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Original Issue

When the Flying Housewife Flew the Highest

Despite homesickness, worry over her small children and the grim awareness of her advancing age, Fanny Blankers-Koen managed to take four gold Olympics in medals at the 1948 London

On July 29, 1948, the warmest day of a warm English summer, King George VI stood up in Wembley's Empire Stadium to announce, cautious of his stammer, "I proclaim open the Olympic Games of London." Some 6,000 athletes, from every major country except Russia, Germany and Japan, were waiting to compete. One of them was a Dutch mother with corn-colored hair named Mrs. Francina Elsje Blankers-Koen (pronounced Koon). A distinguished athlete in her home country, Fanny Koen was known throughout much of Europe as "The Flying Housewife," and time and again her photograph had appeared in the press: pedaling toward practice with her children plopped in the basket of her bicycle; high-jumping, with the little ones playing in the pit below her. She trained twice a week ("between washing dishes and darning socks") and became, quite rightly, a symbol of the hope and sanity beginning to emerge from the ruins of World War II.

When Fanny and her husband-coach Jan Blankers traveled to London that summer, their children were left in Amsterdam with Fanny's father, who wished her goodby with the promise, "Win, and I will dance around the kitchen table." His daughter was entered in five Olympic events: the 100- and 200-meter dashes, the 80-meter hurdles, the 400-meter relay and the long jump. "I left out the high jump," recalls Mrs. Blankers, who had tied for sixth place in that event at Berlin in 1936, "because I thought I might pull a muscle."

The 100 meters was her first event. Fanny got through her heat and semifinal races with ease, leaving intact the Olympic record of 11.5 seconds set by Helen Stephens of the U.S. at Berlin. On the day of the finals, Monday, she awoke at 5 o'clock, peered out at London's damp, grimy weather, then went back to bed for another try at sleep.

By race time, despite a needling rain, Fanny's nerves were settled. She beat the British girl, Dorothy Manley, by five feet, in 11.9 seconds, a respectable time considering the weather, and, for the first time in the Games, her number—692 —was hung at the top of the scoreboard. The English band broke, uncertainly, into Wilhelmus, the national anthem of The Netherlands. A Dutch radiocaster came up with his microphone. "Poppa," Fanny said into it, "dance now around the kitchen table."

Qualification for the long jump and the finals for the 80-meter hurdles were scheduled for the same day, and Mrs. Blankers was faced with a choice: should she try for both and maybe lose, or concentrate on just one? She chose the hurdles for the feminine reason that it was nicer, "nicer even than flat running, which can be boring." The Olympic record of 11.6 seconds was held by Italy's Trebisonda Valla. Mrs. Blankers' chief rival in London again was a British girl, the pretty young ballet teacher Maureen Gardner.

Miss Gardner's arrival at the track was a psychological coup. As Mrs. Blankers tells it, "I saw she had brought her own hurdles. Any athlete who carries her own hurdles around must really be top-class." Nevertheless, the un-psyched Fanny won her heat handily while the English girl hit a hurdle and barely qualified for the finals in hers. Rain fell all through that night and on through the following morning. It was still prancing in the puddles when the girls arrived at the track for the finals. Mrs. Blankers had spent a restless night. She ate no breakfast. A letter from Amsterdam said the children missed her. She ate no lunch. She refused to sign autographs. But at the track her husband gathered her wits with a neat, five-word crack. "Fanny," he said, "you are too old." Miss Gardner was 19.

The rivals drew adjacent lanes, which suited Mrs. Blankers; from there she could keep an eye on the youngster. When called to their marks they crouched together at the starting line; when told to get set they rose on their fingertips. Then an odd thing happened. Or didn't happen. The pistol didn't go off. Then it did.

Mrs. Blankers' rhythm was upset. She got away a split stride behind the English girl and followed her over the first hurdle. By the second one she had drawn even; then, according to films, she fell fractionally behind, only to regain the lead. The two were legging it spike to spike for the fifth hurdle, where Mrs. Blankers took off late. She hit the hurdle. Now she recalls: "What happened after that was a blurred memory. My style went to pieces, and I staggered in like a drunkard." What happened after that was a nightmare.

Mrs. Blankers had felt the tape drag across her forehead yet, through the corner of one "drunkard's" eye she saw not only the English girl but the great young Australian, Shirley Strickland, as well. It appeared a triple dead heat. The runners waited, shambling about, while the judges studied the photographs of the finish. The band suddenly erupted into God Save the King, and Mrs. Blankers' heart slumped. The band was not saluting a winner, however, but King George, who had just entered the royal box.

At length the winning time was announced: 11.2 seconds, a new world and Olympic record—set identically by Miss Gardner and Mrs. Blankers. The number 692 at last appeared at the top of the scoreboard. Gold medal No. 2 for the Dutch woman. Dutifully, the band played Wilhelmus again.

The next day was torture for Fanny. It started, characteristically, with a gray, rainy dawn. At her mailbox, where yesterday she had found a lonesome message from her children, today Fanny found nothing at all. Ahead lay the everlasting heats and semifinals of the 200 meters, at that time the longest race for women in the Games. Mrs. Blankers rallied and won beautifully, she thought, but her time, when announced, was slow. She broke down and wept in her dressing room. Her husband was summoned. She said she'd had enough and wanted to go home. He said nothing. "If you do not want to go on," he told her at last, "you must not. But later perhaps you will be sorry."

Fanny went on. She won her semifinal that afternoon and on the following day, in rain, of course, drew the lane to her liking, inside. From there she could see her opponents strung out before her. The Briton to beat today was the army officer, Audrey Williamson. Fanny took the lead much earlier than she had planned, at mid-point, and without the zest of a chase her time was well beyond the world record of 23.6 seconds set years before by the mighty Polish runner S. Walasiewicz. The English girl, to be sure, came second. "For once," sighed The Times, which had a wryer touch then than it does now, "the greatest all-round woman athlete yet seen at an Olympic Games did not break a record." Which was reasonable, the paper pointed out, since women had never run the distance before at an Olympics.

To win her fourth gold medal, Fanny needed help from her countrymen. Her relay team was a good one, plagued with one problem: Fanny was too fast. In practice through the summer, she had been unable to break the habit of running away from her teammate at the baton exchange. Still, it was reckoned that from her anchor position Mrs. Blankers could easily make up as much as a four-yard deficit; anything less than that given to her by her teammates was money in the bank. Over the first three legs of the race in London, however, it became clear that the Dutch girls had overdrawn their account. When she was passed the stick, Mrs. Blankers was five yards behind the leaders. She tells the story with awesome simplicity: "I had to guard against sprinting away from my runner, so I was slow getting away. I overtook very quickly the Danish girl, then the English girl and at the very end I caught the Australian girl."

Back home in Amsterdam the Flying Housewife, having flown higher and faster than ever before, was drawn through the streets in an open coach behind four white horses. A candy bar was named after her (without endorsement fees) and a gladiolus and a rose. And for the next four years she continued winning prizes as the outstanding woman track-and-field athlete of her time. The holder of seven world titles and four gold medals, Fanny might well have repeated her whole act in Helsinki in 1952 at the age of 34 were it not for a silly ailment—an annoying and very painful boil that kept her out.