Betty Cuthbert's Tokyo Anniversary


She was Australia’s original golden girl and this was her defining moment.
Betty Cuthbert - Australia’s greatest track and field athlete - 40 years ago this weekend ended her athletics career in glory in one of the sport’s most remarkable comebacks.
Cuthbert was dubbed the Golden Girl after winning three gold medals as an 18-year-old at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
The speedy blonde who ran with her mouth wide open won Australia’s first gold of those games in the 100m and added victories in the 200m and 4x100m relay to establish herself as a national heroine.
A hamstring injury stopped Cuthbert in her first race at the Rome games in 1960 and two years later she retired.
But one more Olympics beckoned and Cuthbert decided to make a comeback to prepare for the 1964 Tokyo Games.
The girls I used to beat by yards were all beating me,'' Cuthbert said of her early comeback efforts. But she made the 1964 Olympic team to compete in the first ever women's 400m event. At 26, some judges believed Cuthbert was well past her best but she was determined to prove them wrong. Politics played a part in Cuthbert's fate with the North Korean world record holder in the 400m Dan Shin-geum barred from competing due to a dispute between her government and the International Olympic Committee. Despite a painful foot injury she had hidden from team officials, Cuthbert coasted through the opening round and the semi-finals. In what would be her last race on October 17, 1964, Cuthbert started fast in the final and then slowed down slightly until she hit the home straight. She finished too strongly for Britain's Ann Packer to win in 52.0 seconds with fellow Australian Judy Amoore third. Cuthbert - still the only woman to win Olympic gold in the 100m, 200m and 400m - would later describe her victory as the only perfect race I ever ran’’.
It was the greatest and most famous 400m run by an Australian woman until Cathy Freeman carried the whole nation to victory at the Sydney Olympics.
Cuthbert retired after her career crowning achievement in Tokyo, a games remembered more for controversies surrounding fellow Olympic superstar Dawn Fraser.
Fraser was banned after the games by swimming authorities for 10 years for defying orders not to march in the opening ceremony, swimming in a non-official team swimsuit and for souveniring a flag from the Japanese Emperor’s Palace.
Fraser still created her own piece of Olympic history in Tokyo with a third successive victory in the 100m freestyle.
And she and Cuthbert remain Australia’s most successful female Olympians with four gold medals apiece.
Since the early 1980s Cuthbert has battled the potentially crippling disease multiple sclerosis, while helping to raise funds for research into the condition.
For some years she has been wheelchair-bound and it was one of the memorable moments of the Sydney 2000 Olympic opening ceremony when she carried the Olympic torch around the stadium along with fellow golden girls Fraser, Shirley Strickland de la Hunty, Shane Gould and Debbie Flintoff-King.
A born-again Christian, Cuthbert at 66 lives in Perth and made a rare appearance during the recent federal election campaign in support of Vietnamese boat people.
But she will always be the Golden Girl and this Sunday marks 40 years since she cemented herself in the pantheon of Australian and world sport.