Coates pays tribute to Olympic great Betty Cuthbert
16 August 2017
Betty Cuthbert, the heroine of the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne – forever “our Golden Girl”!
As an 18 year old from the Sydney suburb of Ermington and a member of the Western Suburbs Athletics Club, Betty won the 100m, 200m and ran the final leg of the 4 x 100m relay along with Shirley Strickland, Norma Croker and Fleur Mellor, winning in world record time.
Betty joined Murray Rose in winning three gold medals in Melbourne and leading the way for Australia’s record 13 gold medal haul.
Betty had torn a hamstring muscle before the Rome Olympics where she was co-Captain of our Athletics Team with Kevan Gosper and failed to survive the second round of the 100m. She retired after those Games.
But it was neither the injury nor the disappointment of Rome that influenced her decision to retire, as much as her hatred of being a public figure. “It became unbearable…” she later wrote. “It got to the point where I didn’t want to go anywhere, but if I did, I only went where there wouldn’t be too many people”.
Olympic Historian, Harry Gordon records that when after 18 months, the idea of making a comeback entered her mind, she tried to push it away. The urging became more insistent, so much so that she could not sleep. “A voice was telling me that I had to run again”, she recalled in 1992. “I knew it was God, and even though I tried to resist, finally just had to give in”. On the strength of this spiritual persuasion, she took advice from her coach June Ferguson, who suggested she try the 400m. She spent some time with Percy Cerutty, Herb Elliott’s coach, at Portsea, improving her endurance, then began an intense training program under Ferguson’s guidance.
Betty won selection for the 400m in Tokyo 1964 and qualified for the final behind Britain’s Ann Packer, taking it easy. Starting from lane 2 in the final, with Packer and her other opposition outside her, she caught Packer coming out of the final bend, drawing on all her reserves, and all her sprinting capacity over the last 100m to win the race in 52 seconds, 0.2 sec ahead of Packer with her Australian team mate, Judy Amoore, third.
“It wasn’t really me running” she said. “It was as if my body had been taken over and I felt at great peace afterwards. I asked God, ‘Have I done enough?’.
I remember the race as if I was there – as a 10 year old having been listening on ABC radio with the rest of Australia.
Dawn also won in Tokyo, bringing her, Murray’s and Betty’s Olympic gold medal tallies to four each. The three of them remained our greatest gold medallists for 40 years, until Ian Thorpe took his tally to five in Athens 2004.
During her career Betty held 10 individual world records and four in teams.
Three Olympics and two Commonwealth Games.
1956 - the world trophy for Australasia (Helms Award) and ABC Sportsperson of the Year.
1965 - member of the British Empire.
1983 – the IOC Olympic Order.
1984 – member of the Order of Australia.
1994 – Sport Australia Hall of Fame Legend.
1998 – National Living Treasure.
2001 – inducted to the Sydney Cricket Sports Ground Trust Walk of Honour.
2003 – statue unveiled outside Melbourne Cricket Ground.
2007 – NSW Hall of Champions Legend.
2012 – the only Australian among the ten inaugural inductees to the IAAF Hall of Fame and for which her training mate and by then, Athletics Australia President David Prince, organised for Betty to make the trip to Monte Carlo with Rhonda and two nurses.
Betty already had MS when I got to know her in the late ‘70s fundraising for our Olympic teams. She was always willing to help and I drove her to many functions.
When Betty moved to West Australia she was always ready to help with our fundraising here until her health deteriorated.
When the Olympics came to Sydney, or more particularly Homebush, just across the Parramatta River from Ermington where Betty had grown up, it was only natural that she be involved.
When we were bidding, with regular evaluation visits by IOC members and others, the NSW Government named its new Rivercat ferries that we used to transport them from the city to Sydney Olympic Park after our greatest female Olympians, and Betty was among them.
In March 1994, she was present for the naming of the Betty Cuthbert Grandstand at the Sydney Olympic Park Athletics Centre, which became the warm-up tracks for our Olympic competition. I have a photo of Betty with my then 10 year old daughter Fiona from that occasion – a proud moment for Fiona as her school house at Roseville College was named Cuthbert.
The Sydney Olympic Games Opening Ceremony was the opportunity for Betty’s final Olympic appearance. President Michael Knight and I had decided on Cathy Freeman to light the Cauldron and it was Michael’s suggestion that all of those involved in carrying the Olympic torch into the stadium be women, to mark the centenary of women’s participation in the Games. It was my call to select them and also the 10 of our greatest Olympians, including Marjorie Jackson, to carry the Olympic Flag into the stadium.
This was easy.
Raelene Boyle followed Herb Elliott emerging from the tunnel, the flame then went to Betty, or more accurately, to light the torch attached to Betty’s wheelchair, with Raelene pushing her before lighting Dawn’s torch, then to Shirley Strickland, Shane Gould, Debbie Flintoff-King and finally, Cathy.
In recent years I have not seen so much of Betty, but we both made the trip to Point Lonsdale, near Geelong, for her dear friend and mine, Julius (Judy) Patching’s 90th birthday in January 2007. Judy had been the chief starter at the Melbourne Olympics and they enjoyed a very special lifetime friendship. Judy always called her “Skip” or “Skipper” in recognition of her captaincy in Rome. They spoke by phone most weeks until Judy’s passing in 2009.
The last occasion was in November 2015 when I visited Betty at Greenfields Aged Care in Mandurah with Rhonda. Betty looked a million dollars and we talked about some wonderful memories. We knew there would be no more travelling east for Betty to Olympic functions and I am so pleased we had that final time together.
Betty has left an indelible mark on our Australian Olympic history and if we ever needed reminding, it was evident in the outpouring of tributes that followed her passing, both in Australia and overseas. The International Athletics Federation (IAAF) President, Lord Sebastian Coe led a moment’s silence during their recent World Championships in London and our Australian athletes wore black armbands. Betty’s passing was lead news on the BBC throughout the day.
Seb Coe sent this tribute for today’s service:
“… Betty Cuthbert will forever remain an icon of world athletics and inspiration to all who battle past injury to greatness.”
Thank you Betty.
John Coates - AOC President