Series10 Apr 2020

10 of the greatest athletics examples of perseverance


Perseverance (© World Athletics)

Journeys towards sporting success never come easily. Or quickly. Yet many athletes have persevered to reach their goals and fulfill their dreams.

Over the next five days we will look back at 10 such athletes, unveiling two new moments each day.


Fanny Blankers-Koen's four Olympic golds in 1948

A gifted young athlete, Fanny Blankers-Koen made her Olympic debut aged 18 at the 1936 Berlin Games, placing fifth in the high jump and 4x100m relay.

Further emphasising her remarkable versatility, two years later the Dutchwoman set a world 100yd record and continued her success during the Second World War years, posting world records in hurdles, sprint events, high jump and long jump.

Unfortunately, for Blankers-Koen the cancellation of successive Olympic Games in 1940 and 1944 because of war denied her the opportunity to compete on the biggest stage until the 1948 London Olympics.

By then a 30-year-old mother-of-two, few gave her a hope in London. However, in one of the most iconic performances in Olympic track and field history, she stormed to gold medal success in the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4x100m relay.

Dubbed the 'Flying Housewife', Blankers-Koen was later named Female Athlete of the 20th Century by World Athletics.


Alain Mimoun's 1956 Olympic triumph

During a hugely accomplished career, Alain Mimoun had won a raft of international silver medals without ever being able to translate his undoubted talent to the top rung of the podium.

For so much of his career, the Algerian-born French athlete had to play second fiddle to the Czech running colossus Emil Zatopek. At the 1948 London Olympics, Mimoun earned 10,000m silver behind Zatopek with a repeat performance occurring over 5000m and 10,000m at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

A foot injury denied him the chance to compete at the 1954 European Championships and after placing a disappointing 12th in the 10,000m final at the 1956 Melbourne Games few gave him a chance in the men’s marathon.

However, on his debut over the 42.2km distance, Mimoun, who was wearing his lucky number 13, finally emerged out of Zatopek’s shadow. With an outstanding display in temperatures of 38C, he struck gold and defeated the Czech great, who, on this occasion, had to settle for sixth.

Post-race, Zatopek saluted Mimoun and embraced him. “For me,” Mimoun recalled, “that was better than the medal.”


Wilma Rudolph’s triple Olympic triumph

Born the 20th of 22 children in abject poverty in Tennessee, Wilma Rudolph was a sickly child and suffered from bouts of polio, scarlet fever and pneumonia.

Forced to wear a brace on her leg caused by the polio virus she was told she would never walk again. Rudolph, however, disproved medics by learning to walk and at the age of 12 took up athletics where she quickly made her mark as a talented sprinter.

Aged 16, she made her Olympic debut at the 1956 Melbourne Games, winning a 4x100m bronze medal.

At the 1960 Rome Olympics, the woman dubbed ‘The Black Gazelle’ for her grace and style became one of the stars of the Games by powering to triple gold in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m.

Post-retirement from athletics, the US athlete devoted herself to coaching, worked with underprivileged children and used her status to shed light on many social issues.


Lasse Viren’s 1972 Olympic 10,000m win after falling mid-race

After smashing the world two-mile record in the countdown to the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, Lasse Viren was viewed as a potential wildcard in the 5000m and 10,000m.

Yet the hopes of the Finnish athlete winning a medal in the latter event appeared in tatters when mid-race he stumbled and crashed to the floor.

However, in one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history, he quickly rose to his feet and set off in pursuit of the lead pack. Within just 230 metres he had accelerated into second place and was firmly back in the race.

Launching his winning attack with 600 metres remaining, leading into the final bend only Belgian Emiel Puttemans was within striking distance before the Finn kicked ahead to maintain his country’s rich tradition in the event to secure gold in a world record time of 27:38:35.

Later in the Games, Viren completed the 5000m and 10,000m double before retaining both titles four years later at the Montreal Games to become the first man to complete back-to-back long-distance Olympic doubles. He also finished fifth in the marathon in Montreal, the day after winning the 5000m.


Al Oerter’s comeback at age 40

Al Oerter

The first athlete in history to win four successive Olympic gold medals in the same event, Al Oerter is a bona fide legend of the sport.

The US discus colossus struck gold at the 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968 Games, breaking the Olympic record on each occasion and setting four world records during an unparalleled career.

Oerter retired after winning his fourth Olympic gold, only to return to the sport at the age of 40 in 1977 in an effort to qualify for the Moscow Olympics.

The New York-born thrower unleashed a mighty lifetime best throw of 69.46m in 1980 at the age of 43. He finished fourth at the US Olympic Trials, although he would have missed out on the Moscow Games regardless due to the US boycott.

