SIOM 13: The Flying Housewife
Last week’s instalment took us to the Berlin Games in 1936, where Jesse Owens emphatically discredited aspects of the Nazi doctrine which asserted racial supremacy and consigned many races, including blacks, to a “sub-human” category. Owens returned a national hero but continued to battle segregation in his native America, ultimately finding success but only after suffering a series of indignities (including racing against horses). His four track and field gold medals at a single Games have since been matched only by Carl Lewis (LA, 1984) and one other. If Owens’ performances were a statement against racial discrimination, those of Fanny Blankers-Koen were a middle finger to gender discrimination which, in the first half of the 20th century, manifested in conventional thinking, the media and the rules of sporting competition (not least, those of the Games).
Blankers-Koen was born Francina Elsje Koen near the Dutch town of Baarn on 26 April 1918, little over six months before World War I officially ended, with the international ceasefire effective from 11 November 1918. Her father had competed in the shot put and discus, and she had five brothers to keep her on her toes during her formative years. As a teenager, her sporting abilities became apparent, as she excelled in tennis, swimming, gymnastics, ice skating, fencing and running, her diverse talent presenting her with a difficult choice as to which sport to pursue. A swimming coach advised her against his discipline, pointing out that the Netherlands already had numerous swimmers of the highest calibre (including Rie Mastenbroek, who would win three gold medals and a silver medal at the Berlin games). Discouraged from swimming by one of her coaches, and encouraged by her father to pursue athletics, she elected to focus on track and field. She worked with specialist coaches, declaring, “I’ve made up my mind to go for sport.”
At the age of 17, in 1935, Fanny became a member of the Amsterdam Dames’ Athletic Club, and rode her bicycle 18 miles each way from her home in Hoofdorp to the gymnasium. Without an outdoor track at her disposal, she trained indoors, running in the gymnasium hallway. Koen’s first competition that year showed little promise, as she finished towards the back of the field in the 200m. The following month, however, she broke the national record for the 800m, a performance that attracted the attention of Jan Blankers, the Dutch national team coach, fourteen years her senior and himself a former athlete. Jan invited her to join the national team. Unfortunately, following the 1928 Games, the 800m had been withdrawn from the women’s competition schedule, considered too difficult and arduous for female athletes. Undeterred, Fanny focused on other track and field events.
Koen’s Olympic debut was less than spectacular. She was selected for the high jump and the 4x100m relay and placed tie fifth in the former and fifth out of six teams for the latter (ahead of the German team, which had been disqualified). The Games, however, were not a total loss for Koen, as she obtained Jesse Owens’ autograph, which she since described as her “most treasured possession”. Koen’s fighting spirit and indomitable determination manifested in the years that followed, as she set her first world record in 1938 (clocking 11 seconds flat for the 100 yards). That year, she also won her first international medals, earning bronze in the 100 and 200m at the European Championships. Many expected her to do well in the 1940 Games, scheduled to take place in Helsinki. World War I had not affected her but its sequel certainly did. The outbreak of the War put paid to the 1940 Games, which were formally cancelled on 2 May 1940, a week before the Netherlands was invaded by Germany.
Around six months after Germany’s invasion of Holland, Fanny married her coach, changing her name to Fanny Blankers-Koen. Her husband, while supportive as her coach and personally, was also a sports journalist who, until his marriage to Fanny, had regularly expressed the popular opinion that women should not compete in sports. Fanny gave birth to her first child in 1941, following which the Dutch media wrote her off as an athletic prospect, presuming her retirement in an era when married female athletes were rare, and the concept of an internationally competitive mother unthinkable. She resumed training a few weeks after giving birth.
During the War, Blankers-Koen set six world records, in the 80m hurdles, high jump, 100m (although this performance was never officially recognised, as she had run against men), the long jump, the 100 yards and the 4x100m and 2x200m relays. Koen’s performances were impressive not only in the wake of giving birth and considering her advancing age, but also in light of meagre war time rations. In 1946, she gave birth to a second child, six weeks before the European Championships. Despite this, she again quickly resumed training, emerging victorious in the 80m hurdles and 4 x 100m relay. In 1947 she won national titles in six events, was the leading athlete in the Netherlands and qualified for the first postwar Olympic team. Again, Fanny’s talents gave her excessive choice, as Olympic rules prohibited female athletes from competing in more than four track and field events. Blankers-Koen elected to focus on four track events and was therefore, ridiculously, prohibited from competing in either the long jump or the high jump, a situation made all the more farcical by her status as the then world record holder in both of these events.
