This is a guest post from SI’s Alexander Wolff, who has been living in London all summer, immersing himself in the British scene.
LONDON — While working on this week’s story for the magazine about how women are ruling these Games, I got lost in a couple of histories of the last London Olympics that recount the legend of Fanny Blankers-Koen. Before she left the Netherlands in 1948, strangers would stop her on the street to castigate her plans to leave her two children at home. Blankers-Koen not only ignored them, but also wasn’t fazed by organizers’ refusal to let women enter more than four events — a ruling that meant she couldn’t contest two, the long jump and high jump, in which she held world records. Her four track gold medals at the 1948 Games (in the 100 and 200 meters, the hurdles and the relay) is a women’s Olympic mark that still stands. And it soon emerged that she had done it all while pregnant.
Earlier this year designers of a whimsical map of the London Underground named each station after a former Olympian, and somehow overlooked the late Blankers-Koen, even though the IAAF had honored her as its female Athlete of the Century in 1999. But in a kind of cartographic Freudian slip, they somehow did see fit to include two non-medalists, runners Mary Decker and Zola Budd, who are best known for an on-track collision at the 1984 Olympics and the tears and catfight that ensued. Blankers-Koen ultimately got her own tube stop (and the Dutch got an apology), and Decker and Budd quite appropriately now share one. But the episode served as a reminder that women’s sports still tend to receive the most attention when they’re tabloid fodder.
(The fixed Tube map, from Transport For London.)
“When Blankers-Koen competed, women weren’t allowed to run longer than 200 meters,” says Mart Smeets, who anchors late-night coverage for the Dutch broadcaster NOS. “Now, when we showed footage of the women’s rowing, you could literally feel the pain.”
And pain seems to be at the heart of the matter. NOS hosted an athletes’ roundtable to try to figure out why most of the country’s medals have been won by women, even as the Netherlands has sent many more men. “Women can endure pain better than men,” said Edith Bosch, who won a bronze in judo, invoking everything from menstrual cramps to childbirth. “We have something extra.”
So discovered Ashley Gill-Webb, the lout from Leeds who threw a plastic bottle on the track just as Sunday’s men’s 100 meters got underway. He had the misfortune of sitting next to Edith Bosch, and she laid a little martial art on him until security guards arrived to take the matter into their hands.
Perhaps Bosch was field-testing the male ability to deal with pain. In any case, it was one more unforgettable instance of a woman making her mark on these Games.