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  Track & Field Athletics Australia    by Graham Thomas 

Profile - Marlene Mathews


Marlene Mathews - 1956

  • Born 14 Feb 34
  • Australia/NSW

    Marlene Mathews was one of the world's leading sprinters in the 1950s.  Throughout her career she was troubled by injury and bad luck.

    She was controversially left out of the winning Australian 4x100m relay team in the 1956 Olympics, despite winning two bronze medals in sprint events at those Games.

    She showed the selectors how wrong they were in 1958 when she set world records for 100y and 220y.  Also that year, she won double gold at the Commonwealth Games.

    She competed at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome but was considered past her best when she could not progress past the heats in the 100m. 

    As Marlene Mathews-Willard, she has continued to play a part in athletics to this date.  Her distinguished career includes roles as an athletics coach and administrator.

Marlene Mathews was considered a prodigy when she began competing in athletics in the late 1940s.  Australian women's sprinting ranks were improving rapidly with the Olympic star Shirley Strickland, and then the young Marjorie Jackson, attracting world attention.  Jackson first became known when she defeated 1948 Olympic heroine, Fanny Blankers-Koen of Holland, in a series of athletics meets held in Sydney in early 1949.

Marlene Mathews competed in some of these meetings too, but she was not yet good enough to challenge the best women sprinters.  On her fifteenth birthday, she raced against Jackson in the 1949 Junior 75y Championship and placed third.  Immediately after the race, Marlene gathered the woolen finish tape as a souvenir, saying of Jackson "She's great".  Mathews won the junior long jump championship at these titles. 

At the 1950 Nationals, Marlene was a member of the young NSW 4x110y relay team which won the title in a record 47.7.  She was not selected to represent her state at individual sprint distances, but ran fourth, behind Shirley Strickland, in the 80m Hurdles.

Mathews was not part of the Australian team chosen to represent at the 1950 Empire Games, but a few days after her 16th birthday at the NSW Championships, she ran a great race to place second to Empire Games champion Marjorie Jackson in the state 100y title.   Marlene was only a yard and a half behind Jackson, and six inches ahead of third-placed Olympic medallist Shirley Strickland.  Three other Empire Games athletes - Judy Canty, Verna Johnston and Anne Shanley were also beaten by Mathews, who said "Gosh!  Fancy me beating the great Shirley Strickland."

A year later, Mathews was continuing to improve and set an Australian junior record of 10.9 for the 100y in March 1951.  This achievement established Mathews as a serious contender for selection in the 1952 Olympic team.  However, at the start of the 1951/52 season, she collapsed ten metres from the tape during an interclub 100y race.  A severe muscle tear injury served to prevent Mathews from competing again that season and it was not until the 1953/54 season that she finally regained her top form.

Eventually, she improved her 100y PB to 10.8, in January 1954 and ran well in the NSW titles, earning a spot in the state team for the national titles.  At these championships, held in Perth, Mathews ran an impressive second to world-record holder Marjorie Jackson in the 100y, clocking a swift 10.7.  Mathews also ran third in the 220y and shared in the NSW victory at 4x110y relay.  Consequently she was selected in the 1954 Empire Games team.

At the Games, in Vancouver, bad luck again struck Marlene Mathews.  She pulled a muscle in her heat of the 100y and had to withdraw from all further competition, including a run in the relay team in which Australia was the gold medal favourite.

Despite all her disappointments, Mathews aimed for success in the 1956 Olympics to be held in Melbourne.  Reigning Olympic and Empire Games champion Marjorie Jackson had now retired and Mathews was considered a likely heir to Jackson's throne.  During the 1955/56 season these predictions looked to be coming true; Mathews ran a series of fast times at 100y and 220y and, in March 1956, she equalled Marjorie Jackson's 220y world record of 24.0.  Yet at the 1956 National Championships, held in appalling conditions in Brisbane, Mathews could not win either the 100y or 220y title.  She was third in the 100y - behind the surprising Wendy Hayes and veteran Shirley Strickland - and second in the 220y - behind her a new rival, young Betty Cuthbert.

Training through the Australian winter of 1956 in Sydney, Mathews continued to run well, though the rapidly improving Cuthbert was running her close at 100y and, particularly, 220y.  Cuthbert surprised the world in September 1956, when she broke the world record for 200m with an amazing 23.2 run in Sydney. A little later, in the NSW Olympic trials, Cuthbert, just beat Mathews over 100m.  Both ran wind assisted times of 11.2 - better than the world record.

At the Australian Olympic trials, the finish in the 100m was just as close as the state race.  Cuthbert again the narrow winner from Mathews, with both clocking the same time.  Both sprinters were named for the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay at the Melbourne Olympics.

At the Games, Mathews opened her campaign with a 100m heat win in 11.5 which equalled Marjorie Jackson's Olympic record time.  Her record lasted only a few minutes as Betty Cuthbert charged down the track in the next heat, to clock a new record of 11.4.  After winning her semi-final, when Cuthbert could only run second in her semi, Mathews was considered a slight favourite for the Olympic titles.

