At this summer’s Olympics in London the biggest names in athletics will be competing, but can you imagine a superstar like World and Olympic 100m champion Usain Bolt taking part in a local sports event here in the Black Country? This is what happened in 1951 when the biggest star of track and field, the “Flying Housewife” Fanny Blankers-Koen competed at the Sedgley Sports Gala.
Dutchwoman Fanny Blanker-Koen (1918-2004) shot to worldwide fame at the 1948 London Olympics when she won four gold medals, the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and the 4 x 100m relay. This was at a time when there were only nine women’s athletics events at the Olympics. She was the first Dutch athlete to win Olympic gold, the first woman to win four Olympic gold medals, and the first one to do so in a single Olympics.
As well as her four Olympic titles, she also won five European titles and 58 Dutch championships, and set or tied 12 world records. In addition to sprint and hurdling, she competed in long jump, high jump, shot put and pentathlon, before retiring in 1955, aged 37. In 1999 she was declared IAAF Female Athlete of the Century.
The 9th Annual Sedgley Sports Gala was organised by Sedgley Sports Committee and Tipton Harriers and took place on Tuesday, 7th August, 1951, at Dormston School playing fields. The official opening was carried out by Jack Crump, honorary secretary of the British Amateur Athletic Board, broadcaster and commentator, who had been the manager of the British Olympic Team in 1948. The Sedgley Sports Gala programme described him as “In athletics […] just as well known as are Stanley Cullis, Billy Wright, and Bert Williams in Soccer. He is to athletics what Sir Stanley Rous is to the Football Association.”
A copy of the 1951 sports gala programme has been kindly loaned to the Bugle by Councillor David Stanley of Lower Gornal, from his collection of Black Country memorabilia.
The programme had this to say of Fanny Blankers-Koen: “At the age of 32, Fanny Blankers-Koen, mother of two children, should be ‘going back’, but this remarkable woman is the exception to the rule, as witness her five successes in the Dutch women’s championships of a fortnight ago. It is worth recalling that she won the 100 metres in 11.9 secs., the 80 metres hurdles in 11.3 secs., 200 metres on 25.4 secs., high jump, 5ft. 7 ins. And long jump, 19ft. 4½in. Not much evidence of going back there. It is difficult to think of any woman athlete likely to compare with the jetpropelled Fanny, who can be expected to earn more gold medals for her country in the Olympic Games at Helsinki next year.”
Fanny was actually a mother of three and, remarkably, had been pregnant with her third child while winning gold at the 1948 Olympics. At the Helsinki games she was unable to repeat her great success. She reached the semi-final of the 100m but pulled out to save herself for the 80m in hurdles, in the final of which she pulled up after knocking down the second hurdle.
In 2004, in Bugle 626, we printed Roy Langford’s boyhood recollections of meeting Fanny Blankers-Koen at the Sedgley games. He wrote: “She was an inspiration to me and as much an idol for a growing teenager as film stars were for other youngsters at the time. She lined up in her heat against some of the best Midland sprinters, but won the race at a canter, then exploded from her blocks to win the final with yards to spare. The crowd were cheering her every inch of the way as she broke the tape in 12.1 seconds.
“As the race came to an end, a moment of impulsive madness overcame me. I didn’t have time to think what I was doing and found myself sprinting across the sports field, dodging the officials, to intercept Fanny, with my autograph book and programme clutched tightly in my fist. Suddenly there I was, face to face with an athletic goddess, who gave me the warmest of smiles, and without hesitation signed both my book and programme. Needless to say, they are still among my most treasured of athletics memorabilia. Fanny may have been coming to the end of her career, but she was still the bees-knees as far as I was concerned, a magical moment I will never forget.”
Fanny Blankers-Koen was not the only big name athletics star to attend the 1951 Sedgley Sports Gala. She was joined by Macdonald Bailey (b.1920), a Trinidad-born sprinter who competed for Great Britain in the 100m at the 1948 Olympics, finishing sixth. At the 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympics he won 100m bronze. Between 1951 and 1956 he jointly held the 100m world record at 10.2 seconds and he won the sprint double seven times at the AAA Championships.
Competing in the 880 yards men’s invitation short limit handicap at the Sedgley Gala was Arthur Wint (1920-1992), the first Jamaican Olympic gold medalist, who won the 400m in 1948. He served as a pilot in the Second World War, leaving the RAF in 1947 to become a medical student at St Bartholomew’s Hospital.
He also won silver in the 800m at the London Olympics, and again at the Helsinki games, where he also won gold in 4 x 400m relay.
He returned to Jamaica as a doctor in 1955 but later had a career as a diplomat, serving as Jamaica’s High Commissioner to Britain and ambassador to Sweden and Denmark from 1974 to 1978.
British high jump star Dorothy Tyler (b.1920) was also a guest at Sedgley. She won two Olympic silver medals, the first at Berlin in 1936 and the second in 1948, making her one of the few athletes to win Olympic medals before and after the Second World War. She also won gold at two British Empire Games.
The Sedgley Sports Gala began in 1942, founded by Harry Edwards as a wartime fund-raising competition for the Home Guard. Between 1942 and 1951, it raised £5,824; £4,700 went to war charities, £400 to the Sedgley War Memorial Fund, £279 to Tipton Harriers, and £445 to the British Red Cross and the Soldiers, Sailors and Air Force Families Association.
In 1951 there was a programme of 30 events with competitors from athletics and cycling clubs across the country. In the evening there was a performance by the TI Boys Band, led by Mr W. Cotterill, tug of war, boxing, a ‘display of physical culture and weightlifting’ by Sedgley and Wolverhampton Weightlifting Clubs, and the evening was rounded off with a grand festival dance in Dormston Girls’ Concert Hall, with music by Bill Stean and his Band.