PERTH, Australia (AP) — Betty Cuthbert, the only runner to win Olympic gold medals in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter sprints, has died following a long battle with multiple sclerosis. She was 79.
Cuthbert was dubbed the “Golden Girl” in Australia after her starring role as an 18-year-old at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, where she won the 100-200 double and anchored Australia’s winning 4×100-meter relay team. She was honored with a statue cast in bronze outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the main 1956 Olympic stadium.
Cuthbert was injured during the 1960 Olympics and then retired for 18 months before returning to competition and winning the gold medal in the 400 at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
One of Australia’s greatest Olympians, Cuthbert was the country’s first athlete inducted into the international track and field federation’s Hall of Fame. In all, she set nine world records in sprint events.
Athletics Australia on Monday confirmed that Cuthbert died overnight in Western Australia state. The IAAF, the sport’s international governing body, issued a statement saying it was deeply saddened and recognizing Cuthbert’s status as the only athlete in history to win the 100, 200 and 400 at the Olympics.
Cuthbert was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1969 and was restricted to a wheelchair later in life. In one of her last major public appearances, Cuthbert carried the Olympic torch in the stadium before the cauldron was ignited to open the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
Cathy Freeman, who lit the cauldron and won the 400 meters at the 2000 Olympics, said Cuthbert had been an inspiration.
“It’s a very sad day,” Freeman said. “Betty is an inspiration and her story will continue to inspire Australian athletes for generations to come.
“I’m so happy I got to meet such a tremendous and gracious role model.”
John Coates, who is an International Olympic Committee vice president and head of Australia’s OIympic governing body, described Cutbert as “the Golden Girl of the track and a national heroine.”
“Betty battled her illness for many years and showed tremendous courage, but more importantly she always managed to smile,” Coates said.
The Australian Olympic Committee said an example of Cuthbert’s humility was how she prepared for the first Olympics staged in Australia. She’d bought some tickets to attend the Games as a spectator because she wasn’t certain she’d qualify for the team.
Australian Sports Commission chief executive Kate Palmer said Cuthbert represented a great era in Australian sport and “was an icon for female athletes and women’s sport everywhere.”