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Olympics, gender, and motherhood – now and then

When Dara Torres (US), and Constantina Tomescu (Romania) won medals last week in swimming and marathon, respectively, nobody batted an eyelid. Why should they? Many other women like them –Paula Radcliffe (UK, long distance runner) and Lindsay Davenport (US, tennis player), to name a few – have achieved athletic feats not unheard of in this day and age.

What all these women have in common is that they are older than your average competitive sportsperson but are still competing at the Beijing Olympics. At 38, Constantina is the oldest marathon winner in Olympic history while 41-year old Dara is the oldest ever member of the US Olympic swimming team. Paula and Lindsay are both over 30.

And – they are all moms. While many of us juggle between job and kids, these women have to juggle between demanding physical training and kids. That’s the way to go nowadays. No problem.

But let’s go back 60 years and 15 Olympic Games ago in London in 1948 – to the woman who paved the way – Francina Blankers-Koen. This Dutch athlete, better known as “Fanny” had a lot stacked against her. She had to live through the second World War, a time when food was scarce, therefore extra hard for athletes in training. She was a woman at a time when sporting bodies were exclusively male who simply tolerated female athletes. She was 30 years old, a very ripe age in field and track athletics. And – she had two young children during an era when a mother’s place should be at her children’s side and nowhere else. Something that helped through was her determination to succeed and the support of her husband-coach.

War, food shortage, pregnancies, 2 small children – these were not the best ingredients for an athlete’s training. Remember, this was a time when athletes were not allowed to do endorsements or accept any kind of commercial support. While Fanny trained on the track, her kids played in the high-jump area – a perfect sandpit! – according to the Independent. For her unconventional parenting style, Fanny got lots of hate mail – plus the fact that she wore short trousers while training.

Fanny went on to win 4 gold medals in the 1948 London Olympics. She could have won more if not for the Olympic rule at that time than women were limited to competing in 3 individual events only. Public opinion was divided – admiration for her feats and condemnation for shirking on her motherly duties – her youngest was 2 years old during the London games. To show this rather grudging appreciation of her achievements, she was dubbed by the international media as “The Flying Housewife“, “flying” for her athletic prowess and “housewife” to put her in her place.

What even made her story remarkable is the birth of her 3rd child in 1949 just a few months after she came home victorious from London. She was actually in the very stages of pregnancy during the competition, according to the Independent . Whether she knew about her condition was not clear. At any rate, had her condition been known by the sports authorities, she wouldn’t have been allowed to compete.

Fanny went on to compete in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. In her time, she set 16 world records in 8 different disciplines. The crowning glory to her amazing athletic career was being voted as the “Female Athlete of the 20th Century” by the International Association of Athletics Federations in 1999.


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