Although Blankers-Koen displayed compelling form in the weeks leading up to the Games, beating her own 80m hurdles record, journalists suggested that, at 30 years old, she was past her prime. The British athletics team manager, Jack Crump, claimed that she was “too old to make the grade”. Back home, many in the Netherlands were critical, stating that she should retire from international competition so that she could look after her children. Blankers-Koen had entered the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4 x 100m relay. Could she silence the critics and naysayers by executing performances that would cement her place in history, not just as an Olympic gold medal winner, but as a triumph against conventional wisdom that explicitly expounded on the perceived frailties and physical limitations of female athletes, particularly aging mothers?
She had seen her hero, Jesse Owens, achieve four Olympic gold medals at the previous Games when she was 18 years old. Twelve years later, at the age of 30 and at this stage a mother of two, she sought to emulate him. Sports participation in its entirety had at one stage been considered unsuitable for women, based on the premise that participation could impair women’s ability to have children. In a 1990s paper, Michelle Stanworth, a leading sociologist, identified the irony of motherhood as an empirical paradox, describing it thusly, “motherhood, and the responsibilities which it encompasses, often repress women while at the same time allowing and encouraging women to unearth newfound aspects of self-worth through mothering. Therefore motherhood is both a potential constraining social construction as well as a prospective process of self-exploration and advancement.” Essentially, the question put to Blankers-Koen at the 1948 Games in London was, “Could she have her cake and eat it”?
Blankers-Koen had matched the achievements of her hero and, together with Carl Lewis, remains one of three athletes to attain four track and field gold medals at a single Games. Her peerless performance had not been without incident. In her second event, the 80m hurdles, her closest rival was British Maureen Gardner, who had not only equalled Fanny’s world record prior to the Games, but was coached by Jan Blankers. At the end of the race, the British anthem was played, eliciting rapturous applause from the crowd and despondency from Blankers-Koen. It then transpired that the anthem signified not the result of the race, but the arrival of the royal family. Two gold medals down, with two events to go, Blankers-Koen suffered a near mental breakdown, experiencing extreme homesickness and wishing to return to her family. She pleaded with her husband to let her withdraw from the Games, but he encouraged her to persevere. There was consternation before the start of the 4x100m hurdles, as Blankers-Koen almost missed the start, having gone shopping for a raincoat.
Blankers-Koen returned to her native Holland a hero but, similarly to Owens’ experience on his return to America, faced continued prejudice, albeit good-natured and well-intentioned, when the Dutch government presented her with a bicycle, to help her “run less and go through life at a slower pace”. Global gender discrimination and debate as to whether women could physically manage to run the 200m competitively continued, with one international correspondent at the games describing the London Games 200m thusly, “Mrs Blankers-Koen won by less than a couple of her rapidly shortening strides, weakening indeed visibly after her prolonged all-out effort on the sodden track… Miss Williamson did well to gain second place in such a gruelling race – a shade too gruelling for women, as many people thought. Even Mrs Blankers-Koen looked white and strained at the finish.”
On her return, Fanny said, “”All I’ve done is run fast. I don’t see why people should make much fuss about that.” She subsequently recalled, “I remember thinking how strange that I had made so many people happy, but times were harsh and people were glad of the opportunity to celebrate anything. I was proud to bring joy into people’s lives”. Queen Juliana subsequently made her a knight of the Order of Orange Nassau and in 1999 she was voted “Female Athlete of the Century” by the International Amateur Athletics Federation, in recognition of her four Olympic gold medals and sixteen world record performances in eight events (appropriately including the diverse pentathlon).
In 1972 she had met her hero at the Munich Games, when she said, “I still have your autograph, I’m Fanny Blankers-Koen”, to which Owens replied, “You don’t have to tell me who you are, I know everything about you.”
Blankers-Koen died in 2004, at the age of 85, a year after the first biography of her life was released, entitled “Een koningin met mannenbenen” or “A queen with men’s legs”. She is survived by three children, the youngest of which was born in 1949 and had been conceived prior to the 1948 Games. Four Olympic gold medals whilst pregnant? So much for conventional wisdom.