Vale Betty Cuthbert
7 August 2017
AOC: The Australian Olympic Committee is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of one of Australia’s greatest ever Olympic athletes, Betty Cuthbert.
Having being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1969, the Australian track star passed away in Perth aged 79.
The Australian Olympic Committee extends our condolences to the Cuthbert family, her friends, her carer Rhonda Gillam and a nation that idolised the track great.
AOC President John Coates paid tribute to Cuthbert saying “Betty was the Golden Girl of the track and a national heroine. It’s very sad to lose such a great champion.”
“Betty battled her illness for many years and showed tremendous courage, but more importantly she always managed to smile,” Coates said.
The track-star burst onto the scene at the 1956 Olympic Games as a little-known 18-year-old whose uncertainty around making the Games saw her buy tickets to attend as a spectator just in case she missed the Australian Team.
History would show that instead of watching the world’s best from the stands, she became the world’s best on the track.
Australian Olympic Historian Harry Gordon captures that moment best; “The heroine of the main stadium, the athlete who became known as Australia’s Golden Girl, was a tearaway sprinter called Betty Cuthbert, then aged 18. She had straw-coloured hair and a distinctive, wide mouthed manner of gulping air that made her look to be roaring exultantly as she streaked down the track.”
Having set a new Olympic record in the heats of 11.4 seconds, she claimed gold in the 100m before also taking out the 200m event.
Cuthbert then combined with Shirley de la Hunty, Norma Fleming (Croker) and Fleur Wenham (Mellor) to win the 4x100m relay while setting a new world record. The result ensured Cuthbert became the first Australian to win three gold medals at the same Olympic Games.
“On the track in 1956 in Melbourne she joined a special band of athletes who started what we call the “golden era” in Australian sport, Betty was a member of a unique band of athletes who inspired thousands of Australians,” Coates said.
After injury cruelled her attempts to defend her titles at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games and a retirement that did not last, Cuthbert was named co-captain of the Australian track team for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.
It was there, she claimed her fourth and final Olympic gold medal after running a flawless 400m final.
“She came back after 18 months (after retiring) to tackle an event that had newly achieved Olympic recognition, the 400 metres, and at her last showdown in Tokyo she showed tremendous toughness to beat runners who were thought to be her superiors,” said Gordon.
“She always regarded that single gold medal of 1964 as a far greater triumph than any of her three in 1956.”
Marlene Mathews finished in third behind Cuthbert in both the 100m and 200m events in 1956 and remembers her fondly.
“I have never met anyone that had such great faith and determination. It was this faith that kept her going for so long and through the most difficult times.
“I once as asked Betty how she would like to be remembered and she said ‘I never want to be forgotten.’ Her triumphs on the athletic track will make sure she will always be remembered as the ‘Golden Girl’ of 1956 and the wonderful comeback to win the 400m in Tokyo in 1964.”
Cuthbert’s feats have remained an inspiration to those that have followed. Sydney 2000 Olympic Champion Cathy Freeman was one of those to follow in the esteemed footsteps of the sporting legend.
“It’s a very sad day, there’s no doubt about it,” said Freeman.
“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, and Olympic Champion.”
Prior to the end of the century only Dawn Fraser and Murray Rose had matched Cuthbert’s gold medal winning feats. In 2004 Ian Thorpe became the only Australian to now have more gold medals than Cuthbert with five.
One of the most touching moments of the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Games was a wheelchair-bound Cuthbert being pushed around the Olympic track by friend Raelene Boyle while carrying the Olympic Torch.
“We were so pleased that she could participate in the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Games which was so special to her given the proximity of the Olympic Stadium to her family home in Ermington,” Coates said.
“Following her diagnosis of MS, she dedicated much of her life to fundraising to help find a cure,” continued Coates.
“She was also a great supporter of fundraising efforts for Australia’s Olympic Teams having made herself available for every event in Western Australia up until 2012.”
Respected world-wide, Cuthbert was an inaugural inductee to the IAAF Hall of Fame, which began in 2012, and is also a member of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame and the Athletics Australia Hall of Fame.