(Reuters) – Fanny Blankers-Koen was bemused by her success and never comfortable with adulation, but the Dutch sprinter, nicknamed the Flying Housewife, was the first post-World War Two sporting superstar after winning four golds at the 1948 Olympics.
She might have won more at the Games in London but was restricted to just three individual events plus a relay, even though she had held the world record, at one time or another, in six different disciplines.
Blankers-Koen went to London as a 30-year-old mother of two and her expectations were not much higher than to relive the excitement of her previous Olympic experience in Berlin in 1936, when she was a bright-eyed teenager.
“I hoped to get into a final, that would have been a highlight for me,” she told a Dutch TV documentary decades later.
Yet in a matter of days, Blankers-Koen romped to the 100 meters gold, then the 80m hurdles, the 200m by a runaway margin and finally anchored the Dutch to gold in the 4x100m relay, taking the baton in fourth place and powering her long legs through the field.
In the process she offered legitimacy to women’s sport, debunked myths about motherhood and competition, and helped lift her nation out of post-war gloom.
She was overwhelmed by the reception she received on her return to the Netherlands, with crowds lining the streets 10-deep as she was paraded through Amsterdam in a horse-drawn carriage.
“It was very strange because before there wasn’t interest in track and field. And then there was so many people and you feel like a queen. My world changed at that time, after the Games,” she recalled.
Blankers-Koen was a sprightly 81-year-old in 1999 when named Top Female Athlete of the 20th Century.
She delighted a news conference with her astonished reaction when congratulated on her achievement. “You mean it is me who has won. I had no idea!”
She told biographers she never got rid of her anxiety despite her superstar status.
“I was always nervous and unsure but in one way it was a positive, because I was never sure of winning. The angst in my shoes was probably my advantage.”
Blankers-Koen passed away in 2004, aged 85.
Editing by Toby Davis