Fanny Blankers-Koen: Who was the Dutch 'Flying Housewife' and how did she change life for women in sport forever?

Joe Sommerlad

Today marks the centenary of legendary Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen (1918-2004).

The track star who won four gold medals at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London is celebrated in today's Google Doodle.

Here are five things you need to know about her.

1. Her husband and coach Jan was originally against women competing in sport

Francina Elsje Koen was born in Lage Vuursche, the Netherlands, on 26 April 1918, the daughter of a government official who encouraged her early sporting interests and himself competed in shot put and discus.

Choosing running over swimming as her primary discipline, Fanny set a national record for the 800 metres at age 17. Called up to the Dutch international team, she met her coach and future husband Jan Blankers.

Blankers, a former Olympic triple-jumper who was 15 years her senior, had originally been opposed to women competing in sport at all, a not uncommon attitude for the period.

However, Fanny's clear potential persuaded him to change his mind and he encouraged her to enter trials for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

2. Jesse Owens was her inspiration

Competing in the high jump and 4 x 100 metre relay in Germany, Koen finished fifth in both events but her real prize at those historic games was meeting her hero.

Fanny was so starstruck to meet Jesse Owens - the black American sprinter whose four gold medal haul embarrassed Adolf Hitler and severely undermined the Fuhrer's racist rhetoric on his home turf - that she got his autograph and kept it for the rest of her life, considering it her prized possession.

3. She was written off when the Second World War broke out

After winning two bronzes at the European Championships in Vienna in 1938, the outbreak of the Second World War saw the 1940 and 1944 Olympics cancelled as Europe became a theatre of bloodshed.

Fanny Blankers-Koen, who had married in 1940 and given birth to a son a year later and a daughter in 1946, was assumed to be "too old to make the grade" at age 30 when the Games were finally revived at London's Wembley Stadium in 1948.

Blankers-Koen competing in the hurdles at the 1948 London Games (Getty)

Her extraordinary, four gold medal-winning performance in the UK proved her doubters wrong and was attributed to the athlete's dogged commitment to training throughout the war, despite the suspension of domestic competition in the German-occupied Netherlands.

She had returned to the track just three weeks after Jan Junior was born and even tied the world 100 metres record in 1943, ignoring letters from members of the public critical of her for competing rather than staying at home to care for her family.

Journalist Kees Kooman, her biographer, later suggested that: "If it hadn't been for the Second World War, she would have won seven, eight, nine Olympic gold medals."

4. She became known as 'The Flying Housewife'

Blankers-Koen won golds in the 100 metres, 200 metres, 80 metres hurdles and 4 x 100 metres relay in the London rain but arguably her greater achievement lay in smashing contemporary expectations.

The athlete who would be immortalised as as "the Flying Housewife" made a nonsense of the sexist assumptions of the period about what was and was not possible and respectable for a woman, her running shoes blazing a trail for others to follow.

On returning to the Netherlands, she was met with a hero's welcome. In Amsterdam, she was paraded around the city in a coach pulled by four horses and presented with a bicycle before Queen Juliana made her a knight of the Order of Orange Nassau.

5. She was named Female Athlete of the 20th Century

Her place in history assured, Fanny Blankers-Koen continued to compete, taking three further golds at the 1950 European Championships in Brussels before retiring in 1955 and living a relatively private life thereafter.

Mr Kooman said of her character off the field: "[She] was very complicated. I think most real sports stars are. It is why they reach the top.

"Fanny wasn't only the shy, nice Dutch housewife. Sport was everything to her and she wanted to win in everything. If she was out on her bike and someone was ahead of her she had to beat them."

The darker side to her personality was revealed by the part she is rumoured to have played in 1950 in discrediting Foekje Dillema, a younger rival who broke Fanny's national 200 metre record before her gender was called into question and she was banned from athletics for life. Fanny is also understood to have had a difficult relationship with her children.

Blankers-Koen suffered from Alzheimer's in later life and died in Hoofddorp on 25 January 2004 - but not before receiving one final honour.

The International Association of Athletics Federation named her "Female Athlete of the Century" at a gala in Monaco in 1999.