Betty Cuthbert, Australia’s ‘Golden Girl’ of Track and Field, Dies at 79

She won the 100 meters, then the 200 meters, and she followed that by anchoring a victorious 4×100-meter relay team, becoming the first Australian to win three Olympic gold medals.

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Cuthbert crossing the finish line to win the gold medal in the women’s 400 meters at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. The gold was Cuthbert’s fourth and final Olympic medal.

Credit
Associated Press

Later in those Games, the Australian swimmer Murray Rose also won three golds, but Cuthbert’s luster would be undimmed.

Cuthbert failed, however, to win a medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, when she was hampered by a hamstring injury, and she considered quitting. She returned to win gold at the 1964 Tokyo Games in the inaugural women’s 400 meters, and she then retired for good.

Athletics Australia said that Cuthbert was the only Olympian, male or female, to have won gold in the 100, 200 and 400 meters.

Five years after her retirement, she was found to have multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease in which the body’s immune system eats away at the protective sheaths that cover the nerves. She ultimately needed a wheelchair, but she became an inspirational figure, helping others cope with the illness and raising money for research.

Cuthbert had a severe brain hemorrhage in 2002 and had been close to death. But she persevered, and in October 2008, left with movement only in her left hand and arm, she dedicated a treatment facility in Melbourne named in her honor and urged patients with multiple sclerosis there to battle on.

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Cuthbert, center, winning the women’s 100 meters at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. She won three gold medals that year, becoming the first Australian to do so.

Credit
Associated Press

“I know people listen to me because they know what I used to do before — run,” The Australian Associated Press quoted her as saying afterward. “If they can pick up some encouragement, it might help them. It helps me, too.”

The Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, called her “an inspiration and a champion on and off the track.”

Elizabeth Cuthbert was born on April 20, 1938, in New South Wales and reared in the suburbs of Sydney. She worked in her father’s plant nursery as a teenager while training in her spare time.

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