Australians coined the nickname ‘The Golden Girl’ for Betty Cuthbert after her three gold-medal performances in the 100, 200 and 4 x 100 metre sprints, at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.
Just 18 years old at the time, her enthusiastic personality, engaging smile and unique running style would ensure that she remained well known and loved by a ‘sports mad’ Australia for generations to come. But there was more in store. After missing the 1960 Rome Olympics through injury, she came out of retirement to win the 400 m gold medal in the 1964 Tokyo Games, in what she described as ‘the only perfect race I have ever run’. She is the only Australian track and field athlete to have won four gold medals. Her battle in recent years against terrible adversities has made her almost as popular today as in the heady days of being Australia’s premier athlete.
As a young man, growing up in Australia, I heard a great deal about Betty Cuthbert the athlete and her achievements, so I was delighted to be able to meet her in her home city of Mandurah, about an hour’s drive south of Perth, capital of Western Australia.
Betty says that from about the age of eight, she knew that God had given her the ability to run fast. Born in 1938, she grew up in Sydney as World War II engulfed Australia.
Her father ran a plant nursery, and Betty used to love running around barefoot between the rows of plants. ‘Even at that age, I can remember experiencing God in all that I saw around me. I’ve always loved God, His creation, the plants, the trees and the animals,’ she says. ‘Mum went to church and sent us to Sunday school. My parents always encouraged me and I had a good home life. We were always taught to respect things and other people. It’s so different today, because children are just not taught the right way.’ She explained that declining moral standards are most certainly linked to an abandonment of belief in the truth of the Bible.
Aiming for her second Olympics, Betty was at peak fitness for the 1960 games, however a torn leg muscle forced withdrawal, and became her cue to retire. Although content in retirement, Betty says a voice within told her to run again. She resisted at first, but the compulsion was overwhelming, and though she would later realize that she was not yet truly converted, she believed that God was guiding her.
So at age 26, she started preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, stepping up in distance to the 400 metres. ‘I didn’t win any of the heats or the semi-final, but on the day of the final I was lying on a bench before the race. When we were called for the start, it was as if some force got me up from the bench. Amazingly, I had no nerves and I wasn’t worried at all. During the race, the wind was quite tricky and the other competitors were running very strongly, yet I was still very calm. I knew I had to do it; I knew I would win.’
It was this race that Betty describes as her ‘perfect race’. She says that because ‘the fourth gold medal made my career more indelible in people’s minds’, it was part of God’s plan to give her greater opportunity to witness for Christ.
However, it was only years later, after she had developed the debilitating disease multiple sclerosis,1 that she could see this plan unfold. ‘I was encouraged to go to a particular church where someone said, “they’ll heal you”. Well, I wasn’t healed but I met the Healer.’ At age 47, Betty was ‘born again’ by receiving Jesus Christ as her Lord and Saviour. She says, ‘My life has never been the same since. My salvation was a free gift. I didn’t have to work for it and it’s better than any gold medal that I’ve ever won. Before then, I’m ashamed to say, I was frightened to tell people of my belief in God.’
Some time after, her close friend, Mrs Rhonda Gillam, felt the call of God to look after Betty full-time. This was timely, as Betty’s condition worsened and she became confined to a wheelchair. Despite her disabilities, Betty continued to be involved in fundraising for charitable causes. Then a man claiming to be a Christian duped both Betty and Rhonda into contributing all their savings into an investment scheme, which failed. ‘It all happened so quickly. We were the easiest of takes,’ she says.
When news of Betty’s plight and potential bankruptcy reached the media, the response by Australians was overwhelming. A testimonial lunch and auction of some memorabilia raised $270,000, which enabled her to buy back her property. This thrust Betty back into the spotlight and she has used these circumstances to energetically witness about the Lord. On the evening that we met, I was given a blue sheet of paper bearing her signature. It professes her faith in Jesus Christ and explains the need for salvation by all, because we are sinners. ‘Anyone who asks for my autograph, gets one of these,’ she says.
It is easy to see that Betty understands how foundational the Creation message is to the Gospel. An extract from her witnessing sheet reads: A baby too, as soon as it is born is a sinner. Why? Because Adam committed high treason on us when he sinned in the Garden of Eden and we all inherited the bad seed. Seeing that life is in the blood, that is why Jesus was sent by God, born of a virgin … .
A footnote says: An apple tree is not an apple tree because it bears apples, but it bears apples because it is an apple tree. You are not a sinner because you sin, you sin because you are a sinner.
In discussing this, Betty adds, ‘I can understand how evolution says, “don’t believe in God”, but I’ve never had this problem. I’ve always loved His creation. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean anything to some people, and I just don’t get that! After all, if you just read the Bible plainly, it tells you everything. From Creation, to the Flood, to Jesus. I can’t see how you can come to the conclusion, there is no God.’
‘I used to witness about Creation to a good friend, a well-known politician, who became very sick and spent a lot of time in hospital. When he came out he said to me, “Betty, I’ve had time to stop and see what you mean, and you’re right.” I was very excited for him.’
Recently, a prominent Western Australian church leader said that Christians needed to understand that Christianity is not the only way to God. ‘It makes me so mad,’ Betty says. ‘I can’t believe the way our religious leaders are going. Why don’t they just believe God’s Word?’ She clearly understands the roots of this abandonment, as she explains, ‘If they don’t go back to Genesis, they won’t understand.’
I asked whether some people questioned how God could allow her illness. She replied that many feel sorry for her, but she tells them that far from blaming God, she loves Him. She said she understands we are all subject to the Curse instituted in the Garden of Eden, and so there is illness, suffering and death in the world.
Far from being depressed, she says, ‘God has given me a job to do and I am going to do it.’ Betty believes that her God-given achievements and present circumstances have created opportunities to share the Gospel in a way that she could never have imagined.
Indeed, discussing her with others, I found that almost everyone is aware of Betty’s faith. At a recent sports award ceremony, a high-profile businessman and ex-politician introduced her to the audience, noting her achievements and that she was a ‘born-again Christian’.
Australians hold Betty Cuthbert in great affection and esteem—not only for her sporting achievements, but as a model of sportsmanship and integrity on and off the field. During Australia’s recent celebrations of 100 years of federated nationhood, individuals were chosen to represent various fields of endeavour, such as sports, the arts, etc. Out of all the categories, Betty (chosen for sports) was the only living representative.
At the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, she took part in the spectacular opening ceremony. Tens of thousands of spectators were cheering her on once again as she took the torch, and I can admit to being very moved at the sight of ‘the great’ Betty Cuthbert completing her part, being pushed in a wheelchair.
As our conversation drew to a close, Betty said, ‘I’ve seen God in His creation and I’ve always loved Him. People might think I’m sick, but the Lord has turned my life around. I now know why I had to run again and win that fourth gold medal, to make a mark in people’s minds. He is now using my situation to tell people about Him. We truly have a great God.’