Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

Racing Past Bob Phillips The Women's Olympic 800 Metres of 1960


The Women's Olympic 800 Metres of 1960:

Detailed analysis and fragmented memories 

by Bob Phillips

 

No women's race further than 200 metres had been contested at the Olympic Games for 32 years. The International Olympic Committee – totally male dominated – had set its face against any event which the members regarded as being too strenuous for women ever since the 800 metres at the Amsterdam Games of 1928 had allegedly ended with distressing scenes of exhausted competitors. That event was at long last revived for the 1960 Rome Games, and so the 27 valiant young women from 15 countries who reported for the heats could be excused for imagining that they were being put to an even more severe test than any Olympic competition commonly entailed.

 

The eldest of them, Gesina ter Laak, of Holland, had not even been born until more than two years after that previous women's Olympic 800 metres had been run. The youngest of them, Billee Patricia Daniels, of the USA, was a 16-year-old still at high school. With the exception of  a competitor from Korea, every one of the 27 had achieved times faster – and mostly far faster – than the World record of 2:16.8 by which Karoline Radke, of Germany, had won the Amsterdam gold. The World record in 1960, set two months before the Rome Olympics, was now 2:04.3 by Lyudmila Shevtsova, of the USSR. The 1954 and 1958 European titles had been won by other Soviet women.

 

To be honest, I have to admit that as a youthful spectator on the back straight at those Rome Games I did not pay too much heed to the women's events. Chauvinistic as it may seem in this age of obsessive political correctness, women's athletics simply was not in those distant days a very serious matter in my view, though I will happily concede that a first sight of the USA’s Wilma Rudolph’s sylph-like sprinting and the the bewitchingly elegant javelin-throwing of the Soviet Union’s Elvira Ozolina, began to have me wavering. As a club-standard half-miler, I could not fail to take an interest, too, in the women’s 800 metres – apart from anything else, Britain actually had a finalist, which was more than could be said for the men's 800 at those Games.   

 

The contestants for those Rome heats, were as follows (* time for 880 yards less 0.8sec) :

 

Entries by nations alphabetically  

Date of birth

Pre-Games best

All-Time best

Brenda Jones (Australia)

17/11/36

2:08.8* - 1960

2:04.4 - 1960

Dixie Willis (Australia)

13/12/41

2:08.7* - 1960

2:01.2 - 1962

Eleanor Haslam (Canada)

11/09/39

24.1 220y - 1958

2:10.0 - 1960

Bedriška Kulhavá (Czechoslovakia)

04/12/31

2:08.0   - 1960

2:08.0 - 1960

Maryvonne Dupureur (France)

24/05/37

2:10.7   - 1960

2:01.9 - 1964

Nicole Goullieux (France)

15/07/31

2:09.5   - 1959

2:09.5 - 1959

Ursula Donath (Germany)

30/07/31

2:06.3   - 1960

2:05.6 - 1960

Antje Gleichfeld (Germany)

31/03/38

2:08.5   - 1960

2:03.7 - 1966

Vera Kummerfeldt (Germany)

11/04/35

2:06.7   - 1960

2:05.9 - 1960

Diane Charles (GB)

07/01/33

2:06.6   - 1958

2:06.6 - 1958

Joy Jordan (GB)

13/11/35

2:07.4* - 1959

2:05.0 - 1962

Phyllis Perkins (GB)

22/02/34

2:07.3   - 1956

2:07.3 - 1956

Gerarda Kraan (Holland)

30/07/33

2:08.1   - 1960

2:02.8 - 1962

Gesina ter Laak (Holland)

02/01/31

55.5 400m - 1960

2:10.2 - 1960

Olga Kazi (Hungary)

10/05/41

2:08.7   - 1960

2:05.0 - 1962

Gizella Csóka (Hungary)

13/11/32

2:07.8   - 1960

2:07.7 - 1961

Gilda Jannaccone (Italy)

11/03/40

2:10.9   - 1960

2:08.9 - 1964

Lee Hwak Ja (Korea)

20/04/40

?

