In 1948, a 30-year-old Dutch mother of two shattered age and gender barriers at the Olympics

Who run the world?
Who run the world?
Image: AP
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Seventy years ago, at the 1948 London Olympics, Fanny Blankers-Koen emerged as an unlikely athletic star.

The six-foot-tall, 30-year-old Dutch track athlete and mother of two became the first woman ever to win four gold medals in a single Olympics. She also won the 200m by 0.7 second—the highest margin in Olympic 200m history and a record that still stands today.

Nicknamed “the Flying Housewife,” Blankers-Koen achieved this feat while pregnant with her third child. During the games she was “as well-known to Olympic patrons as King George of England,” according to Smithsonian magazine.

Today’s Google Doodle is celebrating Blankers-Koen on what would have been her 100th birthday (she died in 2004 at the age of 85).

Who was Fanny Blankers-Koen?

Francina Elsje Koen was born on April 26, 1918 in Holland. An avid athlete from early childhood, Koen began competing in track events and set a national record in the 800m at the age of 17. A year later, she qualified in trials for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. She competed, but didn’t medal in her events, though she did manage to get an autograph from her hero, African-American track star Jesse Owens.

She married her running coach in 1940 and when the couple had their first son, Blankers-Koen immediately resumed her training within weeks of his birth.

Fanny Blankers-Koen and her husband, Jan.
Fanny Blankers-Koen and her husband, Jan.
Image: AP

The 1940 and 1944 Olympics were canceled because of World War II, and many thought Blankers-Koen had missed her chance at Olympic gold. When she announced her intention to compete in the 1948 London games, she drew criticism from the public.

”I got very many bad letters, people writing that I must stay home with my children and that I should not be allowed to run on a track with—how do you say it?—short trousers,” she told the New York Times in 1982.

When the British team manager, Jack Crump, first saw Blankers-Koen, he said she was “too old to make the grade.” Little did he or anyone else on the team know she was already three months pregnant and only running twice a week in preparation for the games.

The 1948 London Olympic games

The London Olympics kicked off on July 28, 1948 in sweltering heat as King George opened the ceremonies at Wembley Stadium in front of a crowd of 80,000 people.

Britain's King George VI, in naval uniform, shakes hands with members of the International Olympic Committee during the opening ceremony of the XIV Summer Olympic Games, at Wembley Stadium, London, July 29, 1948. (AP Photo)
King George VI shakes hands with members of the International Olympic Committee during the opening ceremony of the 1948 London games.
Image: AP

Blankers-Koen easily won a gold medal in her first event, the 100m sprint, and got her second in a photo finish in the 80m hurdles, but her greatest victory was still ahead of her.

In the 200m, she outraced all of her opponents to win by 0.7 second, the biggest margin in Olympic history and a record no one has beat since. She went on to help her team come back from fourth place to win the 4×100 relay, making her the first woman to win four gold medals in a single Olympics (a feat Jesse Owens achieved for men at the 1936 games).

Her athletic accomplishments didn’t just set records, Blankers-Koen’s performance at the games shattered stereotypes about age and gender for elite athletes in sports.

Mrs. Fanny Blankers-Koen, the Dutchwoman, winning the last lap of the 400 meters relay final at Wembley Stadium in London, United Kingdom, on August 7, 1948, to make Holland the winners of the event in 47.5 sec. Also in picture is H.H. Nissen of Denmark who came second with USA third. (AP Photo)
Blankers-Koen winning the last lap of the 400m relay final.
Image: AP

Despite her stellar performance, media coverage of her at the time was layered with sexism. The press dubbed Blankers-Koen “the Flying Housewife.” Reporters described her running “like she was chasing kids out of the pantry” and “racing to the kitchen to rescue a batch of burning biscuits,” Smithsonian noted.

Though Blankers-Koen is one of the most decorated female athletes of the 20th century, she remains largely forgotten by history. She returned home not to international superstardom and millions in endorsements deals, but her normal life as a wife and mother (and a new bicycle). She competed again in the 1952 Olympics, though she didn’t medal, and went on to become the leader of the Dutch athletics team from 1958 to 1968.

When she attended the 1972 Olympics in Munich, she met Jesse Owens again and introduced herself, telling him she still had the autograph from all those years ago.

“You don’t have to tell me who you are,” her hero replied. “I know everything about you.”