‘Golden girl’ of Australian athletics, Betty Cuthbert has died
FOUR-TIME OLYMPIC gold medallist and ‘Golden Girl of Australian athletics,’ Betty Cuthbert has died at the age of 79 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.
Betty was a part of what became known as the ‘Age of the Golden Girls’ at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics where she won three gold medals in the 100 m, 200 m and 4 x 100 m relay tracks.
Cuthburt returned to the Olympics held in Tokyo four years later winning yet another gold medal that made her the world’s first athlete to win gold in four different events.
Despite her retirement from athletics, a wheel-chair bound Betty still made an appearance at the 2000 Sydney Olympics torch relay as a part of the opening ceremony.
The Melbourne Olympics and the age of the golden girls
Australia’s impressive medal count was largely due to the success of the ‘golden girls’.
Dawn Fraser, Betty Cuthbert and Shirley Strickland all took out multiple gold medals in swimming or track events. Many wondered why Australian women did so well.
At the time, Dawn Fraser famously stated, “Australian women have always been gutsier than the men,” but Tony Ward says it probably had more to do with Australian attitudes toward female athletes.
“Australia was more open to women participating than other countries were, and so we drew on a bigger talent pool,” he says.
Ian Jobling, director of the Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Queensland, agrees, but says it also “didn’t cost a lot of money,” to have women compete in pools and on tracks that already existed.
Global politics plays out at the Melbourne Olympics
In the lead up to the games, conflict had plagued many northern hemisphere nations.
In July 1956, Egypt nationalised the Franco-British controlled Suez Canal. France and Britain invaded the country, and Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq subsequently refused to participate in the Games in protest.
Meanwhile, the USSR was quashing the short-lived Hungarian revolution, placing the nation back under Soviet rule.
Australia decided the Soviets should still be able to compete at Melbourne, leading the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland to boycott the Games.
A vicious water polo match between Hungary and the USSR would later play out during the Games, resulting in several punches between players and at least one black eye.
Closing the Melbourne Olympics with an unusual show of unity
Despite the turbulent political environment, the Melbourne Olympics closed on a note of global unity.
Upon the suggestion of an Australian schoolboy, John Ian Wing, all the athletes walked together in the closing ceremony instead of in teams, as tradition dictated.
“That was seen as being both a great improvement to the international spirit of the Games and being something that was sort of typically Australian,” says Tony.
In his letter to the Melbourne Organising Committee, John wrote: “During the Games, there will be only one nation. War, politics and nationality will be all forgotten, what more could anybody want…”
- The Melbourne Olympic Games open.
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