers-Koen went to London holding six world records.
She won the 100-meter final comfortably in the rain at Wembley. But the track was in worse condition for the 80-meter hurdles final.
She started late, clipped a hurdle and, in her own words, “staggered like a drunkard” home. The finish tape cut her neck, drawing blood. Her photo finish win in 11.2 seconds was a world and Olympic record.
“Well done, Fanny,” Jan said, “you aren’t too old after all.”
After the race, she wanted to go home. She missed her children and pressure was mounting. After mulling it over, she decided to continue competing.
For the first Olympic women’s 200-meter final, the track was spattered in puddles and the lines barely visible. But just 30 minutes after winning a 4×100-meter relay heat, she won her third gold by an astonishing seven meters.
A shopping expedition for a raincoat almost made Blankers-Koen miss the relay final. She didn’t have time to warm up. When she took the baton on the anchor leg, the Dutch were in third. But Blankers-Koen cut up the mud and won by a foot. Over eight days, she won all 11 of her races.
She remains the only woman to win four gold medals in track at a single Olympics.
If she hadn’t been restricted by the IOC to four events, she could have won two more golds. IOC rules forced her to drop two of her strongest events, the long jump and high jump, both of which she held the world record.
Even so, “my winning those medals was good propaganda for all women,” she wrote.
She was feted in an Amsterdam parade. Queen Juliana knighted her, and the city gave her a bicycle, saying she wouldn’t have to run so much.
But she kept running.
She almost repeated her Olympic four-gold feat at the 1950 European championships, slipping to silver in the relay.
At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, she was hampered by a skin boil and side effects to penicillin and went home empty-handed.
She finished her career in 1955 with a 58th Dutch record. She went to three more Olympics as a coach.
Despite fame as the “Flying Housewife” who was depicted in two statues, Blankers-Koen didn’t set out to be a social pioneer. She lived for sports and hated losing.
At a ceremony in 1999 when the governing body of track and field was going to name her greatest female athlete of the 20th century, Blankers-Koen asked, “Is it really me?” When it was confirmed, she whooped it up and did a little dance.
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