Obituary: Elizabeth Robinson

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The Independent Culture
ELIZABETH ROBINSON's place in Olympic history was assured when, at the age of 16 in the 1928 100 metres final in Amsterdam, she became the first woman to win an athletics gold medal. She also won a silver medal in the relay but her second gold medal, won eight years later, was arguably her most astonishing achievement.

Betty "Babe" Robinson was born and grew up in the Riverdale area of Chicago, attending Thornton High School in the neighbouring suburb of Harvey. During her time there, so the story goes, she was spotted sprinting for a train by her biology teacher who suggested that they begin running together. Three weeks later she made her competitive debut after joining the powerful Illinois Women's AC.

"I had no idea that women even ran then," she said. "I grew up a hick. That is when I found out that they actually had track meets for women." She finished second on that occasion, behind Helen Filkey, then the US record holder, but in her second race - the Chicago area Olympic trials - she equalled the world record of 12.0sec.

Her heat at the Amsterdam Olympics was still only Robinson's fourth official race, but she duly won through to the final. Women had been admitted to the Games for the first time, against the wishes of its founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, as well as the Pope, and the competitors who lined up for the first track final were understandably nervous, as was the primarily male audience who found it particularly unsettling when the three Canadian finalists kis-sed each other before the race began.

One of them, Myrtle Cook, who had also equalled the world record, was disqualified for two false starts, as was the German Helene Schmidt. The four remaining runners fought a close battle right to the tape, with Robinson eventually winning in 12.2sec from the other two Canadians, both timed at 12.3. The Canadian team manager lodged a protest, but it was in vain.

"I can remember standing in the middle of the field after the race and seeing the American flag raised and hearing the `Star Spangled Banner' and all the people singing it," Robinson said. "Then I walked off the field and started crying like a baby."

Upon her return home she was greeted by a ticker-tape welcome on Broadway in New York and on State Street in Chicago. Her name went into the record books in the year that Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. But three years later, a crash in a biplane Robinson was flying with her cousin near Chicago very nearly took her life. She suffered concussion, a broken leg, a crushed arm and a severe head injuries. "If I had not been in such good physical condition," she said, "I would not have lived through it."

She was unconscious for seven weeks and was unable to walk normally for two years, having had a silver rod and pin inserted to stabilise the leg, which was placed in a hip-to-heel cast. For four months after regaining consciousness she was in a wheelchair or on crutches and the leg became half an inch shorter.

She missed out on the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles but graduated from Northwestern University, from where she became the first woman to be awarded a varsity "N", and by the time the Berlin Games came around she was training again. However, she could still not bend her knee so she had to make a standing rather than a crouching start in the 100 metres and was effectively restricted to relay-running.

The American 4x100m team in 1936, with Robinson on the third leg, was not fancied to beat the strong German quartet but when, at the end of Robinson's leg, the German runner fumbled the baton, victory was handed to the Americans and Robinson had completed a remarkable comeback.

She retired shortly afterwards, having held several world records at distances from 60 to 100 yards. She married Richard Schwartz, who owned an upholstery firm, in 1939 and maintained her involvement in the sport through time-keeping and travelling the US speaking on behalf of the Women's Athletic Association and the Girls' Athletic Association.

She was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1977, when she said: "I suppose most Americans don't even recognise me. It happened so long ago I still can't believe the attention I get for something I did so long ago."

Adam Szreter

Elizabeth Robinson, athlete: born Riverdale, Illinois 23 August 1911; married 1939 Richard Schwartz (one son, one daughter); died 18 May 1999.