Australia's 'Golden Girl' Betty Cuthbert dies

Reuters
Australian Betty Cuthbert, the only runner to win Olympic gold medals in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter sprints, has died following a long battle with multiple sclerosis. She was 79.
Reuters
Reuters

Betty Cuthbert carries the Olympic torch at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in this June 5, 2004, photo. The Australian sprint legend died on August 6, 2017, aged 79, after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.

Australian sprinter Betty Cuthbert, the only athlete to have won the Olympic 100, 200 and 400 meters titles, has died aged 79 after battling multiple sclerosis for nearly half a century, Athletics Australia said on Monday.

Cuthbert won the 100 and 200 double as a teenager at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and returned after a brief retirement to claim the 400 title in Tokyo eight years later in the final race of her career.

She also anchored Australia to the 4x100 relay gold in a world-record time at the Melbourne Games and remains the joint second most decorated Australian Olympian behind swimmer Ian Thorpe.

That relay record was one of 16 she set during her career and she was among the first batch of athletes inducted into the International Association of Athletics Federations Hall of Fame in 2012.

Cuthbert was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1969 and had spent much of the latter part of her life confined to a wheelchair.

She returned to the public eye when the Summer Games were hosted by her home city of Sydney in 2000 and was one of the bearers of the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony.

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull led a flood of tributes to Cuthbert on Monday.

"Rest in peace Betty Cuthbert — an inspiration and a champion on and off the track," he posted on his official Twitter feed.

Cathy Freeman, who lit the cauldron and won the 400 at the 2000 Olympics, said Cuthbert had been an inspiration, The Associated Press reported.

"It's a very sad day," Freeman said. "Betty is an inspiration and her story will continue to inspire Australian athletes for generations to come.

"I'm so happy I got to meet such a tremendous and gracious role model."

John Coates, who is an International Olympic Committee vice president and head of Australia's OIympic governing body, described Cuthbert as "the Golden Girl of the track and a national heroine".

"Betty battled her illness for many years and showed tremendous courage, but more importantly she always managed to smile," Coates said.

The Australian Olympic Committee said an example of Cuthbert's humility was how she prepared for the first Olympics staged in Australia. She'd bought some tickets to attend the Games as a spectator because she wasn't certain she'd qualify for the team.

Australian Sports Commission chief executive Kate Palmer said Cuthbert represented a great era in Australian sport and "was an icon for female athletes and women's sport everywhere".

Distinctive high-striding style

The sight of the blonde Cuthbert pounding down the track to victory in her distinctive high-striding style with her mouth agape was among the most enduring images of the Melbourne Olympics.

Only 18, her haul of three gold medals in one Games was unprecedented for an Australian, although swimmers Murray Rose and Dawn Fraser later matched her feat to add more gloss to the country's first Olympics.

"The Golden Girl tag attached itself to her for all the years afterwards, symbolic of her entrenchment in the collective affection of a nation," Australia's peerless Olympic historian Harry Gordon wrote of Cuthbert.

Cuthbert set four world records in 1958 but injury was to hamper her campaign at the 1960 Olympics in Rome and she retired for 18 months immediately afterwards.

A woman of deep religious convictions throughout her life, Cuthbert said an "inner voice" had persuaded her to return to the track in 1962 for a tilt at the inaugural women's 400 crown in Tokyo.

Running what she later described as the only flawless race of her career, Cuthbert stormed to victory in 52.01 seconds ahead of Britain's Ann Packer.

Her battle with multiple sclerosis began only a few years later but Gordon said it had not left her embittered.

"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," he wrote in 2000.


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