In a glittering ceremony at the World Athletics Gala in November 1999, Francina ‘Fanny’ Blankers-Koen was deservedly announced as the IAAF Woman Athlete of the Century, a reflection of her outstanding career in the sport.
Other candidates for the honour had been discussed and debated during the year but nobody argued about her right to that illustrious accolade.
The Dutch athlete, who was born on 26 April 1918, achieved many successes but will chiefly be remembered as the heroine of the London 1948 Olympic Games where she won gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4x100m.
Her first gold medal came in the 100m and she became the first Dutch athlete to win an Olympic title. In the 80m hurdles, she recovered from a poor start and just held off Great Britain’s Maureen Gardner, both women being given the same time of 11.2.
The following day, Blankers-Koen won the 200m final with greater ease in 24.4, 0.7 ahead of her nearest rival. But many observers consider her stunning anchor leg in the 4x100m on the final day of the Olympics, which took the Netherlands from third to first, to be her greatest feat in London.
In total, she ran 11 races in eight days in London and won them all.
Blankers-Koen remains the only woman to win four gold medals at a single Olympics, but her career was not defined alone by her London triumphs.
After making her Olympic debut as a teenager in 1936 – she was a 30-year-old mother of two young children at the time of the 1948 Olympics – she went on to set 12 official world records in eight different events and another eight unofficial world bests across a 13-year period from 1938 to 1951.
She didn’t climb the podium in 1936, with fifth-place finishes in the high jump and 4x100m, but she did acquire what she later described as her most treasured sporting memento, even more so than all her gold medals: an autograph of Jesse Owens.
In later years, they were to meet again. “When I met him again in Munich at the 1972 Olympics, I said, ‘I still have your autograph, I'm Fanny Blankers-Koen’. He said, 'You don't have to tell me who you are, I know everything about you’,” recalled Blankers-Koen.
Blankers-Koen married her coach Jan Blankers in 1940, but World War II robbed her of the chance of competing at major international championships for six years. There has been much speculation about how extensive Blankers-Koen’s Olympic medal tally might have been had the Olympic Games of 1940 and 1944 not been cancelled.
However, her quartet of titles in London has assured her of athletics immortality.
On the continental stage, after winning 100m and 200m bronze medals at the 1938 European Championships, she also won five European titles after the resumption of major championships in Europe: the 80m hurdles and 4x100m in 1946 and then the 100m, 200m and 80m hurdles in 1950.
Blankers-Koen’s final world record came in 1951 in the pentathlon, but her career was far from over.
In 1952, prior to the Olympics in Helsinki, she was in great form and ran her fastest ever times for 100y, 100m, and 200m. But, suffering from a painful carbuncle on her leg, she withdrew from the 100m semi-finals in the Finnish capital to save her strength for the 80m hurdles final and then pulled up in that event after hitting the first two hurdles hard.
Nevertheless, she was again top of the world lists for 80m hurdles in 1953 with 11.1 and she replicated that time in 1954 before she retired in 1955 after 20 years in the sport.
During her career, she won 58 Dutch titles between 1936 and 1955 at individual events: 13 at 100m, 12 at 200m, 11 at 80m hurdles, 10 high jump, nine long jump, two at the shot put and one at the pentathlon, as well as setting numerous national records.
After finishing her competitive career, Blankers-Koen remained involved with the sport and served as a Dutch athletics team manager from the 1958 European Championships to the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games.
She died on 25 January 2004 in Hoofddorp, near Amsterdam, at the age of 85 but her fame and legacy continue to this day.
The Netherlands’ most prominent athletics meeting, the FBK Games in Hengelo, is named after her and held in a stadium that also bears her name. This competition has become an annual fixture since its first edition in 1981 and is an IAAF World Challenge meeting.
On 26 April 2018, on what would have been her 100th birthday and recognising her influence as a trailblazer for women’s athletics – competing in London as a mother attracted no small amount of derision in some quarters, both in the Netherlands and elsewhere – as well as an enduring athletics icon, Google honoured her with one of its celebrated Doodles.
A true pioneer of the sport, Blankers-Koen changed public perceptions of what family women were capable of. Before the 1948 Olympic Games, she received letters from people criticising her for racing in international athletics events and saying she should stay at home to look after her children. Some journalists, meanwhile, suggested 30 years was too old for a woman to be a successful athlete.
It was a different story after the Olympics, though, as Blankers-Koen – now dubbed ‘the flying housewife’ – was welcomed back home in Amsterdam with a large parade that drew immense crowds. Seated with her husband in an open coach drawn by four white horses, she was mildly bemused by the general excitement and simply kept saying: “All I did was win some foot races.”
When the spotlight was upon her again in 1999, her reaction was similarly self-effacing.
“You mean it is me who has won? I had no idea!” she said when it was announced she was the recipient of the IAAF’s Female Athlete of the Century award.
“When I think of all the great women athletes of this century, 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.”
So too is her legacy.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF