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VIDEO: “Golden Girl” Betty Cuthbert dies aged 79 (ABC News)
Among the many tributes paid to Betty Cuthbert upon news of her death at age 79, a touching tweet from Cathy Freeman summed up how much she meant to Australian sport.
“Thank you for the inspirational memories, Betty Cuthbert,” Freeman tweeted on Monday morning. “Rest in peace.”
It is fitting for Cuthbert to be described as an inspiration, as that is what she was for not just Freeman and the likes of Raelene Boyle, but also the generations of Australian track and field athletes who followed in the wake of her illustrious career.
Cuthbert won four Olympic gold medals and remains the only athlete to have triumphed at the Games in the 100, 200 and 400 metres.
Across her career she set 16 world records in individual and relay events, having burst to prominence at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics as a shy 18-year-old from the north-west Sydney suburb of Ermington.
The image of her running with her mouth gaped wide open became synonymous with her victories in the 100 and 200m, and 4x100m relay, which earned her the title of ‘Golden Girl’.
Perhaps Cuthbert’s greatest achievement on the track, however, came eight years later at the Tokyo Olympics when she won her fourth gold in what was the debut of the women’s 400m.
Between Melbourne and Tokyo, Cuthbert’s career had been blighted by injury, which cruelled her attempts to defend her Olympic titles at the 1960 Rome Games, while she had also spent time in retirement before deciding to return to the sport.
Considered past her best by some at the age of 26, Cuthbert took victory in Tokyo in an Olympic record time of 52 seconds and her satisfaction was obvious.
“This was the hardest race of all,” she told the media in Tokyo.
“In Melbourne, everything came easily to me, for I was much younger and things happened without my realising it.
“But I wanted this one more than anything.”
Cuthbert’s legacy recognised at Sydney Olympics
Australia did not win another gold medal in the 400m until Freeman famously did so at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, only a week and a half after Cuthbert took part in the final stages of the torch relay.
The honour of lighting the cauldron was given to Freeman, but Cuthbert — confined to a wheelchair at this stage of her life because of multiple sclerosis — was among the celebration of Australia’s female Olympic greats on that emotional night in Sydney.
Three-time Olympic sprint medallist Boyle assisted Cuthbert as she made her way around the Stadium Australia track and she later reflected on the significance of sharing that moment with one of her heroes.
“Betty was to become one of the athletes and women I most admired as I grew older,” Boyle wrote in her 2003 autobiography, Raelene.
“To have enjoyed such a warm friendship with her over the years is something I cherish, along with memories of a certain night many years later when I had the opportunity to push her wheelchair into the spotlight — that was one of the proudest moments in my life.”
Even in retirement, Cuthbert proved to be an inspiring figure after being diagnosed with MS.
Majorie Jackson-Nelson, who won the Olympic 100-200m double at the Helsinki Games four years before Cuthbert’s Melbourne heroics, was in awe of how bravely her close friend responded to the debilitating illness.
“When she was struck down with MS it was a bit of a blow to start with,” Jackson-Nelson said on Monday.
“But Betty, as strong as she was, took it in her stride like everything she did and it was a pleasure and a privilege to know Bett.”
Cuthbert’s achievements were recognised internationally in 2012 when she was among the first athletes inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame alongside other greats such as Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Sergei Bubka.
The Western Australian government has offered a state funeral, with Cuthbert having lived in Mandurah near Perth during her retirement.