2:23.5 - 1962

Krystyna Nowakowska (Poland)

08/12/35

2:09.5   - 1959

2:05.8 - 1962

Zofia Walasek (Poland)

06/01/33

2:08.3   - 1960

2:08.3 - 1960

Beata Zbikowska (Poland)

16/04/34

2:08.7   - 1960

2:08.7 - 1960

Florica Grecescu (Rumania)

31/08/32

2:07.9   - 1957

2:06.8 - 1961

Gül Ciray (Turkey)

27/11/39

2:10.0   - 1960

2:10.0 - 1960

Billee Patricia Daniels (USA)

01/09/43

2:14.4   - 1960

2:14.4 - 1960

Zinaida Matistovich (USSR)

09/05/32

2:06.6   - 1960

2:06.6 - 1960

Yekaterina Parlyuk (USSR)

21/01/35

2:05.0   - 1960

2:05.0 - 1960

Lyudmila Shevtsova (USSR)

26/11/34

2:04.3   - 1960

2:04.3 - 1960

Note : * 880 yards time less O.8sec.

      

Thus the six fastest were Shevtsova (USSR) 2:04.3, Parlyuk (USSR) 2:05.0, Donath (Germany) 2:06.3, Charles (GB) 2:06.6, Matistovich (USSR) 2:06.6 and Kummerfeldt (Germany) 2:06.7, and it seemed sensible to suppose that they would be the likely major contenders. Note that Gesina ter Laak and Eleanor Haslam do not appear to have run 800 metres at all before the Rome Olympics!  No qualifying standards were required. Haslam had competed in the 1956 Games in the 100 metres, 200 metres and4 x 100 metres relay and did those same events again in Rome. 

 

The three countries which had most enthusiastically supported women's 800 metres running since the 1930s had been Great Britain, the USSR and Sweden, and Shevtsova (née Lysenko) was the latest in an outstanding Soviet line of succession. This had begun with Yevdokiya Vasilyeva, who had set unratified World records of 2:15.3 in 1938 and 2:12.0 in 1943 and was then credited by the IAAF with an official record of 2:13.0 in 1950. The delightfully elegant Nina Otkalenko (née Pletnyova) also ran 2:12.0 in 1951 and then reduced the record on seven further occasions from 1952 to 1955, eventually achieving 2:05.0. The organisers of the European Championships – much more enterprising than the Olympic hierarchy – introduced  the 800 metres for women in 1954 and Otkalenko had won from Britain's Diane Leather (later Charles), with Lysenko 3rd. In 1958 the gold-medallist, again from the USSR, was Yelizaveta Yermolayeva, and Leather repeated her 2nd place.

 

In 1960 Otkalenko ran 2:06.7 and Yermolayeva 2:07.3, but those times ranked them only 4th and equal 6th in their country and they therefore missed Olympic selection. Another key absentee from Rome would be the North Korean, Sin Kim Dan, who had finished only two-tenths behind Shevtsova's World-record 2:04.3. She would ultimately run 1:58.0 in 1964 but was denied her Olympic chances in both 1960 and 1964 because of North Korea's non-affiliation.     

 

Only three of the six fastest Rome entrants did, in fact, qualify for the final and British disappointment that Charles and Perkins were run well out of it was to some extent offset by Jordan getting through. Surprisingly, two of the Soviet women did not qualify and both Australians did – though having seen Snell, Halberg and Elliott already win gold medals we were now ready to expect anything from anyone who came from Down Under. The results of the four heats on 6 September, with the first two in each, plus the fastest 3rd place, to go forward to the next day's final, were as follows:

 

Heat 1 : 1 Gleichfeld 2:11.05 Olympic record, 2 Jones 2:11.14, 3 Matistovich 2:11.57, 4 Dupureur 2:12.42, 5 Charles 2:14.24, 6 Walasek 2:16.44, 7 Lee Hwak Ja 2:28.4.

Heat 2 : 1 Donath 2:07.92 Olympic record, 2 Zbikowska 2:09.57 , 3 Grecescu 2:10.10, 4 Kazi 2:11.07, 5 Jannaccone 2:13.72, 6 Perkins 2:15.41, disqualified – Daniels.

Heat 3 : 1 Shevtsova 2:09.31, 2 Csóka 2:09.77, 3 Nowakowska 2:09.81, 4 Haslam 2:10.17, 5 Kulhava 2:10.23, 6 Kraan 2:10.71, 7 Goullieux 2:13.53.

Heat 4 : 1 Willis 2:06.03 Olympic record, 2 Jordan 2:07.29, 3 Kummerfeldt 2:07.34, 4 Parlyuk 2:07.71, 5 ter Laak 2:10.36, 6 Ciray 2:11.55.

