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Blankers-Koen, Fanny (1918—)

Blankers-Koen, Fanny (1918—)

Dutch athlete and greatest woman track-and-field star of her generation, who won four Olympic gold medals in 1948, set 13 world records, and won 58 Dutch titles. Name variations: Fanny Koen. Pronunciation: BLANK-ers COON. Born Francina Elsje Koen outside the village of Baarn near the Queen's castle of Soestdyk, the Netherlands, on April 26, 1918; only girl in a family of five born to farmers; married Jan Blankers (an athlete and coach), in August 1940; children: son Jan (b. 1941) and daughter Fanny (b. 1946).

At age five, moved with family to Hoofddorp; won every sprinting event in Holland as well as two competitions in Germany; participated in the 1936 Olympics, tied for 6th place in the high jump; took third place at the European women's championships in Vienna, running the 100-meter dash in 12 seconds flat (1938); married Jan Blankers and moved to Amsterdam (1940); won the 80-meter hurdles in the European championships in Oslo (1946); won four gold medals at the Olympic games in London, the 100-meter race in 11.9 seconds, the 200-meter race in 24.4, the 80-meter hurdles in 11.2 and the 4x100-meter relay while anchoring the Dutch women's team (1948); competed at Berne, Switzerland, sweeping all five first places in the women's pentathlon and collecting an unheard of 4,185 points (1951); made a final, unsuccessful Olympic appearance (1952).

The greatest woman track-and-field star of her generation, perhaps of the century, was born on a 62-acre dairy, rye, and potato farm. Her farmer father, however, proved no less soil-bound than his daughter would grow up to be. He gave up farming and went into the transportation business by the time Fanny Koen was five years old. With that change in occupation, the family moved to the village of Hoofddorp, in the windmill country, nine miles south of Amsterdam.

The Koens were a physically active family. Fanny's parents swam, skated, jumped, and played tennis as a matter of course. Thus, they were not particularly surprised when their only daughter did the same. Fanny jumped and ran; she also rang doorbells and swiped apples with impunity because she was faster than anyone in the village, including her four brothers, two older and two younger. "I know you can outrun anybody in Hoofddorp," a frustrated neighbor would yell, "but if I ever catch you, I'll wring your neck!" At age six, she joined the local gymnastics club and soon competed with the boys in swimming, skating, and sprinting. Blankers-Koen became an excellent swimmer.

One summer day in 1935, when she was 16 and had finished school, Fanny was suddenly aware as she helped her mother with housekeeping chores that the work would be insufficient to fill her days and expend her energy. That instant, she made up her mind to become an Olympic champion. But she had to choose between two sports: swimming or track and field. Diving and swimming had been the traditional Olympic events for women since making their first appearance in the Olympic games in 1912. In 1928, women had been privileged to compete among themselves in a special series of track-and-field events, and, in the 1932 Games, Babe Didrikson [Zaharias] had won two Olympic gold medals. Didrikson's success may have influenced the thinking of Fanny's swimming coach who encouraged her to choose track and field. Holland already had first-rate swimmers, he explained. Fanny agreed and subsequently joined the Amsterdam Dames' Athletic Club where she went twice a week to compete with the best Holland had to offer.

That August of 1935, she competed in the women's 200-meter track event in Groningen and gave a lackluster performance. Possibly her pre-race jitters, which would leave her with clammy hands before all subsequent events and on the verge of a nervous collapse prior to some, got the better of her; at any rate, in her next race, the 800-meter run against Holland's long-distance woman champion, Ans Kellenaers , Fanny had enough time to overcome a slow start and outrun the favorite. It was a significant event not only because she won the race, but because her future coach and husband-to-be, Jan Blankers was watching. Like any good coach, he was cheering his protégé Kellenaers, he said, "and I never doubted she'd win, either. Fanny's forte was jumping; the ADA people themselves told me she wasn't any good at running. Well, her style was truly terrible, and she dragged her feet the first six hundred meters, but just when Ans was beginning to lose her wind, Fanny came up like a shot and won the race. 'That girl will make a fine sprinter,' I said to myself."

Due to a permanently damaged Achilles tendon, Jan Blankers had been forced to give up his own athletic career, but his expertise in track and field was well known, and he devoted his spare time from a job in the Amsterdam police force to coaching young men and women athletes, among them Kellenaers. When Jan was asked to coach the Dutch track-and-field team for the Berlin Olympics in the summer of 1936, he asked Fanny to join the team. Neither pupil nor teacher, however, had quite enough time to develop the sprinter in Fanny. She competed in the high jump event, jumping only 5′1″, not even approaching her Amsterdam record. The Games also cast a shadow over Europe which Fanny recalled later. "I remember seeing [Hitler] in 1936 getting into a jeep with all his soldiers and their rifles and riding around the Berlin Stadium, waving and saluting. It made me feel afraid."

