They are largely forgotten now but there was a time when their names were known by all. Kids adored them and so did their parents. Their photographs were pinned up across the nation and their sporting prowess universally celebrated. At a time when we most needed heroes, they were there!

There was Denis Compton…

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Denis Charles Scott Compton CBE (23 May 1918 - 23 April 1997) was an English cricketer who played in 78 Test matches and spent his whole cricket career with Middlesex. He was also an accomplished footballer who played most of his football career at Arsenal. He is regularly credited as one of England’s most remarkable batsmen being one of only twenty-five players to have scored over one hundred centuries in first-class cricket. A good looking fellow he also helped promote Brylcreem!

And perhaps ‘Split’ Waterman

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Squire Francis Waterman (27 July 1923 - 8 October 2019), better known as Split Waterman, was an English speedway rider who twice finished second in the Speedway World Championship final. Waterman took up speedway while serving in the British Army in Italy and went on to become one of the top riders of the post-war era on his adapted BSA M20 bike. It was from speedway racing that Waterman gained his nickname; After falling in a race he split his racing leathers down the back, after which his colleagues referred to him as “split arse”, which was later shortened to “split”. He made the headlines in the late 1960s when he was convicted of gold smuggling and firearms offences.

But probably the greatest of them all was the Flying Housewife…

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Francina “Fanny” Elsje Blankers-Koen (26 April 1918 - 25 January 2004) was a Dutch track and field athlete, best known for winning four gold medals at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. She was the most successful athlete at the event.

Fanny Koen started competing in athletics in 1935 aged 17. Her first competition was a disappointment, but in her third race, she set a national record in the 800 metres. Although international competition was stopped by World War II, Fanny Koen set several world records during that period, in events as diverse as the long jump, the high jump, and sprint and hurdling events. On 29 August 1940, she married Jan Blankers (who was fifteen years her senior), a sports journalist and the coach of the Dutch women’s athletics team. When their first child, Jan Junior was born in 1942 it was thought that would end of her career as an athlete. However, Blankers-Koen resumed training only weeks after their son’s birth.

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At the London Olympics held in 1948 competition rules limited Fanny to just 4 events - the 100 m, the 200 m, the 80 m hurdles, and the 4 × 100 m relay. The British athletics team’s manager, Jack Crump, opined that at 30 she was “too old to make the grade.” Many in the Netherlands were concerned for the welfare of the family, saying that she should stay at home to look after her children and not compete in athletics events. However, she won her first event, the 10 metres in 11.9, and became the first Dutch athlete to win an Olympic title in athletics. She also won the 80 metres hurdles after a photo finish.

In spite of these successes, Blankers-Koen nearly failed to start in the semi-finals of the 200 m, held the day after the hurdles final. Shortly before the race, she broke down because of homesickness. After a long talk with her husband, she decided to run anyway and qualified for the final with great ease. The final, on 6 August, was held in the pouring rain, but Blankers-Koen completed the race, the inaugural Olympic 200 metres for women, in 24.4, seven-tenths of a second ahead of runner-up Audrey Williamson. This is still the largest margin of victory in an Olympic 200 metres final.

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The 4 × 100 m relay final was held on the final day of the track and field competitions. The Dutch team, Xenia Stad-de Jong, Netty Witziers-Timmer, Gerda van der Kade-Koudijs and Blankers-Koen, were ready to go but just before the race, Blankers-Koen went missing. She had gone out to buy a raincoat but arrived back just in time for the race. As the last runner from her team, she took over the baton in third place, some five meters behind the Australian and Canadian runners. After a slow exchange, she caught up with the leaders, crossing the line a tenth of a second before the Australian woman.

Apart from her four Olympic titles, Fanny Blankers-Koen won five European titles and 58 Dutch championships and set or tied 12 world records - the last, pentathlon, in 1951 aged 33. She retired from athletics in 1955, after which she became captain of the Dutch female track and field team. In 1999, she was voted “Female Athlete of the Century” by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Her Olympic victories are credited with helping to eliminate the belief that age and motherhood were barriers to success in women’s sport.

Fanny Blankers-Koen in action at the 1948 London Olympics

– from Martyn Day