The Australian sprinter who won it all
Betty Cuthbert 1938–2017
Betty Cuthbert was crushingly nervous ahead of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. A shy 18-year-old who’d never been so far from her Sydney home, the Australian sprinter wilted whenever an interviewer asked her a question. “All I could say,” she recalled, “was ‘yes’ and ‘no.’” But those nerves melted away as soon as she was on the track. Cuthbert won the 100 meters, 200 meters, and 4x100-meter relay— and was anointed the nation’s “golden girl” by the Australian press. “Being young and shy never held me back. It spurred me on,” Cuthbert said. “Adrenaline runs through your body.”
Born and raised in suburban Sydney, Cuthbert “worked in her father’s plant nursery as a teenager while training in her spare time,” said The New York Times. Convinced she wouldn’t make it onto Australia’s team for the 1956 Games, she “purchased tickets as a spectator when the Olympics neared.” But Cuthbert was the stand-out star of Melbourne, becoming the first Australian to win three Olympic golds. Cuthbert “failed to defend the titles at the 1960 Games in Rome owing to injury,” said The Guardian (U.K.). She took a two-year break from sprinting and considered quitting the sport. But Cuthbert changed her mind in 1962 after hearing what she thought was the voice of God urging her to run again. “The voice came back again and again,” she said. “Finally, I said, ‘OK, you win. I’ll run again.’ As soon as I said that, this wonderful feeling came right through my body, and I was mentally keen to want to do something again.” Cuthbert took gold in the 400 meters at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, becoming the first athlete in the world to win four different Olympic events.
Cuthbert was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1969, after which she “dedicated much of her life toward raising awareness about the condition,” said The Sydney Morning Herald. “I know people listen to me,” she said, “because they know what I used to do before—run.” Cuthbert returned to the Olympic stage one final time in 2000, when she carried the torch during the opening ceremony of the Sydney Games. “To hear the roar of the crowd when I came out,” she said. “I still get goose bumps when I think about it now.” ■