Back home, Jan Blankers persuaded Fanny to leave the Amsterdam Dames and let him take over her coaching. Having seen her potential as a runner, he wanted to mold her without interference from Fanny's club, which insisted she should jump, not run. Jan therefore created a new club to promote Fanny's talents as well as those of five other young women he persuaded to sign up. He named his creation "Sagitta," the Latin word for arrow. Under his watchful eye, Fanny streamlined her style. "Every Tuesday and Thursday, rain or shine, she made the eighteen-mile round trip from Hoofddorp on her bicycle," said Jan. Within a year, the tall, somewhat awkward village girl had won every sprinting event in Holland and two competitions in Germany. In 1938, she came in third at the European women's championships in Vienna with a time of 12.0 in the 100 meters. Then Jan added broad jumping to Fanny's regimen of high jumps and sprints, gradually starting her on hurdles.

By then five years had passed, five years of working closely together and forging a trusting, loyal teacher-student relationship, from which had grown the mutual respect and affection which transformed it into marriage. Although he was 14 years older, the coach fell in love with his protégé. Fanny and Jan celebrated their union in August of 1940 and moved into a four-room apartment at 158 Haarlemmermeer Straat, in Amsterdam, ten minutes from the Olympia track. She remained a pupil and an athlete in training, and continued to do so as the mother of little Jantje, who was born within a year. Blankers-Koen would arrive at the track pushing her baby carriage and, if necessary, would nurse her infant son before and after performances in athletic events. Nor would the birth of Jantje's little sister Fanneke in 1946 present a hardship in the development of Fanny's career; she became a familiar sight in Amsterdam pushing a baby carriage at top speed. If she couldn't train on the track, she'd train while running errands, the children in tow. Motherhood was a minor obstacle; far more hurdles had been put up by the upheaval of World War II and the discontinuance of the 1940 and 1944 Olympics. Remembering those years, Blankers-Koen recounted, "People were being taken away, and friends of mine in the underground were shot and people were hungry and were in the streets begging for food. We could get some potatoes and a little milk, very thin milk, not nice from the cow."

From a competitive standpoint, everything was against Fanny Blankers-Koen at the end of the war. Having won all the championships worth having in the Netherlands, she was barred from further competition. In sheer desperation, she once entered a men's race and came in fourth in the 100-meter dash with a time of 11.5 seconds. Finally in 1946, seven months after giving birth to little Fanneke, she could compete in the European championships in Oslo. Fanny won the 80-meter hurdles and brought the Dutch relay team to victory. It was an impressive performance, but her days of glory were yet to come.

After 12 long years—during which athletes throughout the world saw their Olympic potential waning as no amount of training could stave off the effects of advancing age—the Summer Olympic Games of 1948 were to be held in London. By then Blankers-Koen was the holder of six world records—100 meters, 80-meter hurdles, high jump, long jump, and two relays. She was also 30 years old and a frequent topic of sports columns. The British press deemed her too old to win the sprints and usually referred to her as a "housewife too old to run." No one took her attempts seriously, adhering to the concept that once a woman married and had children, her abilities disappeared. "I got very many bad letters," said Fanny, "people writing that I must stay home with my children and that I should not be allowed to run on a track." The negative publicity did little to buoy Fanny's spirits as she and Jan boarded a plane for London. She could not shake the memory of her failure at the 1936 Olympics. Not only would she miss her children, she also wondered if the competition would be worth the drubbing she was taking at the hands of the press which would only get worse when she faltered.

It rained on Monday, August 2, making the muddy track less than desirable for the 100 meter. Just before the event, Jan taunted her with, "Don't forget, Fanny, you are too old." Blankers-Koen stilled the skeptic voices by winning the 100-meter race at 11.9, equaling the Olympic record and coming in more than three yards ahead of Dorothy Manley and Shirley Strickland . The Dutch housewife had won her first Olympic gold medal, but she had three gruelling events ahead of her.

