Fanny Blankers-Koen
(Filed: 26/01/2004)

Fanny Blankers-Koen, who died yesterday in Holland aged 85, was the only woman to have won four gold athletics medals at a single Olympics, a haul matched in the history of the Games by just two other competitors, Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis; in 1999 the governing body of track and field sports, the IAAF, voted her the greatest female athlete of the 20th century.

The 1948 Olympics, held in London, were the first to be staged since those at Berlin 12 years earlier. Fanny Blankers-Koen had represented the Netherlands there as a teenager, but had not made much of a mark in her two events - the high jump and the sprint relay - and, with the onset of war, had believed that her athletics career was over. This feeling was reinforced by the effects of the malnutrition she had suffered as the Dutch starved under Nazi Occupation, and by the birth of her son and her daughter.

Nonetheless, she continued to train in secret under the eye of her coach and husband, Jan Blankers, a former triple jump champion whom she had married in 1940; and in 1943 she set two unofficial world records, in the long and high jumps. Encouraged by this, she returned to competition, and in 1946, in Oslo, claimed the European titles at 100m and in the 80m hurdles.

Fanny Blankers-Koen arrived at the White City stadium in London as the holder of six world records, yet found herself dogged by criticism. The manager of the British team dismissed her as being too old, at 30; while in Holland there were many who believed that she would be better employed looking after her children. Her detractors might have been even more vocal had they known that she was already in the early stages of a third pregnancy.

She secured her first victory with ease, winning the 100m by three metres in 11.9 seconds. Two days later she lined up for the final of the 80m hurdles as favourite, but hit the fifth flight as she caught up with Britain's Maureen Gardner, lost her stride and finished in a dead heat with Gardner and the Australian Shirley Strickland.

She thought that she had lost to the Briton, her training partner, and believed her fears confirmed when the band began to play God Save The King. This, however, was for George VI, who was just taking his seat, and a few moments later she heard the Dutch anthem. Blankers-Koen had won in 11.2 seconds (the same time as Gardner), a new world record.

By now, however, Fanny Blankers-Koen - a strongly-built yet rather shy blonde - was indeed beginning to miss her children; and when her husband went into the dressing room before the 200m semi-finals, he found her in tears. She told him that she hated the event - the distance was being run by women for the first time at an Olympics - and that she wanted to go home.

He sympathised with her, but said that she would later regret her decision if she quit. "Jan was right," she remarked later. "I had a good cry and felt much better." Indeed, so good did she feel that, in the heat, she set a new Olympic record of 24.4 seconds, a time she almost equalled when she later won the final by seven metres on a soaking wet track.

The last of Fanny Blankers-Koen's four golds came in the sprint relay, and was claimed by her in dramatic fashion. Running the anchor leg, she received the baton in fourth place, but blasted past her opponents to snatch victory for Holland. She had won all four medals in just eight days.

More remarkably still, it is probable that she would have won six golds had she not been confined by the rules of the time to competing in just three individual events. She did not enter either the long or high jumps, which were won by performances that were inferior to her own world records.

Fanny Blankers-Koen, who had been nicknamed "The Flying Housewife" by the British press, returned to Amsterdam to be greeted by vast crowds. "All I did was run fast," she said in some bewilderment. Her critics were silenced and the nation showed its appreciation of her victories by presenting her with a new bicycle - so that she would not have to run so much.

The daughter of a government official, she was born Francina Elsje Koen at Baarn, Holland, on April 26 1918. As a child she enjoyed swimming, gymnastics and fencing, and took up athletics only at 16, at her father's suggestion. As an 18-year-old at the Berlin Games, she finished sixth in the high jump and came fifth with the relay team. The highlight for her, however, was securing Jesse Owens's autograph. Almost 40 years later, at the Munich Olympics, she reminded him of this, telling him: "My name is Fanny Blankers-Koen." "You don't have to tell me that," said Owens, "I know all about you."

"Imagine," she recalled later with her usual modesty, "Jesse Owens knew who I was."

In 1952 she was selected for the Helsinki Olympics, but although early on she reached the hurdles final, she was troubled by a large carbuncle, and pulled up after hitting the first two flights. She then decided to withdraw from the Games.

Fanny Blankers-Koen retired from competition in 1955, having set 16 world records in eight disciplines, including the pentathlon and the shot, and having won five European and 58 national titles. In 1960 she managed the Dutch team at the Rome Olympics.

She lived in Amsterdam (where a statue of her was erected), enjoying tennis and getting out on her bicycle until recently, when she began to suffer ill health. She refused to be jealous of modern athletes such as Marion Jones, who secured a multi-million-dollar sponsorship contract after taking two golds at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

"She trains twice a day," Fanny pointed out. "We only trained twice a week."