Betty Cuthbert, Australia’s “golden girl” of track and field, revered for her Olympic gold-medal feats and then her long and spirited struggle against multiple sclerosis, has died in Western Australia. She was 79.
Her death was confirmed on Sunday by Athletics Australia, the national governing body, which said she had died overnight. She was living at a nursing home in Mandurah, south of Perth.
When she burst from the blocks at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Cuthbert, a shy 18-year-old with golden hair, was little known in the world of elite sprinters, despite having set a world record in the 200 meters. She had purchased tickets as a spectator when the Olympics neared, doubting she would make the Australian team.
But Cuthbert became a national hero, sprinting down the red-brick track at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia’s first-ever Olympic Games, her mouth distinctively open as she ran.
She won the 100 meters, then the 200 meters, and she followed that by anchoring a victorious 4x100-meter relay team, becoming the first Australian to win three Olympic gold medals.
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.
“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 Merrylands, a suburb of Sydney, and she was reared in that area. She worked in her father’s plant nursery as a teenager while training in her spare time.
Cuthbert was extraordinarily shy but confident going into the 1956 Olympics.
“All I could say was ‘yes’ and ‘no’ when anybody interviewed me,” she recalled in a 2004 interview with The Herald Sun. “Being young and shy never held me back. It spurred me on. Nervousness was always a good sign. Adrenaline runs through your body.”
With injuries taking their toll in the years following her Melbourne triumphs, retirement loomed. And then everything changed one night in 1962. As she recounted it, she was trying to sleep when she heard a voice telling her to run again.
“I lay awake wondering what to do,” she told The Daily Telegraph of Sydney in 2000. “The voice came back again and again. Finally, I said, ‘O.K., you win. I’ll run again.’ As soon as I said that, this wonderful feeling came right through my body, and I was mentally keen to want to do something again.”
She believed it was the voice of God urging her on. Physically renewed and buoyed by her Christian faith, she returned for her final gold medal in the 400 at the 1964 Tokyo Games, her last race. Then came the personal battles beyond the track world that endeared her among Australians through the rest of her life.
Rhonda Gillam, a friend of Cuthbert’s who shared her Pentecostal faith, had been Cuthbert’s caregiver when she moved into a facility for the aging. She had a twin sister, Marie, and a brother, John. There was no immediate information about survivors.
When the Olympics returned to Australia with the Sydney Games in 2000, Cuthbert was in the public eye once more. She carried the torch around the track in the opening ceremony, her wheelchair pushed by her countrywoman Raelene Boyle, a three-time Olympic silver medalist in the sprints. The torch was ultimately passed to the Aboriginal sprinter Cathy Freeman, who lit the cauldron.
Freeman went on to win the women’s 400 meters, 36 years after Cuthbert had captured that event in Tokyo.
In the weeks that followed the Sydney Games, Cuthbert reveled in the adulation she had received there.
“To hear the roar of the crowd when I came out, I still get goose bumps when I think about it now,” she told The Herald Sun. “The reception was so loud and so loving.”