Blankers-Koen an unwilling feminist heroine
Posted: Monday August 9, 2004 10:58PM; Updated: Monday August 9, 2004 10:58PM
ATHENS, Aug 10 (Reuters) -- Long after she retired, Fanny Blankers-Koen rejected any suggestion she was a feminist heroine.
"Oh no, oh no," said the woman voted the female athlete of the 20th century. "I don't like the word."
Despite her protestations, Blankers-Koen's feats at the 1948 London Olympics changed blinkered ideas of women athletes for ever.
At the first Games after war had again ravaged Europe, the Dutchwoman was already 30. She was also the mother of a boy of seven and a girl of two.
Both factors were thought at the time automatically to disqualify any sportswoman from serious contention.
Blankers-Koen had already competed at an Olympics, taking part at the 1936 Berlin Games where she finished sixth in the high jump.
She kept up her training during the Nazi occupation and was a multiple world record holder when she travelled to London with her husband and coach Jan Blankers.
By common consent, however, Blankers-Koen was too old to pose a serious threat in the four events she was allowed to enter under the rules of the day -- the 100 and 200 metres, the 80 metres hurdles, the 4x100 relay.
In the drab surroundings of Wembley stadium, Blankers-Koen confounded the sceptics with four golds in nine days.
She began by winning the 100 metres on a rain-soaked track by more than a metre. The hurdles final proved the toughest race of all.
Blankers-Koen made a poor start then hit the fifth flight, lost her balance and went across the line in an apparent dead heat with British ballet teacher Maureen Gardner and Australian Shirley Strickland.
When the band struck up "God save the King," Blankers-Koen was certain she had lost to Gardner. She soon discovered the British national anthem heralded the arrival of King George VI at the Royal Box and she had won the gold medal.
Emotionally exhausted she had to be persuaded by her husband to run the 200 metres heats.
She rallied to win the final by 0.7 of a second, still the largest margin by either man or woman in an Olympic sprint final. On the following day Blankers-Koen reeled in a five-metre deficit on the anchor leg of the 4x100 relay to take her final medal.
Blankers-Koen returned to Amsterdam where a horse-drawn carriage was waiting for her. She maintained her love of competition and did not finally retire until she was 37.
In 1999 she was voted the female athlete of the 20th century and she died in January this year, aged 85.
"In the years after World War Two she was an inspiring symbol for many woman," Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad said at her death. "Fanny Blankers-Koen did pioneering work in the emancipation of women in sports, without bragging about it."
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