Fanny Blankers-Koen defied conventions and blazed a pathway for women’s sport when she swept to four golds at the 1948 Olympics as a 30-year-old mother of two.

After making her Games debut in 1936 at the age of 18 – where she approached Jesse Owens for an autograph, one of her most treasured possessions – the Dutch marvel’s Olympic career was put on hold by World War II.

In 1936, she tied for the sixth place in the high jump and was part of the 4x100m relay.

By the time the Olympics returned in London in 1948, and despite living for six years under German occupation near Amsterdam, Blankers-Koen held six world records – in the 100 yards, the 80-metre hurdles, the high jump, the long jump and in two relays.

Any doubts about a mother’s suitability to compete were erased when she won every event she entered – the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4x100m relay.

“One newspaperman wrote that I was too old to run, that I should stay at home and take care of my children,” she told the New York Times in 1982.

“When I got to London, I pointed my finger at him and I said: ‘I show you’.”

And show she did.

Fanny Blankers-Koen factfile

  • Olympic Medals: 4 Gold
  • Games participations: 3
  • First Olympic Games: Berlin 1936
  • Year of Birth: 1918

Fanny Blankers-Koen's medals

Games Medal
London 1948 Gold 100 metres Athletics
London 1948 Gold 200 metres Athletics
London 1948 Gold 80 metres Hurdles Athletics
London 1948 Gold 4 x 100 metres Relay Athletics

She won the 100m final in the mud by three yards. And then won the 80m hurdles gold too. But it wasn’t all just smooth sailing. After winning the two gold medals, she felt tremendous pressure to win her third gold and was close to a mental breakdown.

According to The Complete Book Of The Olympics by David Wallechinsky, Blankers-Koen was in tears before the 200m race.

“Prior to the semi-finals of the 200m, she told her husband Jan that she wanted to withdraw. Jan tried to calm her down and gave her words of encouragement but to no avail. In desperation, he evoked the memories of her parents and her two children, and she burst into tears. When she finally came out of her cry, she had recovered and was once again eager to run.”

The next day, running on a muddy track, she won the final by seven yards, the largest margin ever recorded in the women’s 200 meters.

Blankers-Koen won four of the nine women’s track and field events at the 1948 Olympics. She would have most probably won the long jump too, if she had entered. The winning jump was 20 inches shorter than her world record.

The Complete Book Of The Olympics also noted: “When she returned to Amsterdam, she was driven through the crowded streets in an open carriage drawn by four gray horses. Her neighbours gave her a bicycle, ‘so she won’t have to run so much’.”

Blankers-Koen was named female athlete of the century by the IAAF in 1999 while Carl Lewis got the honour among male athletes.

“You mean it is me who has won. I had no idea!” Blankers-Koen said that day. “When I think of all the great women athletes of this century, and the young people who are doing so well, I must say that I am surprised … but quite pleased as well! I can still remember every detail of every heat and final in London. Thankfully, my memories are still very vivid.”

She died five years later at the age of 85.

(With inputs from AFP)