Athletics: Only the 'Athlete of the Century' beat Williamson to gold

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The Independent Online

Fanny Blankers-Koen, the quadruple Olympic champion of 1948 who died last Sunday, was remembered this week by the woman who chased her home in the last of her individual wins at Wembley Stadium.

Now 77 and living in Colwyn Bay, Audrey Mitchell provided the rainswept home crowd with a warm glow as she earned an unexpected silver medal for Britain in the 200 metres in her maiden name of Audrey Williamson.

Recently, Mitchell was sent a film of that final on video. "The camera was on her the whole time," she said with a chuckle. "You wouldn't have known I was there."

What the 21-year-old British Army runner did not know at the time was that Blankers-Koen had very nearly not been there herself, having endured something close to a mental breakdown after earning the 80m hurdles and 100m golds. The 30-year-old Dutch housewife and mother felt such pressure to maintain her winning form that, shortly before the 200m semi-finals, she pleaded with her husband, Jan, to withdraw and go back home to see her two children.

History records who won that argument as Blankers-Koen went on to run away with the 200m, finishing in 24.4sec to Williamson's 25.1, with Audrey Patterson, of the United States, taking bronze in 25.2, and then helping to secure the Netherlands the sprint relay title. She ended up winning four of the nine events for women at the 1948 Olympics, and might have earned two more titles in the high jump and long jump had the timetable allowed. She was world record holder in both events.

"I didn't hear about her wanting to pull out until some time afterwards," Mitchell reflected. "My first thought was 'what a pity', although you don't know, someone else could have beaten me. I could have had an extra surge because it was she I was trying to beat."

To the 21-year-old Williamson and her young team-mates, the presence of Blankers-Koen in the competitive ranks was startling. "We thought: 'Gosh. She's ancient', Mitchell recalled. "She was married and she had children. We couldn't sort of... envisage it. One was written off at 25 then.

"I wasn't aware of her before the Games. It wasn't like nowadays with television, when you know all about your opponents. I didn't actually know that she was so brilliant until she won the gold medals in the 100 metres and the hurdles. Then I knew all about what I was going to be up against. Very much so. She was the target."

Williamson herself, however, was something of a surprise package, having achieved most of her success within Army matches. Indeed, the eventual Olympic 200m silver medallist had run her first 200 metres only a matter of nine weeks before the Games, and was only coached for the last five weeks.

She still has the letter she received from the women's team manager containing the red, white and blue ribbons that were to be sewn on to kit that had to be made by the competitors themselves. The instructions on shorts were explicit. "Shorts should be of black material [sateen or similar], and the inside leg measurement should be at least four inches level across the bottom when worn, and no more than four inches wider than the largest part of the thigh... PS With reference to the request for coupons for shorts, shoes and stockings. No coupons have been made available."

During the Games, she and the other British women stayed at a Domestic Science College in Ecclestone Square along with their Australia and New Zealand counterparts. "They had their rations with them, which included steak for breakfast," Mitchell said. "We hadn't seen steak for years - we were absolutely amazed. We would never have thought about having steak for breakfast anyway."

It was the first time women had been allowed to run the 200m at the Olympics, and Williamson reached the final in good spirits having equalled the British record of 24.9sec.

But the conditions on the big day, 6 August, were transformed by a downpour. "It was desperate weather-drenching rain," Mitchell recalled. "We arrived at the start soaked and got very chilled waiting to get away.

"When I look at pictures taken during the final, you can see all the black umbrellas up in the crowd. It was a cinder track, and it retained the water. After the race you can see that my left knee, the one that touched the ground when I was on my marks, was absolutely black from the cinders.

"It was not until we came round the final bend completely that we could see how the race was going. Fanny was drawn inside me in lane one, so the one I had in my sights was Audrey Patterson, who was outside me. I was determined not to make my final burst until I was level with the medal podium, as my coach, Harry Harbin, had told me.

"I knew I hadn't won, but I can't honestly say I saw her absolutely miles ahead. You are so bound up in your own race, you don't even hear the noise of the crowd, and there must have been about 80,000 people there shouting their heads off.

"I didn't talk to Fanny before. Afterwards I went up and shook hands with her and said 'well done.' We weren't bosom friends. At that level you are not, actually. But she was an incredible athlete. She was obviously a terrific all-rounder, very tall and with a very long stride. I've often thought how amazing it was that she was able to train in Nazi-occupied Holland during the war. She can't have been getting wonderful rations..."

Williamson's efforts drew widespread praise from the British reporters of the day. The 1924 Olympic 100m champion, Harold Abrahams, wrote in The Times: "There was never any doubt of the 30-year-old Mrs Blankers-Koen's supremacy in the 200 metres... but Miss Williamson did extremely well... she was yards behind in the home straight but showed the utmost determination to wrest second place from Miss Patterson, the coloured US runner, and Shirley Strickland of Australia.. Of course Fanny Blankers-Koen of Holland won easily, but she is in a class by herself."

Roy Moor described how Williamson and the other British runner, Margaret Walker, were still level with 50 yards to go, when "a great burst carried Miss Williamson past Strickland and with almost the last stride past Patterson into second place."

Another correspondent clearly saw the event in the context of the ongoing debate over whether it was too much to expect women to run as far as 200 metres competitively. "Mrs Blankers-Koen won by less than a couple of her rapidly shortening strides, weakening indeed visibly after her prolonged all-out effort on the sodden track... Miss Williamson did well to gain second place in such a gruelling race - a shade too gruelling for women, as many people thought. Even Mrs Blankers-Koen looked white and strained at the finish."

For Williamson, the race represented the peak of her career, although she continued within the sport until 1954, when she injured her knee long jumping. Four years later she left the Army having married Major Brian Mitchell, with whom she had four children. She still swims 20 lengths four times a week.

The prospect of the Olympics returning to London in 2012 is one that she welcomes. "We took the Games on at short notice after the war when there was no one else," she said. "I think it did give the country a terrific feeling of patriotism."

Looking back on her time in the sport, she accepted that her main claim to fame was that she had been second to Fanny Blankers-Koen. "But," she added, "if you are second to anyone it's just as well to be second to the person who was voted Athlete of the Century."

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