The Olympic Games have always thrown up performers who have excelled at multiple disciplines, but there have been few all-rounders as precocious as Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson.
Long before coming to wider global attention at the Los Angeles Games, Texas-born Didrikson had proved accomplished in a myriad of sports including running, swimming, diving, high- jumping, baseball and basketball.
But it was her accomplishments in track and field while competing on the amateur circuit for the Dallas-based “Golden Cyclones” team of female athletes that propelled her into the Olympic firmament.
Her remarkable endeavours at the 1932 Amateur Athletic Union Championships, during which she set four world records (in the javelin, 80-metre hurdles, high jump, and baseball throw) over a single afternoon, were enough to book the 21-year-old her place at the Los Angeles Games.
Didrikson actually qualified for five Olympic events, but official Games guidelines at the time decreed that women were only allowed to compete in three. Given her ability to turn her hand to almost anything, the ruling will have come as some relief to her would-be competitors spared the prospect of coming up against this sporting polymath.
Many athletes ease themselves into form, only hitting their stride as the competition progresses. Didrikson though opted for something of a more accelerated approach. In the prestigious setting of the Los Angeles Olympic Stadium, with her very first act at the Games, she threw a javelin just over 143 feet, securing gold and a new world record in the process. In what was the first ever women’s Olympic javelin event, it was some introduction.
Next, Didrikson set her sights on further glory in the Olympics’ inaugural 80-metre women’s hurdles. Summoning all the strength, technique and discipline that had earned her the nickname “Babe” (after the big-hitting baseball star Babe Ruth), she doubled her gold medal haul, and set another new world record in the process with a time of 11.7 seconds, though it was by no means a walkover. Indeed, according to the Official Report the race “shared the distinction with the men’s 100m of being the closest finish of the Games.”
In her third and final event, the high jump, only a highly contentious ruling deprived her of a rare hat-trick of gold medals. Both Didrikson and compatriot Jean Shiley broke the world record with jumps of 5 feet 5 inches, but the official ruled Babe’s effort to be illegitimate (her head was deemed to have cleared the bar before the rest of her body), and Shiley was awarded the gold.
Her two gold medals in Los Angeles made Didrikson a household name, and there were more remarkable sporting endeavours to come. In later years she took up golf with such ferocious determination that, according to her obituary in The New York Times, she “drove as many as 1,000 golf balls a day and played until her hands were so sore they had to be taped.”
After turning professional in 1947, she went on to win every available golf title. And in 1949 she was voted the greatest female athlete of the half century by The Associated Press.
Tragically, Didrikson died just seven years later, aged 45, after a three-year battle with cancer. However, her legacy continued to burn brightly and in 1976 a museum dedicated to her life and career was built in Beaumont, Texas. It was a worthy monument to one of the greatest Olympians in history.