 

Thus the nine finalists were three Germans, (Gleichfeld, Donath, Kummerfeldt), two Australians (Jones, Willis) and one each from Poland (Zbikowska), the USSR ‘(Shevtsova), Hungary (Csóka) and Great Britain (Jordan). In its own way, the race was as dramatic as the men’s had been five days before. Shevtsova won, as expected, but Willis had led the race for most of the way until about 50 metres from the finish when she inexplicably wavered off the track. I have to confess that I didn’t give this sudden breakdown much attention and instead switched my gaze to the other Australian, Brenda Jones, who seemed likely to catch Shevtsova. She didn’t, but only by 8/100ths of a second.  I never even noticed if Dixie Willis finished – but then nor did almost everyone else, and thereby hung a mystery which took more than 50 years to solve. Every contemporary report had said that Willis either didn’t finish or didn’t even start, and subsequent reports, however authoritative, held to the same story. They were all wrong, and film of the race on YouTube proves it.

 

Dixie Willis herself was interviewed in 2012 by Trevor Vincent, the Commonwealth Games steeplechase champion of 1962 who has kept in touch with many of his team-mates of that era, She told him that she had clipped the curb of the track, stepped on to the in-field, dropped to her hands and knees, more in frustration than exhaustion, and then got back up and finished the race. She was never told she was disqualified, but on seeing the printed results she assumed that she had been  The belatedly amended result can now be listed as follows: 1 Shevtsova 2:04.50, 2 Jones 2:04.58, 3 Donath 2:05.73, 4 Kummerfeldt 2:06.07, 5 Gleichfeld 2:06.63, 6 Jordan 2:07.95, 7 Csóka 2:08.11, 8 Zbikowska 2:11.91, 9 Willis 2:27.5 (estimated)..Shevtsova’s hand time of 2:04.3 equalled the World record she had set in Moscow in July.

 . 

Ironically, Dixie Willis went on to much greater things while Shevtsova never ran as well again. Willis set World records of 2:01.3 for 800 metres and 2:02.0 for 880 yards in the same race in Perth, Western Australia, in 1962 and won the Commonwealth Games 880 in the same city later that year.  Others among the Rome competitors also had their best days to come. Three of them took part in the 1964 Olympic final – Dupureur 2nd, Gleichfeld 5th (again), Kraan 7th. Dupureur was also 8th in the 1968 final. Kraan became the European champion in 1962, with Kazi 3rd, Jordan 4th and Nowakowska 5th. Gleichfeld was 3rd in the 1966 European final. At the Commonwealth Games of 1962 behind Willis, Jordan (who had set an 880 yards World record of 2:06.1 a couple of weeks after the 1960 Olympic final) was 3rd and Perkins 4th.  

 

Another of the adventurous 1960 800 metres runners to compete again at the Games of 1964 and 1968 was Billee Patricia (“ Pat”) Daniels, but she did so in the pentathlon, placing 7th and 6th respectively. She was US champion at 800 metres in 1960 and 1961 and in the pentathlon every year from 1961 to 1967 and again in 1970. She also won the Pan-American Games pentathlon in 1967. She subsequently was married to the Olympic hammer champion and World record-holder, Hal Connolly, until his death in 2010 and had achieved further fame as coach at the University of California at Los Angeles, in particular to Evelyn Ashford. She later came out of retirement in 2004 to coach Allyson Felix.         

 

A less obvious honour was to befall the Italian representative in the Rome 800 metres, Gilda Jannaccone, in attracting the attention of the late Peter Pozzoli, who was one of the first athletics statisticians and historians to take an interest in women’s athletics but was something of an eclectic, renowned for his unapologetic appreciation of the feminine form as much as his attention to athletic prowess. In his idiosyncratic “Women's Track & Field World Yearbook” of 1968, the excitable Pozzoli, who was of British nationality but with an Italian background, wrote as the caption to a fetching illustration of the Signorina in action: “Gilda Jannaccone is now near the end of her career, but we include this photo of the torrid Neapolitan in tribute to the tenacity of a very rare spirit. Gilda was for many years the ONLY middle-distance runner in the south of Italy. She had to fight the ridicule of men athletes and the insults of southern Italian male onlookers who thought a girl who stripped to run in public must be a cheap pick-up … Vital statistics: 36, 29, 39½ ; Neck 13, Biceps 10¼, Thigh 21¾, Calf 13½, Ankle 9”.  

 

 

In the interests of 21st Century political correctness, and to spare any possible fraying of the nerves of readers, no attempt has been made on the part of the author to elicit the thigh measurements of the other 26 ladies who went to Rome in 1960 to run two laps of the Stadio Olimpico track in blithe disregard of the opinion of  those “scandalized” Italian male onlookers.  

 


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