In August 1948, the 30-year-old Fanny Blankers-Koen won an astonishing 11 races in eight days as she claimed four gold medals at the London Olympic Games and changed the perception of women’s sport forever. It is little wonder world-renowned Dutch athletics coach Charles Van Commenee labels his compatriot as the “greatest sports person we have ever produced as a nation”.
Fanny Blankers-Koen is an unforgettable name, for all the right reasons. Not only did the tall, lithe athlete from Amsterdam wow the watching world by winning the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4x100m relay at the London 1948 Olympic Games – a feat not matched by a female athlete before or since – but she also smashed a multitude of ageist and sexist barriers in the process.
“When someone is writing about the development of women’s sport or the emancipation of women, her name will always be in that article,” said Charles Van Commenee, the much-lauded head coach of Dutch athletics.
“She was a role model, that is why her name has survived. The medals count is 50 per cent of it, but also she did it her own way and changed perceptions.”
Blankers-Koen arrived in London as the holder of six world records and a veteran of the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games. But in many people’s eyes she was, at 30, “too old” to be competing; and even more indefensibly, she had received numerous angry letters urging her to “go home” and look after her two young children. Thankfully, Blankers-Koen did not listen to any of them.
“She won only three individual titles in 1948 because women were not allowed to participate in more events than that,” Van Commenee said.
The man who coached Great Britain’s Denise Lewis to heptathlon gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games is undeniably correct. Blankers-Koen arrived in London as the reigning long jump and high jump world record-holder, but was forced to skip both events.
Still, four gold medals at one edition of the Games is not too shabby.
In the 71 years since Blankers-Koen’s extraordinary haul, only the USA’s Carl Lewis has equalled the Dutchwoman’s athletics record and, as a nation, the Netherlands has produced only a further two Olympic champions in the sport. All of which leaves Van Commenee in no doubt of Blankers-Koen’s position in the pantheon of all-time greats.
“I would say she is the best all-round athlete we have ever produced,” he said. “Of course, we have had some very famous football players, but she is the greatest name in sport ever with a Dutch passport. Everybody would put her in that highest category.”
Naturally perhaps, Van Commenee is keen to highlight the role Blankers-Koen’s coach played. Jan Blankers, also the athlete’s husband, first persuaded his charge not to give in to the haters – she was ready to return to her children after winning the 100m – and then helped drive her to one of the greatest performances in sport.
“He was a very progressive coach, ahead of the game. He played a very important role in pursuing excellence and trying to get her to do more and get better,” Van Commenee explained. “He encouraged her to get the best out of herself and win more medals; in that era, that was a big deal. Women were often not encouraged to be competitive in that era.”
Blankers-Koen’s achievements at the London 1948 Games did, according to Van Commenee, herald a welcome and genuine sea change in her native country.
“Her return home is one of our nation’s collective memories,” Van Commenee explained. “The whole city of Amsterdam was on the streets. There are so many iconic pictures of people hanging out of windows, throwing flowers, and everyone was on bicycles.
“Everybody in the Netherlands knows those pictures.”
Van Commenee is proud to say that he had a direct connection to the iconic athlete.
“I can’t resist the temptation to mention that I started coaching at the same club that she was at, in the early 70s,” he said. “She and Jan were always living in conflict with the Establishment – both in society and in the athletics community. So they founded their own club, Sagitta. In Latin it means ‘arrow’. The club practised at the warm-up track of the 1928 Olympic Stadium, in the middle of Amsterdam. The track was also named after her.”
Blankers-Koen’s career did not end in London, but injury and bad luck meant she was unable to add to her Olympic medal haul at the Helsinki 1952 Olympic Games; and, in 1955, with a total of 58 national and five European titles to her name, the woman once nicknamed “the Flying Housewife” finally hung up her spikes.
Team leader and ambassador roles followed, with the Blankers-Koen name never far from the forefront of Dutch sport.
“She cared a lot about athletics,” Van Commenee said. “She was pretty modest but she had a real presence. Even in her final years you knew when she was in the room.
“We have an award every year called the Fanny Blankers-Koen Award. It is for the sports person who has done most to improve women’s sport. It’s a big award, and it is right that it is named after the greatest sports person we have ever produced.”