In the final, however, Mathews did not get a good start and was always fighting an uphill battle.  Betty Cuthbert, on the other hand, was away brilliantly and led at the half-way mark, from Germany's Christa Stubnick and the US runner Isabelle Daniels.  Mathews finished strongly to overtake Daniels in the run to the tape, but could not catch Cuthbert or Stubnick.  Although she won the bronze medal, Mathews was tearful as she stood on the dais.

A few days later, Mathews won another bronze medal in the 200m, again behind Cuthbert's gold and Stubnick's silver medals.  She had been disappointed with her Olympic experience so far, but seemed certain of a gold medal in the 4x100m relay to be held on the last day of competition.

Australia's relay squad comprised the top four athletes at the Australian Olympic trials (Cuthbert, Mathews, Croker, Strickland) as well as hurdler Gloria Cooke (5th in the Australian trial) and NSW sprinter Fleur Mellor.

Mellor had not been able to make the final of the 100y at the Australian Championships in March or the Australian Olympic trials in October, but had run in the NSW 4x110y relay team at the Olympic trials. She was presumably selected in the Australian relay squad on the basis of a fast heat time in the Olympic trials (11.9) and her third place, behind Cuthbert and Mathews, at the NSW trials (11.3w).  Still, no-one expected Mellor to take Mathews' place in the 4x100m relay team, but this is what happened.

The Australians went on to win Olympic Gold in this event, setting two world records during the competition.  Mathews was devastated by her omission and sat in the stands sobbing as her team-mates celebrated their success.  Mellor ran a fine leg, but many people could not understand why Mathews had been 'sacked' from the team.

AWAAU stalwarts Mrs Doris Magee and Miss Nell Gould stood by the decision to select Mellor in the team and claimed the world record time set by the team vindicated their decision.  As manageress (Magee) and relay coach (Gould), their decisions were final.  

At the time of the controversy there were rumours that 'in NSW' Mathews had developed a reputation as a bad relay runner.  This may  have stemmed from a relay trial, in September 1956, where a NSW relay team of Raema James, Cuthbert, Mellor and Mathews had failed to finish the race in Sydney.  However, it is worth remembering that Mathews - with three relay golds at Australian Championships in 1950, 1954 and 1956 - had more experience at top-level relay running than most other women sprinters in Australia at the time. 

In considering the illogical decision, it is probably worth remembering that Nell Gould had been Fleur Mellor's mentor for a number of years and that Magee and Nell Gould had been close friends and associates for over twenty years.

Immediately after the Games, Mathews was selected in an Australian 4x220y relay team which smashed the world record during the British Empire vs USA meeting in Sydney.

Later in the season,  Mathews won the NSW 100y title in a wind-assisted time of 10.1, 0.3 faster than the world record.  She was just pipped by Betty Cuthbert in the 220y, when Mathews fell - just before the finish - and skidded across the line on her stomach.  Despite this loss, she was ranked World Number One for 1957 in both 100y/100m and 200m/220y.

Early in 1958, and now competing as Mrs. Willard, Marlene seemed to be in top form, running a series of fast times.  Betty Cuthbert beat her over 100y and 220y at the NSW State Championships, but Marlene saved her best until the Australian Championships.  

At these titles, held in Sydney, Mathews equalled the world record of 10.4 in her heat of the 100y.  In the final, she convincingly defeated Olympic champion Betty Cuthbert and smashed the record with her 10.3 run, in nil wind.

In the 220y, again with nil wind, Mathews ran a magnificent race to again beat Cuthbert and set a world record time of 23.4.  Four months later, at the Cardiff Empire Games, Mathews became the Golden Girl of the Games with her double victory at 100y and 220y.  She also won a silver medal as part of Australia's 4x110y relay team, and was again rated World Number One for both 100y and 220y.

In 1959, Mathews had a relatively quiet year, mainly running 100y events before taking almost a year off.  She still ended the year ranked #2 over the short sprint.

Returning to the track seriously, early in 1960, Mathews showed she was still close to her best when she managed to place third in the National 100y championships in Hobart.  Selected in the Rome Olympic team, Mathews beat the new national champion, Pat Duggan, and Olympic champion Betty Cuthbert over 100m in fast time, just before the Australian team left for Europe.

At the Games, Mathews could not make it past the heats of the 100m.  She suffered further disappointment when the Australian team was disqualified in the 4x100m relay.  In the World Rankings, issued at the end of 1960, Marlene Mathews was still rated #9 in the world for 100y, but she had already retired from competitive athletics.

In the forty years since her retirement from competition, Marlene Mathews-Willard has been actively involved in the sport, performing roles of coach, official or administrator.


100y   10.3  +0.0    Sydney      20 Mar 1958
-auto  10.70 +0.3    Cardiff        Jul 19558
100m   11.5  +0.6    Melbourne  
-auto  11.80  0.0    Melbourne  
220y   23.4          Sydney      22 Mar 1958
-auto  23.65         Cardiff        Jul 19558
200m   23.4          Sydney      22 Mar 1958
400m   57.0          Sydney      06 Jan 1957
440y   57.0          Sydney      06 Jan 1957


100y      10.3       Sydney       20 Mar 1958
220y      23.4       Sydney       22 Mar 1958
400m      57.0       Sydney       06 Jan 1957
440y      57.0       Sydney       06 Jan 1957
4x200m  1-36.3       Sydney       05 Dec 1956
4x220y  1-36.3       Sydney       05 Dec 1956

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