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Betty Cuthbert, 'Golden girl' who ran into the history books
Betty Cuthbert met Usain Bolt in Barcelona in 2012. The champion sprinter, sitting in a hotel foyer, had spotted the Australian in her wheelchair and leapt towards her. "Four gold medals and 16 world records!" Cuthbert smiled her old, familiar, open-mouthed smile in thanks. "It's the climax of my career," she said.
Later, on the stage of the Palau Nacional, Bolt bowed to touch champagne glasses with Cuthbert, one of the first 24 athletes – and the only Australian – inducted into the International Association of Athletics Federations Hall of Fame. The audience stood in applause, some tearful, as Rhonda Gillam wheeled her friend to the stage. The legs that once ran faster than any women's legs in the world and carried the hopes of a nation had been stilled by multiple sclerosis.
If Bolt is the greatest athlete of the 21st century, other inductees were the greatest of the 20th. They included Sebastian Coe, Iolanda Balas, Sergey Bubka, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Alberto Juantorena, Kipchoge Keino, Edwin Moses, Dan O'Brien, Peter Snell, Irena Szewinska, Abebe Bikila, Fanny Blankers-Koen, Mildred Didrikson, Carl Lewis, Paavo Nurmi, Al Oerter, Jesse Owens, Adhemar da Silva, Michael Johnson and Emil Zatopek.
Cuthbert was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1969. Her disease developed slowly but her strong Christian faith kept its awfulness at bay. She dismissed self-pity. Living in Mandurah, Western Australia, she said in 1996: "I know I'm going to walk again." She repeated this belief in a nursing home in 2012, even though the only limb she could move was her left arm, with which she steered her wheelchair.
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Elizabeth Cuthbert was born in Merrylands, Sydney, 20 minutes ahead of her sister, Marie, on April 20, 1938. When the twins were five, the family moved to Ermington, where her father, Leslie, opened a flower and vegetable plant nursery.
Betty would run to Ermington Primary School, run around the playground, run home after school and run around the neighbourhood until called to dinner. By the time she was eight, she was winning NSW running titles. "I knew then I had a gift from God," she recalled. Her mother, Marion, went to a Presbyterian church; Betty and Marie felt they were Christians.
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At Parramatta Home Science School, Cuthbert met June Ferguson, a physical education teacher who had competed in the sprint relay and long jump at the 1948 London Olympics.
When Ferguson asked her to join the Western Suburbs Athletics Club, Betty said: "Mum said I can't go to training yet 'cause the nights are too dark and too cold."
Ferguson spoke to Marion Cuthbert. Betty, 13, began to train, won sprints running barefoot at the home science schools' championships on the Sydney Cricket Ground and won the Australian schoolgirls under-14 100-yards title.
Leaving school at 15, she worked in a children's clothing factory before joining her father's nursery. At 17, she entered senior sprinting ranks and chased Marlene Mathews, who equalled Australian Marjorie Jackson's world record for 200 metres early in 1956.
Cuthbert spent most of her savings on spectator tickets for herself and her family at the Melbourne Olympics that year. She was not ranked in the world's 15 top 100-metre runners at the start of 1956 but she beat Mathews in September – and broke Jackson's 200 record. She would not be a spectator.
Golden Girl, the athlete's autobiography written with Jim Webster, notes that Betty "trotted into the Olympic Village in Melbourne, still a shy little thing at 18" who had never been away from home for any length of time. In six days, she ran into history, winning the 100 and 200 and anchoring the winning 4x100 relay team, all with mouth agape and a long, driving stride.
She said of the 100: "Towards the end my mouth was open so wide it began hurting but I thought: 'You can't stop to shut it now'." After she took the 200, The Argus newspaper called her "Golden Girl". The tag stuck. Harry Gordon, Australia's historian of the Olympic Games, said it was "symbolic of her entrenchment in the collective affection of a nation." A main shopping street in Ermington was renamed Betty Cuthbert Avenue.
She didn't like the adulation. Her life wasn't her own. She didn't go out with a young man until she was 19. "I wanted a man I could look up to so that, when we were introduced, people would look at him as well as me." She never found him.
Marlene Mathews won the sprint double at the 1958 Cardiff Commonwealth Games and both took a back seat to the brilliant American Wilma Rudolph at the 1960 Rome Olympics, when Cuthbert was injured. She asked her god whether she had done enough with her athletics gift, taking the lack of a reply as an indication that she could retire. Tired of being a public figure, she wanted to go to dances and parties, to wear a dress more often than a tracksuit.
Fourteen months into retirement, Cuthbert felt that her life had become aimless. She came back for the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, was unplaced in the sprints but ran stirringly from behind to bring victory to Australia in the sprint relay. Ferguson set her for the 400m at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a new event for women.
Now she felt she was under instructions from her god. "I heard this voice telling me to run again. I lay awake at nights wondering what to do. The voice came back, again and again. In the end I said, out loud, 'You win. I'll run again'."
John Nolan, a sports podiatrist, found a dislocated bone in her foot about four months before the Games. He manipulated it back into place, rebuilt muscles around it and treated her whole body's nervous system. Cuthbert won by a metre from England's Ann Packer. "I thanked God after crossing the line," she said. "It was my secret. I was embarrassed at the time. Now I try to save as many people for Him as possible." Packer said: "She is a mystical girl with very strong beliefs. She has an inner understanding of herself. She had a stronger belief in herself than I had."
Nolan believed she had won in Melbourne on ability, but won in Tokyo on courage and faith. It was her last race. Back home, she placed her gold medal on the communion table at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church in Macquarie Street, Sydney.
She had "dabbled in Christianity" until attending an address in 1985 by the Rev Gordon Moyes, who urged "privately practising Christians" to go public. Cuthbert did. "A lot of people think born-again Christians are a bit loopy," she said. "I don't mind that but I wish they would take time to find out what it means." For Cuthbert, it meant relying on the Bible's concepts of god. It meant Adam committed high treason in the Garden of Eden, leaving everyone to inherit "the bad seed". Christ, born of a virgin, had no bad seed.
Asked if all that required too huge a leap of faith for most people, she said: "We all live with faith. Faith is part of natural life." She agreed with Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher who thought the gulf between humankind and god could be bridged only by a leap of faith.
Betty Cuthbert is survived by her sisters Marie and Jean, their families, and her carer, Rhonda Gillam.
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