Robinson, Betty (1911–1997)

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Robinson, Betty (1911–1997)

American Olympic track athlete. Name variations: Elizabeth Robinson; Betty Robinson Schwartz. Born in Riverdale, Illinois, on August 23, 1911; died in Colorado on May 17, 1997; married Richard S. Schwartz (an upholsterer), in 1939; children: Richard and Jane.

Became first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field in the Amsterdam Games, and also won silver in relay (1928); won second gold medal as member of relay team in the Berlin Olympics (1936).

Not only was Betty Robinson the first woman to win a gold medal for track and field in the Olympics, she also made a miraculous comeback eight years later when she won a second gold medal after recovering from a debilitating accident. Born in Riverdale, Illinois, on August 23, 1911, Robinson was just 16 years old when an assistant track coach at her high school saw her sprint for a train in 1928 and could not believe his eyes. The following day, he timed her as she ran in the school corridor, and encouraged her to enter a meet. ("Till then," she later noted, "I didn't even know there were women's races.") On the day of the meet three weeks later, she had to stop by the local sporting goods store to purchase a pair of spiked shoes. Unbeknownst to her, Robinson was competing with women from the Illinois Athletic Club. When she came in second to Helen Filkey , the club's outstanding runner, Robinson was asked to join.

The young runner started practicing, taking the train to Harvey High School, 25 miles away, three times a week. The Olympic tryouts were the first event Robinson ran for the club. Not only did she win, but she broke a world record and went on to the final Olympic tryouts in New Jersey. In Newark, Robinson finished second to Elta Cartwright from California in the 100 meters. Only four months after she took up the sport, 17-year-old Robinson was on her way to the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, where women's track and field would be part of the Games for the first time.

In those days, track and field was not sophisticated: runners dug holes for each of their feet before the start, training was lax, equipment was poor, racing diets and opportunities for support were almost nonexistent. Despite this, most modern women are running only a second faster than Robinson and some of her competitors; the 100-meter world record she broke in those first tryouts in 1928 was with a time of 12.0 seconds, compared with the great Florence Griffith Joyner 's world record of 10.49 in 1988.

During the ocean crossing, Robinson and her teammates worked out on a linoleum track laid out on the deck of the ship. In Amsterdam, the 16-year-old unknown was not favored, but in her trial heat of the 100-meter race she finished second, and in her semi-final heat she finished first, becoming the only American to go into the finals. The first women's track-and-field event held in the 1928 Olympics was the 100-meter dash; Canadians Fanny Rosenfeld and Ethel Smith were highly favored. With three false starts in the finals and two runners disqualified, the inexperienced Robinson became increasingly jittery. But when the gun went off, Robinson and Rosenfeld ran side by side in an extremely close race. Only when friends jumped the railing and came onto the field did Robinson realize she had won the gold, with a time of 12.2 seconds. "When the flag went up [to declare the winner] after the race," she later recalled, "I started crying like a baby." The finish was so close that two judges disagreed and Canada protested. Even so, Fanny Rosenfeld was awarded the silver and Ethel Smith the bronze. Robinson's gold in track and field was the first of many that American women would win in the decades to come. Later in the Games, Rosenfeld and her Canadian teammates won the gold in the 4x100-meter relay, but the American team came in second, giving Robinson a silver medal to add to her gold.

As a memento of her historic win, then-president of the American Olympic Committee

Douglas MacArthur gave Robinson a gold charm shaped like the world. When she returned home, she was greeted by ticker-tape parades in New York City and Chicago and presented with a diamond watch from her fans and a silver cup from her high school.

Three years later, tragedy appeared to end her promising career when she was seriously injured in a plane crash. Both she and the cousin with whom she was flying survived the crash, but Robinson was in the hospital for nearly three months, two of them in a coma, suffering from severe head injuries, a broken arm, and a broken leg. Her leg was stabilized with a silver rod and pin and encased in a cast from her hip to her heel. After she spent another four months in a wheelchair and on crutches, the injured leg was one-half inch shorter than the other. Robinson remained out of competition for three and a half years.

When she began to run again in 1936, she could not bend her knee enough for a crouching start and had to start instead from a standing position. Even so, she was the fifth of six women, including Harriet Bland, Annette Rogers , and Helen Stephens , to make the Olympic relay team in Berlin. While Hitler sat comfortably in his box seat, assured that the German relay women could not lose, he watched horrified as Germany's Marie Dollinger and a teammate dropped the baton on the last pass. The Americans, anchored by Robinson and the 1936 100-meter winner Helen Stephens, won the gold medal on the 4x100-meter relay by eight yards.

At the end of her running career, Robinson had held records in the 50, 60, 70, and 100 yards. She was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the United States Track and Field Hall of Fame, and the Helms Hall of Fame. After her retirement from competition, she continued her interest in the sport by becoming a coach, timer, and public speaker. Many years later, she said, "I still can't believe the attention I get for something I did so long ago." After suffering from cancer and Alzheimer's disease, Robinson died in 1997 at the age of 87.


Carlson, Lewis B., and John J. Fogarty. Tales of Gold. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Press, 1987.

Grace and Glory: A Century of Women in the Olympics. Washington, DC: Multi-Media Partners, 1996.

Greenspan, Bud. 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History. Los Angeles, CA: GPG, 1995.

The New York Times. May 21, 1997.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts

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Robinson, Betty (1911–1997)

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