Betty Cuthbert (1938 - 2017) AM MBE
Spending time with Betty Cuthbert, it’s hard not to feel a certain sadness at the cruelty of it all. Those strong legs pounded their way to four gold medals. They were lithe and supple and beautifully muscled, and they carried her to a special place in a nation’s psyche. And now they are so still, so wasted. They take her nowhere.
What softens the tendency to feel wretched about the awful irony of those legs is the woman’s own unfailing cheerfulness of spirit. She has adjusted to life in a wheelchair, and feels no sense of self-pity. She became a victim of multiple sclerosis in 1969, and has lived the past 14 years in West Australia, confined to variations of that wheelchair. She is utterly content, usually bright to a point of perkiness, sustained by the company of friends and memories and the comfort of deep faith. She is certain she will walk again some day.
Those of us who saw the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 probably took away eight, maybe 10, special memories. I know I did, and I think about them often. They range across heroic deeds and high drama (I watched the blood-in-the-pool water polo match between Hungary and Russia) and spectacle that was somehow both modest and marvellous. But one image that dominates is of a lovely young woman, striding hard, thrusting forward, gulping air through a wide-open mouth so lustily that she looks to be roaring with exultation at someone ahead.
There was nobody ahead of Betty Cuthbert. She wasn’t shouting, just breathing distinctively. She was 18 then, with hair the colour of hay and knees that pumped high as she surged down a brick-red track. She was sprinting her way into history, a Sydney youngster from her father’s plant nursery on her way to becoming Melbourne’s, and Australia’s, Golden Girl.
That tag, the Golden Girl, attached itself to her for all the years afterwards, symbolic of her entrenchment in the collective affection of a nation. It brought her an adulation that she found difficult to live with for a time, but she adjusted to it. Even in her early sixties, she remains the Golden Girl, the only one. “I have to confess,” says Julius (Judy) Patching, 1956 official starter and elder statesman of the Olympic movement, “she’s my all-time favorite athlete. Was then, still is.”
What she did inside six days in November 1956 was win three gold medals: for the 100 metres, 200 metres and 4 x100 metres relay. She was first Australian to win triple gold. [The track events preceded the swimming, in which Murray Rose performed the same feat]. Her career came to exquisite peak that season. She had been overshadowed by compatriots until then, and had won only one senior title before, on a muddy track in Brisbane. Her Olympic expectations were so modest that she bought herself a ticket to watch. Then, in an inter-club meet before the Games, she astonished the small crowd (and herself) by setting a world record for 200 metres. That began the streak.
Cuthbert set nine world records, four of them in 1958, but again found herself being beaten when the Commonwealth Games came round in Cardiff that year --- mostly by her old rival Marlene Mathews. Injury affected her campaign for the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where she watched from a grandstand as America’s Wilma Rudolph duplicated her triple gold.
Then came a retirement that lasted 18 months. The comeback, she still insists, was not her initiative. She was nagged into it, she says, by some sort of inner voice that she was certain belonged to God. It was insistent, until finally she gave in, went to train with Herb Elliott’s mentor Percy Cerutty at Portsea, and in 1963 began setting records again --- this time over the quarter-mile. Her conditioning program came from Cerutty, but it was her old sprinting coach June Ferguson who worked on her technique.
In 1964 Betty Cuthbert sealed her career with a victory in the Olympic 400 metres final in Tokyo. She still ranks that race (alongside her 100 metres final in the Melbourne Games) as one of the two flawless races of her career. She walked to the start in a state of great serenity, humming to herself. She felt she was under instructions from God.
“It wasn’t me running really that day,” she has told me since. “It was as if my body had been taken over. He picked them (her feet) up, and I put them down.”
Britain’s Anne Packer, who finished second, said of Cuthbert: “She has an inner understanding of herself … I just felt she had a stronger belief in herself than I had in myself.” Cuthbert offered thanks in prayer, and asked: “Have I done enough?” It was the last race of her career.
She thus finished her career with four gold medals, a tally equalled by only two other Australians: Dawn Fraser and Murray Rose. She and the boisterous, trouble-prone Fraser were thoroughly different in style, but there was always great affection between them. It was appropriate that they began and ended their lustrous careers almost together.
© Harry Gordon, 2000. Provided courtesy of the author and not to be used elsewhere without permission.
1956 Olympic Games, Melbourne
Gold medal 100m
Gold medal 200m
Gold medal 4x100m relay
1964 Olympic Games, Tokyo
Gold medal 400m
Nine world records
Cuthbert was born in Sydney in 1938 and was educated at Parramatta Home Science School. It was at school she met her coach June Ferguson (Maston), the 1948 Olympian who guided Betty to Olympic greatness. She set a national junior 100 yards record in 1953 and the first of her nine world records in 1956 over 200 metres (23.2) just before the Melbourne Olympics. She was also a member of world record-breaking relay teams.
Betty was dubbed the ‘Golden Girl’ at the Melbourne Olympics when she won the sprint double and anchored the winning 4x100 metres relay team to a world record.
In early 1958, Betty set four world records but was being matched by fellow NSW sprinter Marlene Mathews. At the 1958 Cardiff Commonwealth Games Betty had to settle for second behind Marlene over 220 yards and was fourth in the 100 yards. She won a silver with the relay team.
Betty won the 1960 national 220 yards in a world record 23.2 seconds in Hobart but injury slowed her Olympic campaign in Rome 1960; she was eliminated in the quarter-final of the 100 metres and was unable to run the 200 metres. Betty made it to the 1962 Perth Commonwealth Games but was not the runner of old when she could only make the semis of the 100 yards and was fifth in the 220 yards. However, she anchored the relay team to gold when she recaptured her form and sprinting down the straight with characteristic 'mouth open wide' held off all challengers.
Betty was still troubled by injuries but made the move to the 400 metres for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. She had already set world records in 1959 and 1963 over the yards equivalent. In Tokyo, Betty won the inaugural 400 metres in a time of 52.01. She only won three national titles, evidence of the high quality of women’s sprinting in Australia during this period. Her best times were 10.4 seconds for 100 yards, 11.4 seconds for 100 metres and 23.2 seconds for 220 yards.
Betty retired from athletics after the Olympics and worked in the family nursery. Tragically, in 1969 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease she courageously fought until her passing in 2017.