Next came the 80-meter hurdles, which were especially trying because Fanny was pitted against the British favorite, 19-year-old ballet dancer Maureen Gardner . At the starting gun, Fanny allowed her mind to wander, and Gardner went flying by; little by little, Blankers-Koen closed in. At the fifth hurdle, the two competitors were neck-and-neck when Fanny stumbled. "I was going so fast that I went too close to the hurdle, hit it, and lost my balance," recalled Fanny. "What happened after that is just a blurred memory. It was a grim struggle in which my hurdling style just went to pieces." Rushing forward, she caught up with Gardner, and at the last moment lurched across the finish line. She, Gardner, and Shirley Strickland had broken the tape almost simultaneously. As the judges processed the results of the photo finish, the crowd waited quietly. Then the band struck up England's "God Save the King." Blankers-Koen, who assumed it was being played in honor of her British competitor's first place finish, was puzzled when her name went up in the first place slot. The British anthem had not been played to honor Gardner; it was in honor of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (Bowes-Lyon) who had made a sudden appearance in their viewing box. Fanny Blankers-Koen had crossed the finish line a hair's breath in front of Gardner, thus winning an uncomfortably close race in 11.2 seconds, .2 slower than she had run the same race back in Amsterdam. Now she had won a second gold medal.

Suddenly, Fanny Blankers-Koen was the athlete of the hour. For the first time in Olympic history, a woman was receiving more attention than any of the male athletes. Her confidence wavered as international attention focused on her. Prior to the semifinals of the 200-meters, she felt so much stress that she told her husband she wanted to withdraw. Jan's encouragement proved futile until he reminded her of the considerations she owed her parents and their children. Reluctantly, the obliging daughter and the proud mother agreed to run. She won the heat by six yards—setting an Olympic record of 24.3 seconds—and took the final by seven yards, the largest margin ever recorded in the women's 200 meters. When she broke the tape, she was 15 meters ahead of her nearest competitor. The crowd went wild over "Flying Fanny." Blankers-Koen had established herself as the outstanding woman athlete of her time. She had outdone even Babe Didrikson, who at the 1932 Olympics had taken gold in the javelin and hurdles. To her three medals, Fanny added a fourth as anchor of the Dutch women's team in the 4x100-meter relay. When she took the baton for the final leg, her team was in fourth place, five meters behind the leader, but Fanny was able to catch the front runner, Joyce King , just before the finish line. Fanny Blankers-Koen had won four of the nine women's track-and-field events. Only Jesse Owens, who had won three personal titles and shared the victory of his winning relay team in the Games of 1936, shared that record.

Manley, Dorothy (1927—)

English runner. Name variations: Dorothy Gladys Hall. Born Dorothy Gladys Manley on April 29, 1927, in London, England; married.

Dorothy Manley first trained as a high jumper until her coach Sandy Duncan turned her into a sprinter. Manley was Essex County 100 yards champion for 1947, 1948, and 1949, and won the 100-meters silver medal in the 1948 London Olympics.

Gardner, Maureen (1928–1974)

English runner. Born Maureen Angela Gardner in Oxford, England, on November 12, 1928; died in September 1974; married Geoffrey Dyson (an Olympic coach).

Once a ballet dancer, Maureen Gardner turned to athletics as a means of regaining her health after a serious illness in 1947. In her first major competition, she won the National 100 meters. Within three years, she had broken the British 80-meter hurdles record, first at Chadwick in the National championships, then later in Paris, Luxemburg, and Motspur Park all within one week. In the London Olympics in 1948, Gardner also took the silver medal in the 80-meter hurdles.

King, Joyce (1921—)

Australian runner. Born on September 1, 1921.

Joyce King won a silver in the 1948 London Olympics in the 4×100 meter relay.

Back in Amsterdam, Blankers-Koen was received with more enthusiasm than Churchill or Eisenhower at war's end. While onlookers cheered, she and her family were brought from the railroad station in an open coach, drawn by four magnificent white horses, to the town hall and an awaiting lord mayor. All along the road, the Dutch saluted her, hanging out windows, sitting atop lamp posts and streetcar roofs. But her attitude towards her own accomplishments were a good deal more earthbound than her stride. Dressed in her blue Dutch Olympic uniform, she was overwhelmed by the public outpouring of affection. "All I've done is run fast," she told the lord mayor. "I don't quite see why people should make so much fuss about that." Her neighbors gave her a new bicycle, "so she won't have to run so much," and a group of villagers arrived with a basket of eggs—a generous present and a measure of their admiration at a time when people were accorded only one egg per person every other week. "Everyone had been listening on the radio," noted Blankers-Koen. "I couldn't help thinking how different these streets were from just a few years before. This was the first celebration in my country since the war. Maybe I cried just a little."

All I've done is run fast. I don't quite see why people should make so much fuss about that.

