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Fanny Blankers-Koen, Olympian-The Flying Housewife

Fanny Blankers-KoenAt the 1948 London Olympics, Fanny Blankers-Koen won four events: the women's 100 meters, 200 meters, 80 meter hurdles and 4 x 100 meter relay.  She was 30 years old, 5'9" ,140 pounds and the mother of two children.  She was arguably the greatest female track and field star in the world.  She set or tied 20 world records in the 100-meter dash, 80-meter hurdles, high jump, long jump, 4 x 100 relay and 4 x 400 relay.  She won five European titles and 58 Dutch championships.  She could have won two more gold medals in the 1948 Olympics, in events where she held the world records, but women were only allowed to compete in three individual events.  This was part of the pattern of discrimination against female athletes that Blankers-Koen fought.    
 
Early Success in Sports
Francina Elsje Koen was born in the Netherlands in 1918, the only daughter of a government inspector father who had competed in the shot put and discus  She had five brothers.  She spent her early years competing in swimming, but she was very good at all the sports she tried: gymnastics, tennis, fencing, swimming and running.  When she was 15, her swimming coach told her father that she should devote herself to track and field because swimming was too competitive and she would have a better chance of making the Dutch Olympic team as a runner.  
 
In her first national meet, she finished last in the 200 meter run.  By age 17 she broke her first national record in the high jump. At the same age, in only her third race at 800 meters, she set the Dutch national record, beating the national defending champion in that distance, and the Dutch Technical Commission selected her for the team that was training for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.  It looked like her best event was going to be the 800 meter race, so she was training for competition at that distance for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. However, several of the women in that race in the 1928 Olympics had "passed out" at the finish line, so the officials decided that women were too weak to run that far and the event was removed from Olympic competition.  As a result, Koen was assigned  to train for the jumping events.  Her coach was Jan Blankers, a former Olympic triple-jumper who was 12 years her senior.  He remained her coach throughout her competitive career and they married in 1940. 
 
The 1936 Berlin Olympics
As an 18-year-old, she was selected to compete in the high jump and the sprint relay team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.   She high jumped just short of five feet and finished sixth; and her 4 x 100 meter relay team finished fifth.   Her most precious memory of those Olympics was getting the autograph of her hero, Jesse Owens, the winner of four gold medals.  She met him again 36 years later at the 1972 Munich Olympics and told him, "I still have your autograph. I’m Fanny Blankers-Koen.” He replied, “You don’t have to tell me who you are. I know everything about you.” 
 
After the 1936 Olympics, she became better than everyone else in virtually every event she tried. 
She excelled in competitions in the 100 and 200 meter sprints, the high jump and the pentathlon.
The 1940 and 1944 Olympics were cancelled because of World War II, but she continued to train during the war and in 1943 she broke the world records for both the high jump, (1.71 meters = 5' 6") and long jump (6.25 meters = 20' 6").  
 


 

The 1948 London Olympics
She dominated the 1948 London Olympics as no woman had ever done before her. Today she is still the only female athlete to have won four track and field gold medals in a single Olympics.  In seven days, she ran 11 races and won them all. She won the 200 meter final by 7 yards, the widest margin ever in that Olympic event.   In the 4 x 100-meter relay, she ran anchor and took the baton in fourth place at five yards behind the leader, and won in 47.5 seconds.  
 
When she returned to Amsterdam, she was driven in an open carriage drawn by four white horses through streets crowded with cheering fans, a celebration almost equal to the one held when the city was liberated from German occupation.  She said, "'I didn't know the Dutch people were so interested in track; they never came to our meets.''  She had trained for the Olympics only two hours a day, twice a week and rode her bike to practice with her two children in the bicycle basket.  Her nickname was "the Flying Housewife."  The City of Amsterdam gave her a new bicycle, which was meager reward for such an amazing performance.  She did receive offers for endorsements and publicity stunts but had to turn them down to retain her amateur status.  Today she would have earned a small fortune in endorsements.
 
Discrimination Against Female Athletes
As she prepared for the Olympics during the war years, Blankers-Koen set six world records.  She continued to train a few weeks after the birth of her son in 1941, amid harsh criticism that she should retire from competition and devote herself to motherhood.  When she was ready to go back to training after her daughter was born in 1945, she asked her doctor if running would interfere with her milk production.  Her sympathetic doctor said, "I guess you'll find out when you try it."  Blankers-Koen is now credited as a pioneer and standard-bearer who inspired millions of women, helping to establish the legitimacy of female athletes regardless of age, marital status or motherhood.   
 
