Speedy Robinson makes dramatic debut

Of all the Olympic adventures enjoyed by athletes down the years, few can match the drama experienced by American sprinter Betty Robinson.

Picture by Getty Images

She was the first women’s 100m champion, she remains to this day the youngest and her story is one of the most remarkable in the annals of the Games. When she ran in the final of the 100m at the Olympic Games in Amsterdam in 1928, it was only her fourth competitive race and she was just 16. She had been spotted running after a train by her schoolteacher and was encouraged to take up sprinting. In her second competitive race, a matter of months before the Games in Holland, she broke the world record in an unofficial time.

She arrived in Amsterdam about as inexperienced as you can be but sometimes that level of naivety can work in your favour, and Robinson was far from over-awed by the occasion. The six-woman final was whittled down to four sprinters after a series of false starts saw two competitors disqualified. When the start finally came, Robinson surged steadily clear before winning in a world record 12.2secs, finishing about a foot clear of Canadians Bobbie Rosenfeld and Ethel Smith.

Three years later and Robinson was to experience even greater drama. Travelling in a biplane piloted by her cousin, it crashed and Robinson was given up for dead when rescuers found the body among the wreckage. She and her cousin were placed in the trunk of a car and taken to an undertakers but on arrival they were found to be alive and Robinson remained in a coma for seven months.

She had suffered a broken leg, a crushed arm and severe concussion but her determination saw her recover and by 1936 she was back at the Olympics in Berlin. So severe was her leg injury that she was unable to kneel down and could not compete in the 100m. However she was still able to run in the relay and she helped steer the US quartet to 4x100m gold in an astonishing performance.