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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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