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31 July 2020

Elizabeth, the first Olympian of her kind

On 31 July 1928, a special event took place, despite mounting opposition from most of the public and Pope Pio IX: women ran against centuries of prejudice and to fight for female emancipation and gender equality. The first women’s Olympic track and field competition is held, and everyone is competing for a gold medal which symbolises a lot more than it is. The ninth modern Olympic games take place in Amsterdam and an American athlete, Elizabeth Robinson – Betty – is also there. She is but 17. She was scouted by a professor who saw her running from the window of a train: Betty was about to miss her train and her sprint to hop on board was anything short of miraculous. It is 4.35 p.m. and the golden curls and blue eyes that are Betty cross the finish line first. 12”2, before Fanny Rosenfeld and Ethel Smith. The first woman to win a gold medal on the Olympic podium – she is overcome with emotion. A triumphal return home for Betty, who is no longer the girl next door: her next objective is the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games. She trains, and becomes a world titleholder for the 100 m and the 60, 70, 200 yards: she has never performed better. And yet, just a few months before her return to the field, fate decides to upend it all. On 28 June 1931, Elizabeth decides to take a day off, and so she takes a biplane ride with her cousin, Wilson Palmer, who has just recently obtained his flying license. Once they are airborne, however, the engine shuts down and they plummet to the ground. The two miraculously survive, but Betty fractures her hipbone fractures. She will require months to walk alone, forget running, is what the doctors say. She stays in a hospital bed for eleven weeks, flitting between short bursts of lucidity and unconsciousness, and then can only move with the aid of a wheelchair or crutches for the following four months. When she can finally walk, her left leg is one centimetre shorter than her right: she has to forget all about the Los Angeles Olympics. And yet... Betty slowly resumes running and, even though she is not the same athletes as before, she is still leagues ahead of everyone else. She now focuses on Berlin, the Fuhrer’s Olympic, svastikas and oceanic choreographies, Leni Riefenstahl and Jesse Owens. The USA only participate because Avery Brundage, the President of the Olympic Committee, is convinced there are no violent acts against Jews and discriminations in the Reich. Elizabeth cannot bend on the running block, and so can only take part in the 4x100 relay. The big day arrives. The German athletes have just achieved their world records and are the punters’ favourites, but at the eleventh hour their relay runner loses her balance and falls to the ground. The American athletes triumph before the disbelieving Fuhrer and one hundred thousand disappointed viewers. Elizabeth wins another Gold medal – her own personal battle, to show those who five years before had said she would never walk again, fighting against decades of prejudices. A trailblazer for all athletes, not just American women.