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Our greatest ever athlete, Betty Cuthbert, passes away

Our greatest ever athlete, Betty Cuthbert, passes away

Author: David Tarbotton & Ron Bendall/Monday, 7 August 2017/Categories: News

7 August 2017

Our greatest ever athlete, Betty Cuthbert, passes away

On Sunday, the sporting world lost one of the greatest ever athletes, Betty Cuthbert. She was undoubtedly the finest track and field athlete in Australian history. For the last 48 years she had battled multiple sclerosis, but bravely forth on accepting it was god’s wish for her to use her public profile to raise awareness and funds of the illness.  She was aged 79 when she passed away in a nursing home in Mandurah WA. David Tarbotton and Ron Bendall look back on her career for Athletics NSW.

Born Elizabeth Alyse ‘Betty’ Cuthbert on the 20th April 1938 in Merrylands in Sydney’s west. She was born 20 minutes after her twin sister Marie, better known as Midge. Her parents, Marion and Gordon had emigrated from New Zealand. When Betty was five the family moved to a four-acre property in Ermington. At five, Betty started at the local school, Ermington Primary School, where by eight she was defeating the boys in races. At 13, Betty and Midge started at Parramatta Home Science School and Betty meet the physical education teacher, June Ferguson. As June Maston, she was a 1948 Olympic Games silver medallist in the 4x100m relay and was married to water polo Olympian, Jack Ferguson. Betty idolised June, who invited Betty to join the local Western Suburbs Athletics Club and train with June at St Luke’s oval in Burwood, in Sydney.

At the end of 1951, Betty had won selection in the NSW team for the inaugural Australia All Schools Athletics Championships, to be held in Hobart. The event was part of the Commonwealth Federation Silver Jubilee celebrations. In Hobart, she won the under-14 girls 100 yards in 11.7 seconds, equal to about 12.6 for 100m. She steadily improved over the next couple of years.

At the 1956 Australian Championships in Brisbane, she didn’t make the final of the 100 yards, but two days later she won the 220 yards. But Betty, still not considering the Melbourne Olympics were on the radar, brought tickets for the Games. But during the winter Betty started to improve. In September, on the Sydney Cricket Ground, she broke the 200 metres world record. The performance received national and international attention and tremendous excitement across Australia. The next month at the Olympic trials, she defeated Marlene Mathews in both events in times of 11.7 and 23.7 securing her Olympic selection.

At the Melbourne Olympics, she won her 100m heat in 11.5, equalling the Olympic record. The 18-year-old was very nervous for her semi-final and was beaten. But she learnt, she could not relax for a minute and two days later she won the final, with her famous mouth-open, high-knees style. Three and four days later she progressed smoothly through the rounds to win the 200m final in a world record. She closed the Games anchoring the Australian team to two more world records in the 4x100m relay. She became the first Australian Olympic to win three gold medals at a Games (Murray Rose achieved this later in the 1956 Games). She was and remains the youngest ever 200m champion in the Olympics Games.

After the Games, she was bombarded with fan mail, and guest appearance requests. But Betty was very shy and preferred to just return to her job at her father’s plant nursery.

At the end of the year she received the top Australian award, named the ABC Sportsman (!) of the year. Her prize was a cutlery set, which she was unable to accept as it would have infringed her amateur status.

In 1958, she was selected for the Cardiff Empire Games, and despite breaking the 220 yards world record twice during the year, was beaten by Marlene Mathews in the 220 yards, winning the silver and another in the relay. In January 1959, we saw a sign of the future when she broke the 440 yards world record, she had always considered herself better over the longer distance and overall her 200m record was better than 100m. She was named captain of the women’s section of the Rome 1960 Olympic team, but preparing for the Games, she would run during the half-time break at the rugby league matches. In July at one of these races, in the cold of winter, she torn her right hamstring. The injury did not fully recover for Rome and she was eliminated in the second round of the 100m and later withdrew from the 200m and relay.

She hated being a public figure and wanted to be able to go to dances, shows and parties just like her twin sister; wear dresses more than tracksuits and be a normal 22-year-old girl. She decided to stop running.

But after 14 months she could not ignore a voice telling her to ‘Run again’. She noted that almost immediately she resumed running, she was very happy. During her break, she had lost strength and endurance and decided to seek help from the great Victorian coach, Percy Cerutty, who had guided John Landy and Herb Elliott. June Ferguson was still to coach her in the technique. She competed at the Perth 1962 Empire and Commonwealth Games making the 220 yards final and anchoring the relay team to gold. But she felt she had lost her raw speed and then June remembered the 400m was to be introduced at the 1964 Olympics. She had run one back in 1959 to help score points for her club and broken the world record. She embraced the new event and during the 1962/63 summer she broke the world record twice, and won the NSW and Australian titles.

