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Francina Elsje "Fanny" Blankers-Koen

Dutch athlete Francina Elsje "Fanny" Blankers-Koen was born on April 26, 1918. At the 1948 Olympics in London, she won four gold medals.

Early life

Fanny Koen was born in Lage Vuursche (near Baarn) to Arnoldus and Helena Koen. As a teenager, she enjoyed tennis, swimming, gymnastics, ice skating and running. It soon became clear she was a sports talent, but she could not decide which sport to pick. A swimming coach advised her to do athletics because there were already several top swimmers in the Netherlands at that time, and she would have a better chance to qualify for the Olympics in athletics.

Her first appearance in the sport was in 1935. Her first competition was a disappointment, but in her third race, she set a new National Record in the 800 m. Fanny Koen soon made the Dutch team, although as a sprinter, not a middle distance runner. The following year, only eighteen years old, she was nominated for the 1936 Olympic team.

In Berlin, she participated in the high jump and the 4 x 100 m relay, both held on the same day. In the high jump, she took sixth place (shared with two other jumpers) while the Dutch relay team came fifth in the final (the sixth team in the final, Germany, was disqualified).

Slowly, Koen rose to the top. In 1938, she ran her first World Record (11.0 seconds in the 100 yards), and she also won her first international medals. At the European Championships in Vienna, she won the bronze in both the 100 and 200 m, which were both won by Stanislawa Walasiewicz. Many observers, and Koen herself, expected her to do well at the upcoming Olympics, which were to be held in Helsinki in July 1940. However, the outbreak of World War II put a stop to the preparations. The Olympics were formally cancelled on May 2, 1940, a week before the Netherlands were invaded by German troops.

World War II

Just prior to the invasion, Koen had become engaged, and on August 29, 1940, she married Jan Blankers, thereby changing her name to Blankers-Koen. Blankers, a former triple jumper (participant in the 1928 Olympics) was a sports journalist and the coach of the Dutch women's athletics team, even though he originally thought women should not compete in sports – not an unusual opinion at the time. However, his attitude towards female athletes changed after he fell in love with Koen, who was fifteen years younger than he was.

When Blankers-Koen gave birth to her first child Jan Junior in 1941, Dutch media automatically "concluded" her career would be over. Top female athletes who were married were rare at the time, and it was simply inconceivable to most that a mother would be an athlete. Blankers-Koen and her husband had other plans, and she resumed training only weeks after her son's birth.

During war time, Blankers-Koen would set six new world records. The first came in 1942, when she improved the world mark in the 80 m hurdles. The following year, she did even better. First, she improved the high jump record to 1.71 m in a specially arranged competition in Amsterdam. Then, she tied the 100 m world record, but this was never recognised officially, as she competed against men when setting the record. The closed out the season with a new world record in the long jump, 6.25 m.

Circumstances were not easy, and it got more difficult to get enough food, especially for an athlete in training. Despite this, Blankers-Koen managed to break the 100 yd world record in May 1944. At the same meet, she ran in the relay team that broke the 4 x 110 yd world record. The German press was excited, as the record had previously been owned by an English team. Months later, she helped breaking the 4 x 200 m record, which was held by Germany. In an act of defiance, the women wore outfits with national symbols while setting the record.

The winter of 1944–1945, known as the Hongerwinter (hunger winter), was severe, and there was a great lack of food, especially in the big cities. Naturally, sport was the last thing on people's minds, and the Blankers family, living in Amsterdam was happy to make it through the war in good health.

"The Flying Housewife"

The first major international event after the war were the 1946 European Championships, held in Oslo, Norway. Earlier in 1946, Blankers-Koen had given birth to Fanny Junior, but this had not stopped her from resuming training shortly afterwards. The Championships were a slight disappointment. In the 100 m semi-finals, held during the high jump final, she fell and failed to qualify for the final. She ended the high jump competition in fourth, with bruises from the fall. The second day was more successful, as she won the 80 m hurdles event, and led the Dutch relay team to victory in the 4 x 100 m.

As the leading athlete in the Netherlands – in 1947 she won national titles in 6 events – Blankers-Koen was ensured of a place on the Dutch team for the first post-war Olympics in London. After her experience in Oslo, she decided not to take part in all events, but limit herself to four: the 100 m, the 200 m, the 80 m hurdles, and the 4 x 100 m relay. Although she displayed her form two months before the Games by beating her own 80 m hurdles world record, some journalists questioned her form, and suggested 30 years was too old for a woman to be an athlete.

