On April 26, 1918, Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won four Olympic gold medals in track and field events at the 1948 Summer Games, is born in the Netherlands. Blankers-Koen’s Olympic achievements are all the more remarkable because they came at a time when many people believed women shouldn’t compete in sports.
Born Francina Elsje Koen on a farm near the Dutch village of Baarn, the future Olympian began running track as a teenager. At age 18, she made her Olympic debut at the 1936 games in Berlin, where she took fifth place in the women’s 4×100-meter relay and sixth in the high jump.
It would be 12 more years before she competed in another Olympics because the 1940 and 1944 games were canceled due to World War II. During those years, she married her coach, Jan Blankers, and had two children. Blankers-Koen returned to Olympic competition at age 30 at the 1948 games in London. At the time, she faced criticism from people who thought she should stay home and take care of her children. Critics also claimed she was too old to compete and shouldn’t appear in public in running shorts. Blankers-Koen, however, was undeterred: “The Flying Housewife,” as she was known, took home four gold medals at the 1948 games–in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the 80-meter hurdles and the 4×100-meter relay. She was the first woman in history to collect so much gold at a single Olympics. Although there were a total of nine women’s track and field events that year, an Olympic rule at the time limited Blankers-Koen from competing in more than three individual events.
When she returned home to the Netherlands after the Olympics, Blankers-Koen was treated like a hero and knighted by Queen Juliana. She continued to compete and won three gold medals at the 1950 European championships. She made one more appearance at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, where she competed in the 80-meter hurdles but had to drop out when medication she was taking for a leg injury made her dizzy. She retired from racing in 1955 and died on January 25, 2004.
In 1999, the International Association of Athletics Federations named Blankers-Koen the Female Athlete of the Century.