A foot injury in 1963, received while on a water skiing holiday with June’s family remained troublesome and at the 1964 Olympic trials/Australian Championships she placed second to Dixie Willis. It was later diagnosed as a dislocated metatarsal bone, but treatment finally solved it and she was able to resume training. She arrived in Tokyo at the 1964 Olympics a little under prepared, she cruised the heat in 56.0, but needed to ran a lot quicker in the semi-final clocking 53.8 to progress into the final ranked fourth. In the final she was pushed all the way to the line by Britain’s Ann Packer who was running her best-ever time. Betty clocked 52.0 or 52.01 (electric) a time that last night if run at the IAAF World Championships in London would have her progressing from the heats, into the semi-finals – 53 years later!! Her Olympic record survived the 1968 altitude assisted Olympics and was finally broken in the heats in 1972 by an Australian, Charlene Rendina.

She had closed her career in a similar fashion that two future greats did. Raelene Boyle moved up to the 400m and won gold at the 1982 Commonwealth Games and Cathy Freeman, who was a 100m and 200m sprinter in her early days, moved to the 400m to win gold at the Sydney Olympics.

The honours and awards were many. The Helms award in 1964, an MBE in 1965. In 2012 she was an inaugural inductee into the IAAF Hall of Fame.

Just a couple of years later, in the late 1960’s she started to feel a tingling in her fingers, spots in her vision. The television was blurry and her legs were getting redder. Over two years and after many trips to the doctor and endless test, she actually asked the doctor if she had “multiple sclerosis." He confirmed what she had suspected. She didn’t tell her father or twin sister until the end of the ‘70s when she couldn’t hide the degenerative condition any longer from them.

Through her Christian faith she felt the condition was her destiny, allowing her to use her high profile to raise awareness of the condition MS.

A close friend and neighbour Ronda Gillam, became her carer, and they moved to the small coastal town of Mandurah, located 70km south of Perth, in 1991. In recent months, the MS had progressed to stage two, taking her life in a nursing home at about 7.00pm on Sunday 6 August 2017.


Betty Cuthbert Statistics

DOB 20 April 1938, Merrylands, Sydney

Clubs: Western Suburbs and Cumberland Womens

Coach: June Ferguson, & Percy Cerutty (1963-1964)

PBs: 60m 7.2, 100y 10.4, 100m 11.4, 220y 23.2, 200m 23.55, 440y 400m 52.01.

Commonwealth Games results: 1958 – 4th 100y, silver 220y, 4x110y relay silver; 1962 – 100y semi, 220y 5th, 4x110y relay gold.

Olympic Games results: 1956 – 100m gold, 200m gold, 4x100m relay gold; 1960 – 100m qf, 200m & relays did not compete; 1964 – 400m gold.

NSW Championships titles: 100 yards 1958, 1959, 1960, 1963; 220 yards 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1963; 440 yards 1963

Australian Championships titles: 220y 1956, 1960; 440y 1963

Olympic Records: 1956 - 100m heat 11.4, 200m final 23.5,


World records:

World Record    60 metres           7.2         NSW Championships     27-Feb-60

World Record    100 yards           10.4       NSW Championships     1-Mar-58

=World Record  100 yards           10.4       NSW Championships     1-Mar-58

World Record    200 metres        23.2       Pre-Olympic Test             16-Sep-56

World Record    200 metres        23.55    Olympic Games 30-Nov-56

World Record    220 yards           23.6       National             18-Jan-58

World Record    220 yards           23.5       NSW Championships     8-Mar-58

World Record    220 yards           23.2       Australian Championships          7-Mar-60

World Record    200 metres        23.2       Australian Championships          7-Mar-60

World Record    440 yards           55.6       National             17-Jan-59

World Record    440 yards           54.3       International     21-Mar-59

World Record    440 yards           53.5       Mooma Carnival             11-Mar-63

World Record    440 yards           53.3       Australian Championships          23-Mar-63

World Record    4x100 metres    44.9       Olympic Games 1-Dec-56

World Record    4x100 metres    44.5       Olympic Games 1-Dec-56

World Record    4x110 yards       45.6       AUS v USA v Commonwealth      5-Dec-56

World Record    4x220 yards       1:36.3   AUS v USA v Commonwealth      5-Dec-56

World Record    4x200 metres    1:36.3   AUS v USA v Commonwealth      5-Dec-56



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