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Athletics Australia Hall of Fame

Marjorie Jackson-Nelson (1931-) AO MBEMarjorie Jackson

Marj Jackson takes enormous, and justifiable, pride in her role as a breaker of barriers. She was the first Australian female runner to break a world record. She was the first Australian woman to win a track and field gold medal, indeed the first of either gender to win gold on the track since Edwin Flack in 1896. And she was first female general manager of an entire multi-disciplined team: the 332-strong contingent which represented Australia at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada.

Not bad for a shy young girl from Lithgow who approached her first major race in such a state of nerves that she wished: “If only I could wake and it was all over.” A girl whose memories of her first Olympic appearance remain crisp, but scary: “I felt like a Christian being fed to the lions … I had never seen 100,000 people before. I’d never seen that many in my whole lifetime. I was in awe.” 

The story of Marjorie Jackson’s emergence from small-town obscurity to the highest Olympic pinnacle is the stuff of Hollywood scripts. This was a girl who became the talk of her town when she flew to Melbourne for a race after she had beaten the legendary Dutchwoman Fanny Blankers-Koen. She actually flew. She had never been in a plane before; nor had anybody else she knew.   

Jackson was born in Coffs Harbour, and raised in Lithgow, where she left school early and went to work as a typist. She had a talent for running, a loving father who bought her second-hand spiked shoes --- a bit too large, so they were stuffed in the toes with newspaper --- and built her a set of starting blocks. And she had a coach , Jim Monaghan, who worked in the town’s small arms factory and trained her in the evenings, after they both finished their day jobs. 

Welcome to elite athletics in Australia, circa 1949. A time before cinder tracks, sponsorships, institutes of sport, professional coaches, abundant international competition. It cost a month’s pay for Jackson to buy a pair of running shoes that actually fitted. The winter nights were tough and variable in Lithgow: you could have fog, sleet or snow, sometimes a combo. They were dark, too, and she trained on a track townspeople had built for her by car headlights. 

“How I never broke a leg is really a mystery to me,” she muses now. “And I did it six nights a week, never missed a night.”

In 1949 Blankers-Koen made a visit to Australia, a track version of a royal tour. She was the closest thing the Olympics had to a female mega-star. Dubbed the “Flying Housewife” because she had two children back in Amsterdam, she had won four gold medals at the 1948 Olympics in London. Her husband-coach Jan had accepted the trip under the assumption that her races would be exhibitions rather than competitions.

Jackson upset this arrangement (as well as Fanny, her husband and a bunch of embarrassed administrators) by winning all three of their encounters. In the last of them, on turf at the Sydney Sports Ground, officials arranged to mow Fanny’s lane to billiard-table smoothness and left long grass in the other lanes. It didn’t help. Blankers-Koen pulled up, and Jackson won it in better time than the Olympic record the Dutchwoman had set in London.

Inside one week, Australia had a new heroine, known as the Lithgow Flash. In January 1950 she set the first of her 10 world records, and later that year gained the first of her seven Commonwealth Games gold medals. 

But it was her performance at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 that entranced the nation. She won the 100 and 200 metres gold medals, equalling a world record in the 100 and setting one in the 200. It was confidently expected that she would collect another gold medal, along with the other members of the relay team --- Shirley Strickland, Winsome Cripps and Verna Johnston. 

They won their heat untroubled, and set a world record in doing so. At the last change in the final, Jackson grabbed the baton from Cripps and set off, well in front, with a big grin splitting her face. Then suddenly the baton was flying in the air, knocked from Jackson’s grasp by Cripps’ knee. The memory still hurts.

The greatest prize for Jackson in Helsinki was the love of her life, the cyclist Peter Nelson, whom she met during the plane trip to the Games. They married in 1953 and settled in Adelaide. He died in 1977. The same year she established the Peter Nelson Leukemia Foundation, which has raised $3 million. She has been showered with many honours for her achievements, but that’s the one she prizes most.

A year ago she accepted a post on the board of SOCOG, which some people seem to regard as the duck line-up in a fun-park shooting gallery. She sees the role as a challenge: to help build the finest Games ever, one that will give huge benefits to Sydney. She talks about the legacy of magnificent venues, as she recalls the age of headlights in the park. She’s very positive, our Marj. Always has been.

© Harry Gordon, 2000. Provided courtesy of the author and not to be used elsewhere without permission.

1952 Olympic Games, Helsinki
Gold medal 100m (world record)
Gold medal 200m (world record)
1954 Commonwealth Games, Vancouver
Gold medal 100 yards
Gold medal 220 yards
Gold medal 4x100 yards relay

Jackson was born in Coffs Harbour, NSW in 1931. She was raised in Lithgow, NSW where she trained under car headlights in winter. In 1949 she stunned the athletic world by beating Dutch Olympic champion Fanny Blankers-Koen in Sydney. In January 1950 she set the first of her 10 world records by running 10.8 secs for 100 yards in Adelaide. Marjorie was also a member of three world record-breaking relay teams.

At the 1950 Auckland Commonwealth Games Marjorie won four gold medals with the sprint double and two medley relays. Marjorie made her real mark however at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics where she won both the 100 and 200 metres. The 100 metres was in a world record 11.5 secs and her winning margin of nearly four metres is the greatest winning margin in Olympic women’s 100 metres history. She set a world record in both her heat and semi-final of the 200 metres (23.4) before winning the final comfortably. 

With three finalists in the 100 metres final and a world record in the heats, the relay team of Shirley Strickland, Verna Johnston, Winsome Cripps and Marjorie were hot favorites. Tragically, as the baton was passed on the final change, Marjorie’s baton hand struck Cripp’s knee and she watched the baton fly out. The team recovered but could only manage fifth.

After Helsinki, Marjorie went to Gifu, Japan where she set a world record of 11.4secs. At the 1954 Vancouver Commonwealth Games, Marjorie won three gold medals (sprint double and relay). Marjorie retired after these Games to raise a family with husband Peter Nelson, an Olympic cyclist.

During her career she was known as the ‘Lithgow Flash’ and won six national titles.

Through to today, she has been very heavily involved in sports administration, including roles within team management at the 1996 Olympics and 1994 and 1998 Commonwealth Games.

Marjorie has also been Governor of South Australia since November 3, 2001.

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