Winning four Olympic gold medals, along with another gold and two silvers in the Commonwealth Games distinguishes Elizabeth “Betty” Cuthbert as one of the greatest Australian competitors of all time.
She would certainly have to receive the nod for greatest Australian woman sprinter for her individual and team efforts in events ranging from 60 to 400 metres. Three of those Olympic gold medals resulted from the 1956 games in Melbourne, and since Cuthbert was born just outside Sydney, it would have been a major thrill for Cuthbert to perform, and athletic fans to witness her success, on home soil. Born 20 April 1938 in Merrylands, New South Wales, and dubbed “The Golden Girl” for her blond hair and three-medal Olympic performance, she had an unorthodox running style that would have been the bane of any running coach.
Her natural ability permitted her run with a high knee lift and a wide-open mouth that must have been a sprint technician’s nightmare. Combined with her enthusiastic personality and ready smile, sports obsessed Australians have loved her all her life, both during and after her competitive years concluded.
Just 18 years of age when the world’s best athletes journeyed to Melbourne for the 1956 Summer Olympic Games, Betty Cuthbert knew from an early age that she possessed the ability to run fast. According to her, that realization came to her around the age of eight.
It is easy to imagine her either catching or eluding boys of her own age as well as some several years senior to her. There must have been some fine races betwixt her and her twin sister Marie as well, at least until the day came when it was no longer a fair competition.
The 1956 Olympic Games appear quaint when viewed from the perspective of anyone who has witnessed the growth in magnitude and attached significance. There were just 376 women taking part. When the Olympic games returned to Australia for the Sydney Summer Games in 2000, that number of women competitors had grown to over 4,000.
Where athletics in 1956 were concerned, there were only nine events contested. Betty Cuthbert therefore won 33 percent of the available gold medals, including the 4 x 100 metre relay, where she ran the anchor leg. Betty Cuthbert’s first event at the Melbourne Cricket Ground was the Women’s 100 metre sprint. In her qualifying heat, she set a personal best of 11.4 seconds, beating out the Australian World Record holder Shirley Strickland de la Hunty, who failed to qualify for the final.
Cuthbert was one tenth of a second slower in her gold medal effort in the final, finishing in 11.5. Two tenths of a second back at 11.7 was Christa Stubnick, representing the European University Association, and with the same time was Australia’s Marlene Mathews-Willard. Hand timing on analog stopwatches made for some interesting statistics.
Cuthbert set a world record in winning the 200 metres. The order of finish was identical to that of the 100m, with Stubnick earning silver and Mathews-Willard adding the bronze medal. Cuthbert’s winning time of 23.4 seconds provided her with a comfortable 3/10ths margin. Another world record was to follow in the 4 x 100 metres relay.
By finishing the 1956 games with three gold medals to her credit, she became one of the most famous athletes in Australian history. Comparison with modern athletes is difficult. Times have certainly declined. America’s Florence Griffith-Joyner established the current world record for the women’s 100m in 1988 at 10.49 seconds.
Interestingly, a Jamaican runner named Juliet Cuthbert claims a share of 199th place on the all-time fastest women’s 100m list. She was born eight years after Betty Cuthbert’s Olympic exploits, and produced her 10.89 in Salamanca on 13 July 1992. Two years after the 1956 Olympic Games, Betty Cuthbert set world records in the 100 and 220-yard sprints, but those records did not prevent her being beaten by Marlene Mathews at the Australian Championships.
She declined further later in 1958, when she could manage no better than fourth place in the 100 and second in the 220 at the Empire Games. She regained her form in 1960 and was poised to make an impression at the Rome Games.
She had in 1959 moved up in distance to the 440 and set a world record that was broken eventually that year by a Soviet runner. Cuthbert won the 1960 Australian Championships with a world record time, but she experienced an injury in Rome that found her eliminated during the heats of the 100m. She retired temporarily before coming back to run a gold medal winning relay for Australia in the 1962 Commonwealth Games.
Next comes one of those occasions near and dear to all sports lovers. In the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, women for the very first time competed in the 400 metres. She was unimpressive in the heats and it would not have been unkind to suggest that injury and time had conspired to reduce her former lustre.
She was 26 years old, at a time when sprinters in their latter 20s were seldom seen. She would win her fourth gold medal, in what she would describe as her perfect race. She retired permanently after the Tokyo Games.
At various times over the course of her career, she set world records for 60 metres, 100 yards, 200 metres, 220 yards and 440 yards. She also played a prominent role in relay wins in the 4 x 100m, 4 x 110 yards, 4 x 200 metres and 4 x 220 yards in those times when part of the world had yet to adopt the metric system for running.
She contracted multiple sclerosis at the age of 47, but not even being confined to a wheel chair could dampen the enthusiasm she expressed for life. She was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985 in the very first year of that organisation’s existence.
A similar honour followed in 2012 when she was inducted with the inaugural class of the International Association of Athletics Federations, where two Olympic gold medals and one world record are required to gain entry. Perhaps she should be in there twice.
Betty Cuthbert would again participate in the Olympics at the 2000 Sydney Games, where she carried the Olympic Torch on one of its final segments. She now lives in Western Australia, but a bronze statue depicting her in her signature running style can be seen outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground.