Francina Elsja Blankers-Koen (1918 – 2004)
Running: Fanny Blankers-Koen
Who were the top athletes in the 20th Century? Since Americans seem most passionate about such questions, it is a long list of US men, for the most part. A lot of these lists are biased toward pugilistic sports like boxing, football, and ice hockey. The most popular sports included baseball, basketball and football whose stars reached the top tier. Sports such as track and field, gymnastics, wrestling or soccer and other Olympic-sports fell to second tier. Stepping away from US centric lists, there have been some remarkable women athletes in the past 100 years.
Many sports writers felt that Babe Zaharias as the best female athlete of the last century; however, the winner of the top female athlete in the century, as voted in 1999 at an event in Monaco was Fanny Blankers-Koen. Having heard her name, but knowing little else about her, it was time to do some research.
Background on Fanny Blankers-Koen
Francina Elsje Blankers-Koen (1918 – 2004) was a Dutch track and field athlete, best known for winning four gold medals at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. She competed in the 100m, 200m, 60m Hurdles, and the 4x100m Relay, winning four golds.
Known as Fanny, in those Olympic games she competed as a 30-year-old mother of two, earning her the nickname “the flying housewife,” and she was the most successful, and most decorated individual athlete at the event.
Having started competing in athletics in 1935 at the age of 17, she took part in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin just one year later. At the games Fanny got an autograph of Jesse Owens, the US track star of the 1936 Games, a signature she treasured for the rest of her life. During World War II, international competition was stopped, yet Blankers-Koen set several world records during that period, in individual track events as diverse as the long jump, high jump, sprints and hurdles.
Apart from her decorated Olympic successes, Blankers-Koen won five European titles, 58 Dutch championships, and she set or tied 12 World Records. She set her last record, in the five-event pentathlon in 1951, at the age of 33. She retired from athletics in 1955, after which she became captain of the Dutch female track and field team. In 1999, she was voted “Female Athlete of the Century” by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Her Olympic victories are credited with helping to eliminate the belief that age and motherhood were barriers to success in women’s sport.
Fanny Blankers-Koen by Getty Images
Resources and References:
The list below of 100 American athletes does not reach outside of the US. The list includes 89 males, 8 females, and 3 thoroughbred horses. The top female athlete, Babe Didriksen Jaharias, just cracks the top ten, and five women crack the top 50, though their dominance in their respective sports receive scant recognition. Babe Jaharias, for example, who played golf, basketball, baseball, and track and field was successful at the highest level in every sport she tried. She won 10 major LPGA championships and is considered one of the greatest athletes of all time, period.
Babe Didriksen Jaharias
|5||Wayne Gretzky||Ice hockey|
|6||Jesse Owens||Track and field|
|7||Jim Thorpe||Multiple sports|
|10||Babe Zaharias||Multiple sports|
|12||Carl Lewis||Track and field|
|21||Gordie Howe||Ice hockey|
|23||Jackie Joyner-Kersee||Track and field|
|24||Sugar Ray Robinson||Boxing|
|31||Bobby Orr||Ice hockey|
|41||Wilma Rudolph||Track and field|
|46||Eric Heiden||Speed skating, cycling|
|47||Edwin Moses||Track and field|
|49||O. J. Simpson||Football|
|53||Rafer Johnson||Track and field|
|55||Mario Lemieux||Ice hockey|
|57||Bill Shoemaker||Horse racing|
|59||Billie Jean King||Tennis|
|65||Althea Gibson||Tennis, golf|
|66||Eddie Arcaro||Horse racing|
|68||Al Oerter||Track and field|
|69||Bonnie Blair||Speed skating|
|72||Bo Jackson||Football, baseball|
|74||Deion Sanders||Football, baseball|
|78||Bob Mathias||Track and field|
|80||A. J. Foyt||Auto racing|
|82||Bobby Hull||Ice hockey|
|84||Man o’ War||Horse racing|
|85||Maurice Richard||Ice hockey|
|90||Richard Petty||Auto racing|
|91||Bob Beamon||Track and field|
|92||Mario Andretti||Auto racing|
|96||Michael Johnson||Track and field|