Cuthbert, Betty (1938—)

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Cuthbert, Betty (1938—)

Australian sprinter. Born in 1938 in Ermington, Sydney, Australia.

Won gold medals in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, and the 4×100 at the Melbourne Olympics (1956); won a gold medal in the 400 meters at the Tokyo Olympics (1964).

Soon to be Australia's Golden Girl, her nation's greatest woman sprinter, Betty Cuthbert was so successful in school sports that she caught the attention of June Maston (June Maston Ferguson), a sprinter who ran with Shirley Strickland, Betty McKinnon , and Joyce King for a silver medal in the 4×100 meters in the 1948 Olympics. Cuthbert joined the Western Suburbs Athletic Club and, in 1953, while coached by Ferguson, won the national junior 100-yard championships in 11.3. Before the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, she broke the world record for the 200 meters at 23.2. A rivalry with Marlene Matthews , another Sydney runner, helped both athletes to arrive at the Olympics in peak condition.

In the Games, 18-year-old Betty Cuthbert won the gold medal in the 100 meters in 11.5, arriving ahead of Christa Stubnick of East Germany who took silver and teammate Matthews who took bronze. The 200 meters ended with the three women in the same order, and Cuthbert's winning time was 23.4. She also anchored the Australian team in the 4×100 meter relay (following teammates Shirley de la Hunty-Strickland, Norma Croker , and Fleur Mellor ) to another gold medal and a world record of 44.5. Great Britain's team—Anne Pashley, Jean Scrivens, June Paul Foulds , and Heather Armitage —took the silver, while the U.S. team—Mae Faggs, Margaret Matthews, Wilma Rudolph , and Isabelle Daniels —took the bronze. It was the year of the Aussies. The women's track team was composed of only 16% of their nation's contingent but won more than half of Australia's gold medals, putting Australia third behind the U.S. and the Soviet Union for most medals won.

Though the unassuming Cuthbert was named Australia Broadcasting's Sportstar of the year (1956), internationally it was Australia's swimmer Dawn Fraser , winning the first of her eight career gold medals at Melbourne, who became the bigger star. Allen Guttmann theorizes in Women's Sports that ambivalence about women's track-and-field stars remained strong through the early part of the 20th century: "The public continued in these years to prefer exemplars of conventionally 'feminine' sports. The preference was observable in the careers of two of the Australian stars—Cuthbert, a runner, and Fraser, a swimmer…. Australian officialdom had a much harder time with [Fraser] than with Betty Cuthbert, … but Fraser's antics, which included an attempt to steal the Japanese flag from Emperor Hirohito's palace, made her seem 'one of the girls.' She was not at all conventionally beautiful, … but she appeared 'curvaceous' in a swimsuit and the public loved her. Photographs of Cuthbert, on the other hand, revealed sinewy limbs and a face contorted to a breathless grimace. The message was clear: the watery way to a man's heart was preferable to the cinder track."

Troubled by injury, Cuthbert lost the 100 and 200 meters to America's Wilma Rudolph in the Rome Olympics in 1960 and did not place. For the next four years, the Australian retired to work in her father's nursery. In 1964, she came out of hiding to compete once more, in the Tokyo Olympics. To the surprise of all, the 26-year-old took the gold in the new 400 meters in a record 52 seconds, beating Ann Packer of Great Britain by two tenths of a second. Judith Amoore took the bronze. It was Betty Cuthbert's greatest win, and she was given the coveted Helms Award on her return home. Since retirement, Cuthbert has had to deal with the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis.


Guttmann, Allen. Women's Sports: A History. NY: Columbia University Press, 1991.