—Fanny Blankers-Koen

She explained this boisterous welcome from the stalwart, sensible Hollanders in terms of her "commonness." "They like to see a busy huisvrouw [hausfrau or housewife] like myself do something on her own and do it well. Jan and I and the two children are just an ordinary family. People applaud me because I do my training and winning between washing dishes and darning socks." The British cartoonist who had depicted Fanny with Dutch cap and wooden shoes, dashing off to the races, admonishing her children not to put their thumbs in the dikes while she was away, had suggested as much. At 5'9" and 140 pounds, Blankers-Koen ranked among the best, and her physical prowess equalled or exceeded her predecessors. But Fanny was a devoted housewife. Being a wife and mother was as integral to her life as running and training. Unlike the pre-World War II image of aggressive or masculine women athletes that had been painted on the collective consciousness by the press, she had already married, had children, and darned socks, and for that she was cheered and applauded as a vision for the everyday woman, an inspiration to all who saw in her one of their own. In short, she was not threatening. As Jill Tweedie wrote on the same subject many years later in England's The Guardian:

To wholly admire … female athletes one must appreciate them visually and to do that means readjusting … preconceived notions of feminine beauty and worth. What is the Western stereotype at the moment? A sleek, smooth, soft and curving body with not a muscle or tendon in sight, a body that gives only intimations of sexual pleasure, a pliant body willing to pose its limbs as will best please a man, a submissive body that could not defend itself in dark corners on dark nights. A body, in other words, there to be done unto and never to do.

For Fanny, invitations to athletic meets came from everywhere and filled the next four years. She continued to win national and international honors, notably the women's pentathlon at Berne, Switzerland, in 1951. With five European gold medals, Blankers-Koen held more European championships than anyone until 1986 when Irena Kirszenstein-Szewinska , the Polish athlete, duplicated that feat.

The 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki proved a great disappointment for the Dutch star and a sad anticlimax to a marvelous career. Blankers-Koen had contracted a blood infection from blisters that required medication. Although her doctor insisted that she cut back on her schedule, she was determined to forge ahead. But the medicine made her dizzy, and she was not performing well. In the 80-meter finals, she hit two hurdles and dropped out; her former rival Shirley Strickland not only took the Olympic title but the world record in that event. Blankers-Koen then failed to qualify in the 100 meter, and the relay team finished last in the 4x100. Fanny left the Games to recuperate, finally hanging up her running shoes in 1955 at the age of 37. For a time, she tried coaching but found it did not agree with her. During the 1968 Olympics, she served as manager of the Dutch team.

The concept of mixing career and motherhood was new when Blankers-Koen triumphed in the 1948 Olympics. Even decades later, the concept remains controversial. When she was in her 60s, the track star defended her decisions: "I was a good mother. I had no time for much besides my house chores and training, and when I went shopping it was only to buy food for the family and never to buy dresses." Her son Jan, who grew up to teach geography in an Amsterdam college, was proud of his mother, though he admitted his childhood was not always easy but not for the reasons one would assume. "I remember when I was growing up, there were always so many people greeting my mother on the street that I was embarrassed. I'd walk five paces behind her."

The Blankers family lived the most ordinary of lives. Macaroni was a favorite food; bridge was a favorite game; and ice cream a favorite treat. Yet, Fanny Blankers-Koen was remarkable. She was the first woman track-and-field athlete in history to have a statue erected in her honor, which still stands in Amsterdam. During her career, she won 58 Dutch national titles, set 13 World records, and won five European championships as well as four Olympic gold medals. No woman in track history, from any nation, has won as many national titles. "I still walk about five paces behind her," her son once said of his 60-year-old mother. "That's because she walks so fast. Mother still goes everywhere in a hurry."

sources:

Berkow, Ira. "Fanny Blankers-Koen: Olympian Ahead of her Time," in The New York Times Biographical Service. October 1982, p. 1276.

"Famous Dutch Legs Win Again," in Life. September 10, 1951, pp. 129–132.

Hauser, Ernest O. "Look at That Girl Go," in Saturday Evening Post. Vol. 221, no. 3. January 16, 1949, pp. 24–25.

Hendershott, Jon. Track's Greatest Women. Los Altos, CA: Tafnews Press, 1987.

Lardner, John. "Strong Cigars and Lovely Women," in Newsweek. Vol. 33, no. 23. June 6, 1949, p. 75.

Life. August 23, 1948 (photos).

Newsweek. August 16, 1948, p. 70.

Schaap, Richard. An Illustrated History of the Olympics. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.

Inga Wiehl , Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima, Washington

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