A Tribute to Fanny Blankers-Koen

I was reminded yesterday that it was on 29th July 1948 that the Olympic Games began in London after a gap of 12 years since the previous Olympics owing to the Second World War. That gives me the excuse to do a little post in tribute to one of the greatest athletes of all time.

The London games saw the emergence of legendary Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won no less than four gold medals: 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4 ×100m relay. She probably would have won the Long Jump too, as she held the World Record in that event at the time, but was only allowed to compete in four events. Her achievements are made all the more remarkable by the fact that she was 30 years old – an age many would have thought was past the prime for an athlete – and she was also the mother of two children.

Fanny Blankers-Koen became a household name to my parents’ generation, and the inspiration to countless aspiring athletes. I remember my Mum talking about her when I was little, and what I remember from that is that she was regarded as exceptionally tall – in fact she was 5′ 9″ – which helped reinforce the impression among many British people that Dutch people were all giants!

Anyway, here is a little video with some clips of her in action. She won the 200m by miles!

Fanny Blankers-Koen passed away in 2004, at the age of 85, but her legend will live on.


12 Responses to “A Tribute to Fanny Blankers-Koen”

  1. “Her achievements are made all the more remarkable by the fact that she was 30 years old – an age many would have thought was past the prime for an athlete – and she was also the mother of two children.”

    While the first might have been a slight disadvantage, the latter was probably an advantage. Nothing like two small children to keep one on the up and up.

  2. “and what I remember from that is that she was regarded as exceptionally tall – in fact she was 5′ 9″ – which helped reinforce the impression among many British people that Dutch people were all giants!”

    5′ 9″ is short for a Dutch woman today, but was probably tall back then. The impression is true. I think that the Dutch are the tallest people in the world. When I was in Groningen, many or most of the female students were taller than I (178 cm, or about 5′ 10″), and most of the men were taller. I’m not sure of the cause. It’s probably not related to much of the country being below sea level. I do remember, though, something which I have never seen anywhere else: adults drinking milk regularly with lunch. Perhaps the high consumption of dairy products increases height. I suspect that it is environmental, as I doubt that there has been time for more height to evolve.

    Not quite as much as the English (who, of course, are more isolated), especially English children, but the Dutch are also readily recognizable due to their physiognomy. This applies to the current King. Note that for four generations now one ancestor has been German, making him only 1/16 Dutch, again it is probably an environmental influence.

    • telescoper Says:

      5’9″ would still put her in the tallest 5% of women in the UK nowadays. I think a diet with lots of calcium in it probably does promote bone growth. I’m not sure about physiognomy, though. I’m not sure I could recognize a Dutch person from facial features or expressions very easily, When they speak it’s trivial of course!

    • There is verse in Dante’s divine comedy about someone being as tall as ‘three frisian together’. The commented version stated that referred to the believe that the Frisians were the tallest people in the world. In the Netherlands, there is still a gradation with people in the north (where the Frisians live) being taller than in the south.

      • Indeed. Google turns up several hits for “tallest people by country”, which seem to confirm that the Dutch head up the list.

        What is interesting is that just across the border in Germany, the people aren’t as tall and also look different. I think it is probably down to the environment, as there are many differences (even though not all have such effects), such as the drinking of coffee in the Netherlands and tea in East Frisia (which, along with North Frisia, is in Germany; West Frisia is in the Netherlands).

      • telescoper Says:

        The Frisian language is very close to English, n’est-ce pas?

      • There is closeness in terms of development and closeness in terms of the current state of the languages. With regard to the fiirst, yes; with regard to the second, not so much. Whales and hippopotamuses are quite close in terms of development, but not in terms of their current state. Similarly, English and Frisian can be thought of as two close branches on a tree, but the wind has blown them apart so that their tips are farther apart than some other branches separated by more where they originate.

        The Old English which evolved into modern English (with significant input from the Vikings, the Normans, and ancient Greek and Latin) is quite closely related to Frisian. However, these other influences are present to a much lesser extent in Frisian than in English. Dutch and German are probably closer from a practical point of view than English and Frisian, though not so closely related historically.

        I actually know several people who speak North Frisian. The dialects of Frisian are quite extreme. Native speakers can recognize from the dialect which village one comes from (even if they didn’t know them personally), and dialects between even neighbouring islands differ so much that Low German is often used as a lingua franca. East Frisian has essentially died out, like Manx, though some people speak it in a revival sense. (Farther south some native speakers of another variant survive.) West Frisian is the biggest group.

        Here is some North Frisian:

        Gud dai. Det as min wüf and detheer as min foomen. Daaling as en neten dai. Huar kön ham welen lian?

        Good day. (OK, that was easy.) This is my wife and this is my (still easy so far) daughter (not related to any word for daughter in any other language I know). Today is a nice day. (Perhaps guessable in parts.) Where can one borrow a bicycle?

      • telescoper Says:

        I was thinking of

        “Brea, bûter en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk”

      • Indeed. For Scandinavian, “take the knife and cut the steak” is, in modern Swedish, “ta kniven och kutta stekan”. In German, it is “nimm das Messer und schneide den Braten”, rather different. (As a noun, “kutta” has a very different meaning in Swedish, which ties in with the first name of the person this post is about.)

      • The frisian language has evolved a lot but originally was a scandinavian relative, I think. You can still recognize in some words that it was closer to english than it was to dutch (for instance, ‘key’ is ‘kaai’ in frisian, while the dutch word is ‘sleutel’ is close to the schluessel in german. The ‘ch’ sound in english (cheese, church) comes back in frisian but not in dutch). There were attempts to get rid of the language earlier in the 20th century, as happened to many minority languages in Europe. There were language riots in Frisia in the 1950’s after someone was imprisoned for speaking frisian in court. It was allowed to be taught in local schools only in the 1970’s. I think Germany went a bit further in attempts to eradicate the language and culture. There used to be a fair amount of discrimination against frisians in the Netherlands, arising just from the attitude of people. The main north-south railway connection still carefully goes around Frisia.

    • Dutch women are tall, but saying 5′ 9″ is short is an exaggeration. The average height of young Dutch women in various recent studies is about 5′ 7″.

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