Blankers Jnr: 'My mother only enjoyed herself when she was being worshipped'

Fanny Blankers-Koen was the undisputed star of the 1948 London Olympics but a biography that has never been published in English reveals a darker side to her brilliance, writes Simon Turnbull

Sunday 24 July 2011 00:00 BST

So who will emerge as the definitive face of the London Olympics? One year and three days to go before the opening ceremony, posters of the potential ultimate star of the five-ringed circus are everywhere: Jessica Ennis, Tom Daley, Rebecca Adlington, Usain Bolt. Ennis's head has even been measured for a waxwork model at Madame Tussauds.

The last time the Games came to town, in 1948, the abiding image was of Fanny Blankers-Koen breasting the tape on the cinder track at Wembley Stadium. For the first time in history, a woman was the star turn at an Olympic Games.

As a 30-year-old mother of two, Blankers-Koen blazed a ground-breaking trail for womankind, winning gold in the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4 x 100m relay. Sixty-three years on, she remains the only female athlete to have gleaned four track-and-field gold medals from a single Olympic Games. MarionJones won three in Sydney in 2000 but she, as the world knows now, was powered by the products of a Californian drugs factory.

Blankers-Koen was known to the world as the convention-busting "Flying Dutch Housewife". On her triumphant return from Londonshe was presented with a bicycle by the City of Amsterdam. In 1999, at a gala ceremony in Monte Carlo, she was proclaimed Female Athlete of the 20th Century by the International Association of Athletics Federations. She died in January 2004, aged 85.

Little else is known about the star of the last London Olympics – outside Holland, at any rate. Within its borders, the story of the true Fanny Blankers-Koen has been in the public domain for eight years now. It was in 2003, a year before her death, that a warts-and-all biography was published in her homeland. Called Een Koningin Met Mannenbenen – "a queen with man's legs" – it was written by Kees Kooman, a sportswriter, author and investigative journalist. It was lauded as "a pearl among sports books", to quote one of many glowing reviews, but it has never been published in English.

Kooman penned a revealing portrait, stripping away the rough Etch A Sketch image that persists outside Holland. Blankers-Koen emerged as not just a phenomenon of an athlete – a world record-breaker as a sprinter, hurdler, high jumper, long jumper and pentathlete – but as a cold, driven individual who spent the latter years of her life as a sad, lonely figure suffering from heart problems, brain damage and Alzheimer's disease.

Her daughter, Fanny Blankers Jnr, told Kooman: "I think my mother never loved herself and, the other way round, she could not give love and friendship herself to other people. Laying an arm around your shoulder, like my father used to do, was an impossibility for her. My motheronly enjoyed herself when she was being worshipped."

Fanny Snr's brother, Huib Koen, told Kooman: "My sisterwas a girl who always did what she wanted to do but, to be honest with you, she was really always a bitch."

Kooman himself says: "I wanted to show the real person in the book, the human side. I think a biography should be honest and that doesn't happen too often in sports. Fanny Blankers-Koen was very complicated. I think most real sports stars are. It is why they reach the top.

"Fanny wasn't only the shy, nice Dutch housewife. Sport was everything to her and she wanted to win in everything. If she was out on her bike and someone was ahead of her she had to beat them. When she was 65 and she was told about someone knitting a sweater in a week, she was so jealous she had to do it herself.

"Sport was more important to her than her children. Her daughter and her son were both critical of her. As her daughter said, she didn't love herself. She had problems with confidence. I think she was searching for it on the track.

"She was a very difficult character and the end of her life was horrible. She was in a psychiatric hospital. She had Alzheimer's and they had to tie her down with ropes on her bed because she was beating people with her arms."

In death, the Female Athlete of the 20th Century lies buried near Schiphol Airport. "It's very noisy," her biographer says. "It's a horrible place for such a great Dutch person as Fanny Blankers-Koen to be buried. In Britain you have a kind of sports culture that we don't have here in Holland. If you asked 10 people on the street now: 'Who is Fanny Blankers-Koen?', then nine of them would say: 'Is she a TV star or something?' That's sad.

"At her funeral there were police outside because they were expecting a lot of people. Sebastian Coe was there, maybe 40 or 50 people. That was it. For such a great star, that's very sad. That's Dutch, I think. I'm quite sure that it wouldn't happen in Great Britain. That was the reason why I wrote the biography. She was so great and there was nothing [written] about her.

"If the programme had allowed her to compete in the long jump in the London Olympics, she would have won that too," adds Kooman. "If it hadn't been for the Second World War, she would have won seven, eight, nine Olympic gold medals.

"I don't think you can compare her to any other athlete because she was so good at everything: sprints, hurdles, long jump, high jump. If she had been around today, she would have been a very big star – much bigger than she was in 1948."

The greatness of Francina Blankers-Koen can be glimpsed in the pale colour newsreel of the 1948 Games. In the 200m final, the tall, flaxen-haired figure in the white T-shirt and baggy orange shorts sprints clear of the nominal opposition like a woman apart, winning by the Bolt-like marginof seven metres.

A farmer's daughter from Lage Vuursch, near the former royal residence of Queen Beatrix in Utrecht, Blankers-Koen competed as an 18-year-old at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. She prospered as an athlete under the guidance of Jan Blankers, who became her husband and prepared her for the London Olympics at a special, groundbreaking training camp in the woods near Hilversum.

Such was the strength of Blankers-Koen, as Kooman discovered, at least one of her rivals wondered whether she was a man – until she became a mother. There were even stronger whispers about the gender of Foekje Dillema, a teenager from Friesland who broke Blankers-Koen's Dutch 200m record in 1949. She was disqualified from competing as a woman in 1950 and Kooman uncovered witnesses who claimed that Jan Blankers and his wife played an influential role in her demise.

"It was a bit like the Caster Semenya story now," Kooman says. "Foekje Dillema was a girl but she looked like a boy. Like Semenya, I'm quite sure she would be allowed to compete nowadays. It was a big scandal in Holland. Foekje Dillema was too dangerous for Fanny. Fanny didn't want to compete against girls who could possibly defeat her."

Not that any of her London Olympic rivals could beat the formidable Fanny Blankers-Koen – warts, human frailties and all – under the twin towers of Wembley in 1948.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in