Australia's greatest track athlete, Betty Cuthbert, has died

Torchbearers Betty Cuthbert is pushed by Raelene Boyle during the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Photo: Shaun Botterill /Allsport

Betty Cuthbert, one of the greatest track athletes the world has seen has died. She was 79.

The “Golden Girl” as she became known, was just 18 when she won three gold medals at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay.

She originally bought herself spectator tickets for the games, but all that changed when she set a world record for the 200m in a club meet beforehand. She later set another record, in the 100m, during the heats at Melbourne.

Four years later in Rome, an injury early on saw her miss out completely, and she retired for 18 months, working in her family’s nursery, before returning to the track in time to win gold in the 4×110 yards relay at the ’62 Commonwealth games, and two years later, gold in the 400m at the Tokyo games. Her comeback was thanks in part to Herb Elliott’s legendary trainer, Percy Cerutti, and Cuthbert says an inner voice from God encouraged her to return to the track.

She remains the only Olympic track athlete to have won the 100m, 200m and 400m and she set nine world records during her career, four of them in 1958, in the 60 metres, 100 yards, 200 metres, 220 yards and 440 yards. Only Ian Thorpe’s five Olympic gold beats Cuthbert’s tally.

Cuthbert was born in Sydney’s western suburbs in 1938, a twin with sister Marie, and grew up in suburban of Ermington.

She was notable for her distinctive approach to her sport, sprinting with her mouth wide open and lifting her knees high. But with cruel irony she would lose the power of her legs are contracting multiple sclerosis in 1969 before defying the illness for nearly 50 years, albeit confined to a wheelchair. She lived her later life in Mandurah in Western Australia.

Cuthbert was one of the torchbearers at the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony, carrying the flame on her wheelchair.

Elizabeth Cuthbert was an inaugural inductees of the IAAF Hall of Fame in 2012 in Barcelona. She did not marry or have children.

Here’s Cuthbert streaking the field in the 100m in 1956:

Fellow Olympians have paid tribute to Cuthbert on her passing, including the current Australian 100m record holder Melissa Breen

And 400m champion Cathy Freeman.

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