CLIO TALKS BACK: Remembering Fanny Blankers-Koen: Mom and her four gold medals

Fanny Blanker-Koen running
As the 2012 Olympic Games in London come to a close, a historic heroine has re-emerged – one unfamiliar to most of us today. Fanny Blankers-Koen (1918-2004), the extraordinary Dutch track-and-field athlete known affectionately as “the flying housewife,” has returned to public notice. Why?

Fanny Blankers-Koen is, in fact, the most decorated female Olympian of the twentieth century. She won four gold medals at the 1948 London Olympics – in the 100 meter, the 200 meter, the 80 meter hurdles, and as anchor in the 4 x 100 relay. This, out of nine Olympic events in women’s track and field. Not many athletes, female or male, are as versatile or as successful, then or since.

What is worthy of note is that in 1948 this remarkable athlete (who had already competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and had married her coach in 1940) was thirty years old, already the mother of two and expecting a third when she won her four Olympic gold medals. Despite the hardships brought on by the Second World War, she had persevered to become an established European champion in various events and a member of the Dutch Olympic team.

In 1999 the International Association of Athletic Federations honored Fanny Blankers-Koen as the outstanding female athlete of the entire twentieth century (Carl Lewis, the American runner, who also won Olympic gold four times, was honored as the outstanding male athlete).

Fanny’s Dutch biographer, Kees Kooman, published her biography in 2003 with the title Een koningen met mannenbenen [A Queen with Men’s Legs], which has been reissued in 2012 as Fanny Blankers-Koen: De huisvrow die kon vliegen [Fanny Blankers-Koen: The Flying Housewife]. To Clio’s knowledge, this biography has not appeared in translation.

Clio honors Fanny Blankers-Koen for her pioneering athleticism and also for breaking the taboos on what women could accomplish, notwithstanding marriage and motherhood. Clio also honors her husband-coach for encouraging her to continue training and competing in a time when such activity was upsetting to some neo-traditionalists who thought mothers should abandon their ambitions to stay at home with their young children.

Sources: Considerable information on Fanny Blankers-Koen can be found on the Internet, including many photos. Clio first learned of her existence from an online blogpost by Gilbert King, “Past Imperfect,” on the Smithsonian Magazine website. See