Mike Rowbottom @insidethegames.biz

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Heritage Legends Reception that took place in Monaco on Sunday (December 2) evening was, essentially, a devotional event.

Paavo Nurmi, Jesse Owens, Fanny Blankers-Koen and Emil Zatopek were among a dozen athletes being honoured  as the first recipients of a scheme to mark their deeds with commemorative plaques.

The audience included representatives and family members of several deceased athletes who stepped up, with occasionally touching awkwardness, to present IAAF President Sebastian Coe with historic artefacts from their relatives’ careers.

The donations took place to the beaming satisfaction of Chris Turner, in charge of the IAAF Heritage Collection, who has himself devoted many hours seeking out items of enduring sporting interest before employing a relentless combination of charm and persuasion to ensure they may be fitly displayed and celebrated.

Letters and telegrams sent to Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won four golds at the 1948 London Olympics, were presented to the IAAF Heritage Collection in Monaco this week by her daughter, Fanny Blankers ©IAAF
Letters and telegrams sent to Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won four golds at the 1948 London Olympics, were presented to the IAAF Heritage Collection in Monaco this week by her daughter, Fanny Blankers ©IAAF

These items included an Ohio State University running vest worn by Owens, Zatopek’s slightly threadbare woollen training jacket and one of his training caps, and a bronze bust of Nurmi that was presented to him in 1925 by an American millionaire admirer.

From the family of Blankers-Koen, represented  by her daughter, Fanny Blankers, the donation took the form of a collection of telegrams and letters received by the Dutch mother-of-two who, at the age of 30, won gold in the 100 metres, 80m hurdles, 200m and 4x100m at the 1948 London Olympics.

Included among these congratulatory epistles, and carefully translated into English, is a painstakingly scripted letter of astonishing spite.

Datelined Amsterdam, July 26 1949, the letter reads:

“Madam,

“It is still not done with you as a wedded wife and mother of two poor children, to be running and (high)jumping bare legged? And that at your age, I mean for sports!

“A wedded wife and mother should be taking care of the household. What you are doing, you should leave it for the youth!

“Actually you should never have gotten married, because in each city you have another lover. What I heard about you is very poor and low.

“Those poor children of yours. Lately a lady in Amsterdam told me, they do not even know they have a mother. And your old husband just has to cope with all of this.

“A 34 years old married woman with two children who runs and jumps bare legged is simply disgusting.  Just go and do some better and useful job!”

The letter is signed by Lady v.d. Goes v Naters.

Fanny Blankers-Koen having the nerve to run
Fanny Blankers-Koen having the nerve to run "bare legged" at the 1948 London Olympics where she won four gold medals ©Getty Images

Coe himself recalled how Blankers-Koen, who became known as the Flying Housewife, nearly missed out on one of her four 1948 golds because she was shopping at Harrod’s. 

"We used to see each other at the Hengelo meeting,” he recalled. 

"And she would tell me how she almost missed the 200m because she was shopping in Knightsbridge. She had to get a bus back and she arrived with only two or three minutes to spare. It was lucky she did, because knowing what the British officials were like if she had been two or three minutes the other side she wouldn’t have been allowed to race!”

Shortly before the 200m semi-finals Blankers-Koen had pleaded with her husband, Jan, to withdraw and go back home to see her two children.

History records who won that argument as she went on to run away with the 200m before helping to secure The Netherlands the sprint relay title.

She ended up winning four of the nine events for women at the 1948 Olympics, and might have earned two more titles in the high jump and long jump had the timetable allowed. She was world record holder in both events.

Blankers-Koen, who died in 2004 aged 85, had her last moment of glory in 1999 - coincidentally in Monaco, where, at an IAAF Gala, she was declared the Female Athlete of the Century. As the award was announced, she could be clearly heard to say: "You mean it is me who has won?”

In the week of Blankers-Koen’s death, I spoke to the runner who chased her home in the last of her individual wins at Wembley Stadium.

Britain's Audrey Williamson, pictured extreme left, vividly recalled the 200m final at the London Olympics where she chased Fanny Blankers-Koen home for silver ©Getty Images
Britain's Audrey Williamson, pictured extreme left, vividly recalled the 200m final at the London Olympics where she chased Fanny Blankers-Koen home for silver ©Getty Images

Then 77 and living in Colwyn Bay, Audrey Mitchell provided the rainswept home crowd with a warm glow as she earned an unexpected silver medal for Britain in the 200 metres in her maiden name of Audrey Williamson.

Mitchell had been sent a film of that final on video. "The camera was on her the whole time," she said with a chuckle. "You wouldn't have known I was there."

Blankers-Koen, doubts banished, went on to run away with the 200m, finishing in 24.4sec to Williamson's 25.1, with Audrey Patterson, of the United States, taking bronze in 25.2.

"I didn't hear about her wanting to pull out until some time afterwards," Mitchell reflected. "My first thought was 'what a pity', although you don't know, someone else could have beaten me. I could have had an extra surge because it was she I was trying to beat."

To the 21-year-old Williamson and her young team-mates, the presence of Blankers-Koen in the competitive ranks was startling. "We thought: 'Gosh. She's ancient', Mitchell recalled. "She was married and she had children. We couldn't sort of... envisage it. One was written off at 25 then.

"I wasn't aware of her before the Games. It wasn't like nowadays with television, when you know all about your opponents. I didn't actually know that she was so brilliant until she won the gold medals in the 100 metres and the hurdles. Then I knew all about what I was going to be up against. Very much so. She was the target."

Williamson still has the letter she received from the women's team manager containing the red, white and blue ribbons that were to be sewn on to kit that had to be made by the competitors themselves. The instructions on shorts were explicit. "Shorts should be of black material [sateen or similar], and the inside leg measurement should be at least four inches level across the bottom when worn, and no more than four inches wider than the largest part of the thigh... PS With reference to the request for coupons for shorts, shoes and stockings. No coupons have been made available."

Mitchell added: "I didn't talk to Fanny before. Afterwards I went up and shook hands with her and said 'well done.' We weren't bosom friends. At that level you are not, actually. But she was an incredible athlete. She was obviously a terrific all-rounder, very tall and with a very long stride. I've often thought how amazing it was that she was able to train in Nazi-occupied Holland during the war. She can't have been getting wonderful rations..."

Looking back on her time in the sport, she accepted that her main claim to fame was that she had been second to Fanny Blankers-Koen. "But," she added, "if you are second to anyone it's just as well to be second to the person who was voted Athlete of the Century."