Shirley de la Hunty (nee Strickland) AO MBE
For a while it seemed that Shirley Strickland might receive the recognition she deserves as winner of more Olympic track and field medals than any other woman. It is well established that her acknowledged tally of seven --- three gold, one silver and three bronze, through the Games of 1948, 1952 and 1956 --- has never been bettered.
But the record books show that this total has since been equalled twice: by Poland’s Irena Szewinska and Jamaica’s Merlene Ottey. [The latter woman is still the subject of protracted investigation following a positive drug test last July].
Strickland’s medal haul, though, should be eight. She was judged to have finished fourth in the 200 metres final at the London Olympics in 1948, although a photo finish of the race --- not consulted then, but discovered in 1975 --- proved beyond doubt that she had beaten the American Audrey Patterson into third place.
This discrepancy --- and the resulting disservice to Strickland’s record --- has been recognised by many reputable Olympic historians. Her own attitude, which reflects the woman’s innate sense of fairness, was for many years to let the matter lie. “All those years later you could not go to someone who might not have won any other medal --- when I had seven --- and ask them to give it back,” she told me. She found the idea of claiming a medal which had mistakenly been awarded to another person abhorrent.
Then, in 1996, Audrey Patterson died. Her sensitivities could no longer be a factor. A year later Paul Jenes, statistician of Athletics Australia, and I, as the Australian Olympic Committee historian, made submissions aimed at setting the record straight. We quoted the president of the international Association of Track and Field Statisticians, Bob Sparks, who had produced indisputable photographic and timing evidence that Strickland had finished third. He wanted Australia to approach the IOC to have the matter righted.
Our view was that there should be no question of Audrey Patterson’s family returning the medal. I suggested that another medal might be struck --- but if that wasn’t possible, that the IOC should simply amend its records to reflect the truth.
Alas, the move got nowhere. The AOC, to its credit, made official representation to the IOC, and Kevan Gosper pursued the matter privately. Then, in 1998, came the IOC’s ruling. It would not amend the 1948 placings. None of these behind-the-scenes happenings were recorded at the time, nor have they been since. But in a week in which Strickland’s enduring contribution to athletics has been recognised, they deserve to be made public.
Shirley Strickland had one other chance to exceed the records of all other track and field women. In 1952 she was a member of the Australian sprint relay team which set a world record in its heat, and seemed assured of gold until a baton spilled at the start of the last leg of the final.
Strickland, born in Guildford, WA, the daughter of a Stawell Gift winner, was always a woman of exceptional spirit. She encountered barriers in all facets of her career --- in sport, education and municipal politics --- and swept across them as effortlessly as she handled hurdles on the track. Refused admission to a university engineering course because the faculty possessed no women’s washroom, she turned to nuclear physics, and gained an honours degree.
At 23 she was advised by her coach that it was time to retire. She didn’t, and went on to win Commonwealth and Olympic gold. By the time the Melbourne Games arrived, she was 31, with a three-year-old son. Again she ignored suggestions of retirement. Again she won gold.
Strickland was an all-round athlete who came to specialise in sprints and hurdles. In 1952, in winning the 80 metres hurdles at the Helsinki Olympics, she set world records two days apart in her heat and final. Marj Jackson had pipped her by one day for the honour of becoming Australia’s first woman gold medallist on the track.
In 1955 in Warsaw, Strickland broke Jackson’s world record for the 100 metres (in which she had won bronze in both the 1948 and 1952 Olympics). She still held that record at the time of the Melbourne Games, and was aghast when she was run out of the heats.
She made amends by winning the 80 metres hurdles again in Olympic record time, becoming Australia’s first track and field back-to-back gold medallist. She was also a member of the gold-medal track and field team --- with Betty Cuthbert, Norma Croker and Fleur Mellor. All in, she won six national titles, set three individual world records, and was a member of six world record-breaking relay teams.
No other woman has won successive Olympic hurdles events at any of the three distances (80, 100 and 400 metres) over which they have been held.
© Harry Gordon, 2000. Provided courtesy of the author and not to be used elsewhere without permission.
1948 Olympic Games, London
Silver medal 4x100m relay
Bronze medal 80m hurdles
Bronze medal 100m
1952 Olympic Games, Helsinki
Gold medal 80m hurdles (setting two world records)
Bronze medal 100m
World record, 4x100m relay
1955 World record, 100m
1956 Olympic Games, Melbourne
Gold medal 80m hurdles
Gold medal 4x100m relay
Shirley’s first major international competition was the 1948 London Olympics where she finished second with the relay team, third in the 80 metres hurdles and 100 metres and was placed fourth in the 200 metres. Photos of this event revealed she had actually finished third.
At the 1950 Auckland Commonwealth Games Shirley won the hurdles and was a member of the two winning relay teams. She finished second in both 100 and 220 yards. At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics Shirley won the hurdles and third in the 100 metres. She was a member of the relay team that finished fifth after dropping the baton at the last change when in the lead.
Shirley missed selection for the 1954 Commonwealth Games but went to Warsaw in 1955 for the World Youth Games where she won the 100 metres in a world record 11.3secs. She also won the hurdles and was third in the 200 metres. At the age of 31, and a mother, she won the hurdles at the 1956 Olympics and was a member of the world record-breaking relay team.
After the Games, Shirley concentrated on coaching but was in good enough shape to to join the Western Australian relay team she coached to win the national title.
She was also an ardent conservationist, a National Trust member and mother of four.