Her first competition was the 100 m, and she qualified easily for the semi-finals, in which she set the fastest time. The final (2 August) was held on a muddy track and in rainy conditions. Blankers-Koen sped to the finish line in 11.9, easily beating her opponents Dorothy Manley and Shirley Strickland, who take second and third.

Fanny Blankers-Koen thereby became the first Dutch athlete to win an Olympic title in athletics, but she was more concerned with her next event, the 80 m hurdles. Her chief opponent was Maureen Gardner, who equalled Blankers's world record prior to the Games, and would be running for her home crowd. Both athletes made the final, in which Blankers-Koen got off to a bad start (she would later claim she thought there had been a false start). She picked up the pace quickly, but was unable to shake off Gardner, who kept close until the finish line, and the two finished almost simultaneously. When the British national anthem was played, the crowd in Wembley Stadium cheered, and Blankers-Koen briefly thought she had been beaten. However, the anthem was played in honour of the British royal family, which entered the stadium at that time. Examination of the finish photo clearly showed that not Gardner, but Blankers-Koen had won, although both received the same time (11.2).

In spite of her successes, Blankers-Koen nearly failed to start in the semi-finals of the 200 m, held the day after hurdles final. Shortly before the semi-final, she broke down because of home-sickness. After a long talk by her husband, she decided to run anyway, and qualified for the final with great ease. The final, on August 6, was again held in the pouring rain, but Blankers-Koen completed the inaugural Olympic 200 m for women in 24.4, seven tenths of a second ahead of runner-up Audrey Williamson — still the largest margin of victory in an Olympic 200 m final. Audrey Patterson, the first African American woman to win an Olympic medal placed in third, although a finish photo discovered decades later indicates Shirley Strickland should have won the bronze.

The 4 x 100 m final was held on the final day of the track and field competitions. The Dutch team, consisting of Xenia Stad-de Jong, Netty Witziers-Timmer, Gerda van der Kade-Koudijs and Blankers-Koen qualified for the final, but just before the final, Blankers-Koen was missing. She had gone out to shop for a rain coat, and arrived just in time for the race. As the last runner, she took over the baton in third place, some five meters behind Australia and Canada. In spite of a careful and slow exchange, she caught up with the leaders, crossing the line a tenth before the Australian women.

Fanny Blankers-Koen was the first woman to win four Olympic gold medals, and the first one to do so in a single Olympics. As of 2004, no other track and field athlete has won more medals in a single Olympics, although Alvin Kraenzlein (1900), Jesse Owens (1936) and Carl Lewis (1984) have also won four golds in one Olympics. Dubbed the "Flying Housewife", and "Amazing Fanny" by the international press, she was welcomed back home in Amsterdam by an immense crowd. After a carriage ride through the city, she received a lot of praise and gifts. From her neighbours, she received a new bicycle: "to go through life at a slower pace".

After London

Now known all over the world, Blankers-Koen received many offers for endorsements, advertisements, publicity stunts and the like. Because of the strict amateurism rules in force at the time, she had to turn most offers down. However, in 1949, she travelled abroad to promote women's athletics, flying to Australia and the United States.

A darker episode in Blankers-Koen's life occurred in 1950. A year earlier, a new Dutch sprint talent, Foekje Dillema had made her breakthrough. In 1950, she broke the national record in the 200 m, and some journalists already dubbed her as the "new Fanny". After a highly dubious sex test, probably on the request of Jan Blankers, Dillema was expelled from the Dutch team. The exact results of the test remain unclear, and although Dillema looked a bit like a man, most do not doubt she is a woman. Most of the other women on the team at the time suspect it was an attempt by Jan and Fanny Blankers to eliminate a possible opponent, although this has never been confirmed.

The same year, she almost repeated her Olympic performance at the European Championships in Brussels. She won the titles in the 100 m, 200 m and 80 m hurdles all with large margins of victory (four tenths or more), but narrowly missed out on a fourth win in the relay, which was won by the British team.

At age 34, she took part in her third Olympics, which were held in Helsinki. Although she was in good shape, she was severely hampered by a boil on her buttocks. She qualified for the 100 m semi-finals, but forfeited a start to save herself for the hurdles event. She reached the final in that event, but after knocking over the second hurdle, she abandoned the race. It was her last major competition. On August 7, 1955, Fanny Blankers-Koen was victorious for the last time, winning the national title in the shot put, her 58th Dutch title.



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