Babe Didrikson: An Olympic legend with the Midas touch 

Mildred Babe Didrikson of the USA throws the javelin at the Los Angeles 1932 Olympics (Photo by Getty Images)
Mildred "Babe" Didrikson of the USA throws the javelin at the Los Angeles 1932 Olympics (Photo by Getty Images)

The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopaedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week: Mildred "Babe" Didrikson - a legendary athlete with a medal haul that has never been repeated. 

The background

Some people are just good at everything. And the USA's Mildred "Babe" Didrikson was one of those people.

Nicknamed after the legendary baseball player Babe Ruth (apparently as a result of her propensity for hitting home runs during her teenage years) Didrikson was a dab hand at every sport she tried, from tennis to baseball, boxing, volleyball, bowling, swimming and more.

When she was once asked whether there was anything she didn't play, the answer she fired back was "yeah, dolls". But with everything else she was a natural, including track and field.

In the lead-up to the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1932, Didrikson participated in the AAU Championships - which also served as an Olympic qualifier. Entering as an individual, she found herself up against teams of up to 20 athletes. After winning five and tying for first in a sixth event, she won the entire team competition single-handedly.

So to say she was a favourite going into the Olympics would be a great understatement.

But at the time of the Los Angeles Games, athletes could only compete in three events. Didrikson chose the 80m hurdles, javelin and high jump: One run, one throw and one jump.

What happened next has never been replicated.

Mildred Babe Didriksen, demonstrates her hurdling technique. She was gold medallist in the 80m hurdles event at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932 (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
Mildred "Babe" Didriksen, demonstrates her hurdling technique. She was gold medallist in the 80m hurdles event at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932 (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)

The finals

Didrikson first signalled to the world that she was about to do something special during the very first heat of the 80m hurdles, where she equalled the world's best-ever time (11.8 seconds).

From that moment on the records began to tumble.

During the javelin event, Didrikson threw a huge 43.69m for a new Olympic record and her first gold medal of the Games. She followed it up with a terrific run in the 80m hurdles final, where she not only won gold but also broke the world record she had set in the heat with a time of 11.7 seconds.

Finally, Didrikson lined up in the high jump competition. With another memorable performance she leapt 1.657m to tie the world record. But controversy followed. As the bar was raised to 1.658m, Didrikson's final jump was disqualified as she was adjudged to have used an improper technique. It left the perennial winner with a silver medal instead of gold - her Midas touch eluding her for just an instant.

Still, almost 90 years later, she remains the only athlete ever to have medalled in running, throwing and jumping events at an Olympic Games.

As she told the New York Times a year after the Games, nobody "rivals me very closely as an athlete".

Legendary American athlete Babe Didrikson (1911 - 1956) stands on a golf course and putts the ball, mid 1940s. She was not only a champion golfer, but also an Olympic medallist in track and field. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Legendary American athlete Babe Didrikson (1911 - 1956) stands on a golf course and putts the ball, mid 1940s. She was not only a champion golfer, but also an Olympic medallist in track and field. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
2005 Getty Images

The outcome

If winning three Olympic medals would represent the high point of any other athlete's career, Didrikson's journey to the top was just getting started. The star of the Los Angeles Games was about to pick up another sport where she is still considered one of the best to have ever played the game: Golf.

Taking up golf for the first time in 1935, "Babe" threw herself into training as if her life depended on it. As the New York Times reported in her obituary in 1956, she "tightened up her game by driving as many as 1,000 balls a day and playing until her hands were so sore, they had to be taped".

And - as usual - the hard work paid off.

As an amateur, Didrikson won 14 tournaments in a row, before playing a part in the foundation of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. After turning pro, she won 31 tournaments and 10 majors, including 1948, 1950 and 1954 editions of the US Open.

In short, she was as much of a phenomenon on the golf course as she had been on the athletics field.

Accolades followed, including an award for World’s Greatest Woman Athlete of the First Half of the 20th Century.

And who could argue? Mildrid "Babe" Didrikson is not only an Olympic legend, but arguably one of the greatest sporting legends the world has ever seen.