Frank's Place: America's first female track hero deserves more attention
Hollywood loves feel-good Olympic stories. The recipe for this genre of tasty film entertainment is by now a familiar one: Start with a compelling underdog; mix in plenty of grit, emotion, patriotism and drama; and top it all with an ample layer of corn.
Hollywood loves feel-good Olympic stories.
The recipe for this genre of tasty film entertainment is by now a familiar one: Start with a compelling underdog; mix in plenty of grit, emotion, patriotism and drama; and top it all with an ample layer of corn.
Jim Thorpe: All-American, Chariots of Fire, Without Limits, Miracle, Eddie the Eagle, Race - the industry consistently has found stories on an Olympic podium.
So it's odd that no one has done a movie about Betty Robinson, who remains the youngest person ever to win gold in the 100 meters.
That might be because the moment in her story when the trumpets would blare and the tears flow took place at the 1936 Berlin Games. Throughout the years, the Nazi Olympiad has been mined over and over for documentaries, biopics, and best-selling books such as Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat.
Still, if what Hollywood wants is a triumph of the will, then a woman who came back from the dead to win a second gold medal would surely be a compelling subject.
Robinson was born in 1911 in Riverdale, Ill. Lanky and athletic, she could outrun most of the boys in her little village 14 miles south of Chicago.
According to sportswriter Joe Gergen's 2014 biography, The First Lady of Olympic Track, an assistant track coach at her high school happened to see Robinson running to catch a commuter train.
Impressed by the 16-year-old's speed, he had her run 50 yards down a school corridor. Her performance immediately convinced him Robinson was more than fast enough to race against other women.
"I grew up a hick," she said in 1984. "I had no idea that women even ran then. That's when I found out that they actually had track meets for women."
What followed was a whirlwind that within four months would carry this sprinting novice to the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam.
In Robinson's first official race, a regional competition, she finished second to Helen Finley, at the time the U.S. record-holder in the 100 meters.
She won the next time out, in a world-class time of 12.2 seconds. That summer's U.S. Olympic trials were in Newark, N.J., and, in just her third sprint, Robinson finished second to earn a spot on the American team.
Her timing was good. The International Olympic Committee only recently had decided that for a first time women - long thought to be too delicate for track and field - could take part in running, jumping, and throwing events.
Robinson ran well enough in her qualifying heat to become the only American in the four-woman 100-meter final.
William L. Shirer, the Chicago Tribune's Berlin correspondent who would later write The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, covered the race.
"Halfway down the lane [Robinson] pulled up on even terms with Fanny Rosenfeld, the Canadian champion," he wrote, "and, going stronger with each stride, gained a foot advantage, which she held as she breasted the tape. The time of 121/5 seconds bettered by one-fifth of a second the accepted world mark."
The small-town teenager returned home to a reception she couldn't have imagined a few months earlier, a ticker-tape greeting in New York, a parade down State Street in Chicago, meetings with Babe Ruth and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Soon Robinson turned her focus to the 1932 Games. Swimming was then thought to be an ineffective training method for runners, so on a hot June 28, 1931, she sought another way to cool off.
A cousin who was a pilot had a suggestion. He'd take her for a ride in his biplane. Not long after takeoff, the engine stalled and they crashed into a farm field near Oak Forest, Ill.
A nearby resident who witnessed the accident found the wreckage and presumed the two mangled bodies were deceased. He lifted them into the trunk of his car and drove them to the local undertaker's office.
There, both were found to be alive. Rushed to a local hospital, Robinson had suffered a concussion as well as a badly broken arm and leg. She would drift in and out of consciousness for months.
Doctors inserted pins into her damaged leg, but after four months in a wheelchair she resumed training for the 1932 Games. While she could no longer assume a sprinter's crouch, Robinson could participate in relays, in which the runners start from a standing position.
She missed the 1932 Games in Los Angeles but qualified for the 400-relay four years later in Berlin, along with teammates Harriet Bland, Annette Rogers, and Helen Stephens.
The Germans were far ahead, but fumbled the baton on the final exchange. The Americans, with Robinson running the third leg, took the gold medal.
This time, with Jesse Owens' groundbreaking performance dominating the headlines, Robinson returned to America in the shadows.
A marriage to a Chicago elevator operator ended quickly and produced this Tribune headline: "Girl Athlete Divorced."
A second marriage endured and produced two children. Robinson died at 87 in 1999. By then, her astounding achievement was nearly forgotten.
"I suppose most Americans don't even recognize me," she said not long before. "It happened so long ago. I still can't believe all the attention I got."
And, if Hollywood's looking for another surefire sports hit, she probably deserves a little more