Colette Besson is always remembered in Britain as the woman who beat Lillian Board in the 400 metres at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. But in France, she is recalled as the beautiful athlete whose Olympic gold reduced even President Charles de Gaulle to tears.
After retiring from the track, Besson continued her involvement in sport through a high altitude training centre at Font Romeu in the Pyrenees, by chairing France's anti-doping programme and in working for Paris's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to win the right to stage the 2012 Olympics.
Born near Bordeaux in 1946 and trained as a physical education teacher, Besson was a moderate international standard 400m sprinter, aged 22, when she was selected for the French Olympic team in 1968. That she managed to qualify through to the final of her event was regarded by even the partisan French media as something of a surprise. But the 400m for women was then still a relatively new event, and at the high altitude of Mexico City, performances in sprint events were entirely unpredictable.
Thus, entering the finishing straight, Britain's 19-year-old "golden girl" Lillian Board was 10 metres clear of the field, the gold medal apparently hers. But Besson, her dark hair flowing, began to chase her down to snatch the title on the line in 52.03 seconds. Board was second in 52.12sec.
Besson's primacy at 400m was short-lived. The year after the Olympics, with Board running the 800m, Besson was beaten to the European 400m title in Athens by her team-mate Nicole Duclos, as both recorded the same, world-record time of 51.7sec, with Duclos getting the gold on the basis of the photo-finish.
Besson and Duclos were also part of the French relay squad that broke the 4x400m world record that year. It was in the final of that event at the European Championships that Board was able to gain a modicum of revenge. Board ran the last leg for the British team, grabbing the baton a metre behind Besson. Soon Besson had stretched her lead to 10 metres going into the back straight.
"I could hear my breathing and my footsteps, then, gradually, her breathing and the sound of her footsteps," Board recalled:
Her footsteps got louder and I thought, "I'm catching her." I prayed as we came off the last bend. I prayed that the race would not be too short. Then, for the first time in my career, I could hear the crowd screaming and I saw the tape and I went past her.
Board put her arms around Besson. "I knew she felt just as I had felt when she beat me in Mexico," she said. Board died of cancer on Boxing Day 1970, two weeks after her 22nd birthday.
After 1969, Besson's track career never again reached such heights, and she retired from competition in 1977. She continued to play an active role in the administration of French athletics and from 2002 she was chair of the board running the French anti-doping laboratory at Châtenay-Malabry outside Paris.
The French president, Jacques Chirac, said, on hearing of her death, "She will remain for me, as for many French, the smiling and emotional Olympic champion with the extraordinary stride."
- More about:
- Charles De Gaulle
- Mexico City
- Performance-Enhancing Drugs
- Running (sport)
- Sprint Running