Oerter continued to compete for a few more years and produced the five best throws of his career well into his forties.


Ed Moses’ return to the top of the Olympic podium

Ed Moses

He may be commonly regarded as the greatest 400m hurdler in history, but for the heart of his incomparable career he was forced to show great patience as, through no fault of his own, he underwent a seven-year period without a global title.

The US hurdler stormed on to the global stage with his gold medal success at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, embarking on a 10-year unbeaten streak over the 400m hurdles spanning 107 finals and 122 consecutive races from 1977 to 1987.

Setting four 400m hurdles world records during his career, he was denied the chance to go for what many believe would have been near certain gold at the Moscow Olympics because of the US boycott of the 1980 Games.

It was not until the inaugural 1983 World Championships in Helsinki when he finally had the chance to once again grab a global gold, making the most of the opportunity by defeating the West German Harald Schmid – the last man to beat him – by a victory margin of more than a second.

Moses then went on to regain his Olympic title in style with a dominant victory at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.


Ulrike Meyfarth's second Olympic title - 12 years after her first

Inspired to take up high jumping after watching the feats of Dick Fosbury at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Ulrike Meyfarth produced one of the most memorable moments of the Munich Games when winning gold in front of her home fans by equalling the world record with 1.92m.

Aged just 16 at the time, the West German athlete became the youngest ever individual Olympic champion.

Unfortunately, Meyfarth’s career then stagnated for the best part of the next decade as she struggled to perform consistently on the international stage.

However, in 1982 she enjoyed a resurgence, setting a world record of 2.02m to take the European title in Athens. The following year she set a world record of 2.03m and snared a World Championship silver medal in Helsinki.

At the 1984 Los Angeles Games – 12 year after her maiden Olympic triumph – she spectacularly regained the  high jump title, defeating defending champion Sara Simeoni of Italy with a best effort of 2.02m. 


Merlene Ottey's long road to gold

At the age of 33, Jamaican sprint queen Merlene Ottey lined up for the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart wondering if she would ever win an individual global title.

Despite regularly dominating the one-day international circuit, she all too frequently fluffed her lines at the major global championships, accumulating one silver and three individual bronze Olympic sprint medals and a pile of minor medals over 100m and 200m at the World Championships.

Fate seemed to once again be against her in Stuttgart as she agonisingly missed out on gold after a photo-finish with Gail Devers in the 100m. 

The 200m represented a second chance and Ottey finally delivered, although not without one brief moment of heart-stopping drama.

Opening up a huge lead down the home straight, she looked set for a comfortable victory until she stumbled and lost momentum just metres from the line. Thankfully, Ottey just held off the late charging US sprinter Gwen Torrence to claim the sweetest of wins by just 0.02.

Remarkably, Ottey, who later in her carer represented Slovenia, went on to enjoy a 33-year international career, finally hanging up her spikes at the age of 52 after competing at the 2012 European Championships.


Hicham El Guerrouj’s long road to double Olympic gold

Despite laying serious claim to being the greatest 1500m/miler of all time, Hicham El Guerrouj seemed destined never to win Olympic gold.

A winner of four successive world 1500m titles from 1997-2003 and owner of the world 1500m and mile records – which still stand today – his first crack at Olympic gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games ended in disaster. 

Fancied to challenge pre-event favourite Noureddine Morceli of Algeria, El Guerrouj looked poised to make his winning move with 400m to go, only to disastrously trip and fall.

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics he started a red-hot favourite but had to settle for silver behind the Kenyan Noah Ngeny.

Leading into the 2004 Athens Olympics, where he had entered the 1500m and 5000m, the Moroccan was in patchy form, but he edged a captivating 1500m final by 0.11 from Bernard Lagat to finally strike Olympic gold. The pressure valve released, he later went on to win the 5000m title in Athens to become the first man since Paavo Nurmi some 80 years earlier to complete the men’s 1500m and 5000m Olympic double.


Sally Pearson’s long-awaited second world title

The golden girl of Australian athletics appeared a spent force leading into the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London after several seasons of injury frustration.

Back in 2011 Pearson had dazzled to take her first world 100m hurdles title in Daegu with a scintillating 12.28, elevating herself to fourth on the world all-time list.

The following year she was crowned Olympic champion in London but her career was to stall through injury. In 2015 her season abruptly ended after she suffered a bone explosion in her wrist following a sickening fall at the Diamond League meeting in Rome. The following year a hamstring injury forced her to miss out on the Rio Olympics.

In 2017 she continued to struggle to find her rhythm, claiming just one 100m hurdles victory outside of Australia. But later that year at the World Championships in London, she summoned a vintage display to strike gold by a margin of 0.04 from Dawn Harper Nelson of the USA.

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