The 30-year-old mother of two who won four gold medals at the 1948 Summer Olympics
In 1948, a 30-year-old mother of two won four gold medals at the Summer Olympics in London, while also pregnant with her third child. Competing at a time when many disregarded women’s athletics, this amazing feat was achieved by Fancina “Fanny” Elsje Blankers-Koen, a Dutch athlete whose background and performances earned her the nickname “the Flying Housewife”. She was the most successful athlete at the 1948 Summer Games and broke multiple records in her career.
Born in April 26 1918 in Lage Vuursche to Arnoldus and Helena Koen, sport was in Blankers-Koen's blood with her father, a government official, having also competed in the shot put and discus. As a teenager, Blankers-Koen enjoyed tennis, swimming, gymnastics, ice skating, fencing and running. At six feet tall she was a natural athlete but it was deciding which sport to pick which was the challenge.
After being advised by her swimming coach to not compete in swimming as there were already top swimmers in the Netherlands at the time, Blankers-Koen landed on track and began working towards qualifying for the Olympics.
Her first appearance in the sport was in 1935, aged just 17. In her third race she set a national record in the 800 meters. A year later she qualified in the trials for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, both in the high jump and the 4x100 meter relay. While she didn’t medal in her events, she did get to meet her hero, the African-American track star Jesse Owens, whose record four gold medals she would later match in London. Blankers-Koen later said it was her most “treasured Olympic memory”.
Blankers-Koen slowly began to rise to the top. In 1938, she ran her first world record (11.0 seconds in the 100 meters), and she also won her first international medals. At the European Championships in Vienna, she won the bronze in both the 100m and 200m, with Polish competitor Stanisława Walasiewicz winning gold in both.
In 1940, she married her coach Jan Blankers, a former triple jumper and coach to the Dutch ladies team. There were high hopes for the athlete to perform well at the Helsinki Olympics the same year, but because of World War II, those Olympics were cancelled and they were postponed again in 1944.
In the meantime, life carried on for Blankers-Koen. In 1941, she gave birth to her first child and the Dutch media automatically assumed her sports career was over. But the athlete resumed training just weeks after the birth and preceded to set 6 new records between 1942 and 1944 in the 80m hurdles, 100m, long jump and the 100m relay.
After the war, and having given birth to her second child in 1946, Blankers-Koen qualified to compete in the 1948 Summer Olympics. It meant leaving her children behind in Amsterdam and the athlete was heavily criticized: “I got very many bad letters,” she recalled, “people writing that I must stay home with my children.”
Blankers-Koen faced more criticism when she turned up to the Summer Games, including from the British team manager, Jack Crump, who said she was “too old to make the grade”. She proved him wrong though and few knew at the time, but she was already three months pregnant and training just twice a week in the summer leading up to the Games.
At the Games her first competition was the 100m and she qualified easily for the semi-finals and set the fastest time. In the final, with a muddy track and rainy conditions, Blankers-Koen finished in 11.9 seconds beating her opponents with ease.
This made Blankers-Koen the first Dutch athlete to win an Olympic title in athletics, but it was her next challenge, the 80m hurdles, that she focused on. The athlete's main competition was Maureen Gardner, who had equalled Blankers-Koen’s world record prior to the Games. The pair were close until the finish line and although the athletes received the same time of 11.2 seconds, Blankers-Koen was awarded gold.
During her time at the games the athlete suffered homesickness and it got so bad she nearly forfeited the 200m qualifiers to return home. However, after talking to her husband/coach she decided to run, qualified with ease and ended up winning the final several days later in 24.4 seconds.
Again it looked as though Blankers-Koen would miss another race, this time the 4x100m relay final. The athlete went missing before the final having popped out to shop for a raincoat. She arrived just in time for the race and took the fourth leg position at the last minute. But despite tensions running high, Blankers-Koen crossed the line a tenth of a second before the Australian and Canadian teams.
Blankers-Koen won four of the nine women’s events at the 1948 Olympics. She was the first woman to win four Olympic gold medals, and the first to do so in a single Summer Games. After the Games, the athlete was inundated with sponsorship and endorsement deals but instead she travelled to Australia and the United States to promote women’s athletics.
Blankers-Koen continued to do well in her events and even took part in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, which was her last major competition. In August 1955, the athlete was victorious for the last time, winning the national title in the shot put, her 58th Dutch title at the age of 37.
After her athletic career, Blankers-Koen served as the team leader of the Dutch athletics team, from the 1958 European Championships to the 1968 Summer Olympics. In 1999, her last moment of sporting glory, she was declared Female Athlete of the Century at a gala organized by the International Association of Athletics Federations. She was shocked by the win, saying at the time: “You mean it is me who has won?”
Blanker-Koen died in 2004 but left a legacy of Olympic victories that are credited with helping to eliminate the belief that age and motherhood were a barrier to success in women's sport.