She won the most medals of any athlete in the 1948 Olympics.  At that time women were allowed to compete in only three individual events.  Without that discriminating rule, she could have won the high jump and broad jump also; she was the world record holder in both events, and the winners' results were far short of her records.   Her potential best event, the 800 meter race, was not even available because the (male) Olympics organizers had decided that women should not run such long distances.  
 


 

In the U.S., women were not allowed to race further than 880 yards until many years later.  In the early 1960s, I was at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and, as a sideline, coached a group of young girls for competition in distance running.   The National AAU Ladies Cross Country Championship was to be held in the fall of 1966 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, so I decided to take them to that race.  We registered for the race and our entry fees were paid.  When we got there, a coach of the team from Frederick, Maryland complained that none of our kids should be allowed to run because they were only 13 years old, too young to run the 1.5 mile distance because it would ruin their chances of having future safe pregnancies.  In all of the local races in the mid-Atlantic region, our 13 year olds had soundly trounced all the much older women in races.  The race director, Larry Berman, tried to settle the issue by allowing the kids to run in the race and later on, they would decide if they would count.    At the start of the race, 13-year-old Julia Brand, who had been running only a few months, took the lead and held it with defending-national champion, Marie Mulder of Sacramento, behind her.   She held the lead right up to the last 400 yards when Olympian Sandra Knott of Cleveland passed her. My 13-year-olds all finished and earned medals, and the team finished second against the top female distance runners in the country.  Julia Brand finished 4th, Sherry Korpman finished 11th,  Jan Dullea finished 15th, Linda Korpman finished 16th and  Cathy Dullea finished 18th.    Because the girls were only 13 years old, they were not given their individual medals and the team was not given their rightfully deserved 2nd place team medals.  
 
At the next convention of the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States (AAU), members of the Ladies Long Distance Running Committee proposed that my AAU card, which allowed me to compete in running races, be taken away because I had endangered the future pregnancies of young girls by having them run in a 1.5 mile running race.   Members of the men’s long distance running committee soundly supported me, so I kept my AAU card, but the girls were never given their National AAU championship medals. Julia Brand, who was the most talented young female runner I had ever seen, returned to Baltimore’s inner city and never raced again.  
 
No good studies have ever shown that vigorous exercise for girls and women harms them reproductively or in any other way, and all of the competition restrictions based on gender have finally been removed.  
 
Life After the Olympics 
Blankers-Koen went on to win three gold medals in the 1950 European championships. In the 1952 Helsinki Olympics she ran the 80-meter hurdles, but tripped on a hurdle and dropped out of the race. In 1955, she retired from competition and became captain of the Dutch female track and field team.  She  continued to run, swim, cycle and play tennis. Her husband died in 1977.  She was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.
 
Her personal life remained largely unknown until 2003, the year before she died, when a Dutch sportswriter, Kees Koomen, wrote her biography, A Queen with Man's Legs.  He interviewed many close friends and family who told him that she was so determined to win at everything that she was incapable of showing affection even to her family and children.  This book was published only in Dutch and has never been translated into English. 
 
In 1999, she was voted "Female Athlete of the Century" by the International Association of Athletics Federations.  She got there by concentrating so much on competing that she shut out every other goal in her life.  Her daughter Fanny said, "My mother only enjoyed herself when she was being worshiped . . . she could not give love and friendship herself to other people.”  Her brother, Huib Koen, said, "My sister was a girl who always did what she wanted to do."  Several people reported that she was a very difficult person throughout her life, and her last years were miserable.  She was so seriously debilitated by heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and deafness that she had to be kept in a psychiatric nursing home, where she often tried to hit people and was kept tied to her bed.  In 2004, she died at age 85 mostly forgotten, with only about 50 people at her funeral.
 
What it Takes to Win Olympic Gold
It takes tremendous concentration, dedication, sacrifice and purpose to be an Olympic champion.  Many of these athletes win their gold medals because they are so focused on their goals and training that they exclude just about everything else, including their loved ones and family.  Some gold medalists go on to success in other endeavors, but for many, the Olympic medals are the high point of their lives and it is all downhill from there.  This seems to have been Fanny Blankers-Koen's fate.   However, she will be remembered for attacking the prejudices against women in sports and paving the way for today's female Olympians.
April 26 1918 – January 25 2004
August 14th, 2016
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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