Strickland, Shirley (1925—)

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Strickland, Shirley (1925—)

Australian track-and-field star. Name variations: Shirley de la Hunty; Shirley de la Hunty-Strickland. Born Shirley Strickland in Guildford, Western Australia, on July 18, 1925; attended Northam High School; graduated from the University of Western Australia; married; children: Phillip (b. 1953).

Won seven Olympic medals in track and field: bronze in 100 meters (1948, 1952), bronze in the 80-meter hurdles (1948) and gold (1952, 1956), silver in the 4x100-meter relay (1948, 1956), later discovered the winner of a bronze in the 200 meters (1948), but has not yet been entered into the official record; her record was equaled only by Poland's Irena Szewinska ; awarded MBE (1951).

Shirley Strickland grew up in a family of runners. Her brothers ran, and her father had been a professional sprinter in his youth, but Shirley was the star. In high school, she won 47 of her 49 races in sprints and hurdles. At the University of Western Australia, Strickland was a track-and-field as well as a field hockey star. Graduating with honors after majoring in science, she became a lecturer in physics and mathematics at Perth Technical College. Though Strickland was an obvious choice for the 1948 Olympic team, officials were not certain an Australian team could be sent; it was only two years after World War II, and the nation was still recovering. Since the Summer Olympics would be held in London, halfway round the world, it was an expensive trip. As the date approached, however, officials became increasingly determined to carry on a tradition. Australia was one of only four countries, including Greece, Great Britain, and the United States, to send athletes to every Summer Olympics since the modern games were revived in 1896. No one was surprised when Strickland was selected to make the trip to London.

The 1948 Summer Olympics were unusual in one respect; they were the first games dominated by a woman: track-and-field star Fanny Blankers-Koen . This 30-year-old Dutch athlete was given little chance of winning by the press, but Blankers-Koen won four gold medals and was Strickland's chief competitor throughout the games. In the 100-meter qualifying rounds, Blankers-Koen and Britain's Dorothy Manley finished ahead of Strickland, though the final proved exciting. While Blankers-Koen won her first gold, Manley and Strickland were in a photo finish, both clocking in at 12.2 seconds. The judges awarded the silver to Manley who had edged slightly ahead, while Strickland was given the bronze. In some ways, the 80-meter hurdles were a repeat of the 100 meters. Because the Dutch athlete got off to a slow start, Blankers-Koen and Britain's Maureen Gardner were in a photo finish, clocking the same time. Judges finally awarded first place to Blankers-Koen and second to Gardner; once again, Strickland took third place. In the 4x100-meter relay, Flying Fanny made the difference for the Dutch and the Australians had to settle for a silver.

In the 200 meters, there was another crunch of runners at the finish line, as the "Dutch housewife," as the press called Blankers-Koen, again took the gold. After studying the photos, judges awarded the silver to Audrey Williamson of Great Britain and the bronze to Audrey Patterson of the United States. Strickland, it was said, finished fourth. But photo-finish equipment was still experimental in 1948. Thirty-five years later, the photo of the finish of this 200-meter race was discovered, along with pictures of other races. On close look, there is no disputing that Strickland was third rather than fourth in the 1948 200 meters, though the race's new result has not yet been officially changed. Despite formidable competition from Fanny Blankers-Koen, Shirley Strickland had established her international reputation in the London games.

In the 1950 Commonwealth Games held in Auckland, New Zealand, Strickland captured the gold in the 80-meter hurdles and won two other gold medals on Australian relay teams. She finished second to teammate Marjorie Jackson in the 100 yards and the 220 yards. Continued victories prepared Strickland for the 1952 Helsinki Summer Games where the Australians were expected to give a fine showing. Now married and competing under the name of de la Hunty, Strickland was third in the 100 meters, and since Marjorie Jackson took first, the Aussies won two out of three of the top medals. The 80-meter hurdles pitted Strickland against Blankers-Koen once more. This year, the Dutch track star was suffering from an infection and reaction to medication. During the race, she hit several hurdles and failed to finish. Strickland blazed down the track with a 10.9 world record and an Olympic gold medal. Jackson took the gold in the 200 meters, so it was only natural that the Australians were expected to win the 4x100-meter relay. For three-quarters of the race, this proved to be the case until Marjorie Jackson fumbled the baton. The American team, anchored by Mae Faggs , took advantage of the fumble and surged to first place and the gold. Australia ended up in fifth place.

Most assumed Strickland would automatically qualify for the Australian team to compete in the 1954 Commonwealth Games. But her son, Phillip, was born in 1953, so she began training late that year and was not chosen to participate. When her appeal to be allowed on the team was turned down, she decided to compete as an independent. Unfortunately, her lack of training was telling, and she did not perform well. By 1955, Strickland was back in shape when she was invited to a major international competition in Warsaw, Poland. Australian officials had little enthusiasm for sending her, however, and tried to discourage her participation by decreeing that she had to be accompanied by a chaperon, despite the fact that she was 30 years old, a wife and mother, as well as a renowned international track-and-field star. Determined to run, Strickland prevailed and set a new world record of 11.3 seconds in the 100 meters, a record that would not be tied for three years and would not be bettered for six.

When the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games arrived, Shirley de la Hunty-Strickland was determined to represent her country at its home games, though officials were still unenthused. First there was controversy when her photograph turned up on a cigarette carton label. Any Olympic athlete who attempted to make money from sports was immediately excluded from the Games. Fortunately for Australia, the matter was resolved. Although this was her third Olympics, the 31-year-old Strickland was determined. In the 80-meter hurdles, she streaked well ahead of the competition with a time of 10.7, another Olympic record. She was now the only woman to successfully defend an Olympic title. In the 4x100-meter relay, Strickland and her teammates finally captured the gold, defeating the United States and Great Britain. Though they counted for only 16% of their nation's contingent, the women of the Australian team in the 1956 games were extraordinary. Strickland, Betty Cuthbert , Dawn Fraser , Marlene Matthews, Norma Thrower , Lorraine Crapp , and others captured more than half of their teams' gold medals, ensuring Australia's third place finish overall.

Strickland's medals from three Olympic Games totaled three golds, one silver, three bronzes, and one disputed bronze, making Strickland one of the most prolific winners in Olympic history. She also set nine Olympic records, including six in the hurdles and three in the 4x100-meter relay. At that time, no woman or man in Olympic track-and-field history had ever set as many.


Hemery, David. The Pursuit of Sporting Excellence. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1986.

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

Matthews, Peter. Track & Field Athletics. The Records. Enfield, Middlesex: Guinness, 1986.

Vamplew, Wray, et al. The Oxford Companion to Australian Sport. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia