Marjorie Jackson’s journey from Queen of Athletics to Queen’s Governor of South Australia | Sunday Observer

Marjorie Jackson’s journey from Queen of Athletics to Queen’s Governor of South Australia

15 May, 2022
Marjorie winning 100m at Helsinki 1952
Marjorie winning 100m at Helsinki 1952

Celebrated Olympic athlete Marjorie Jackson, AC, CVO, MBE, was the supreme female sprinter of the early 1950s and won the sprint double at the Olympic Games of Helsinki 1952. Her decorative sporting career included two Olympic Gold Medals and seven Commonwealth Gold Medals. She also won every State and Australian title for 100 yards, 100 metres, 220 yards and 200 metres, she contested from 1950 to 1954.

At Auckland 1950 Commonwealth Games, she won gold medals in the 100 yards, the 220 yards, the 3x110-220-110 yards relay (with Shirley Strickland and Verna Johnston) and the 4x220-110-220-110 yards relay (with Shirley Strickland, Verna Johnston, and the non-Olympian Ann Shanley). At Vancouver 1954 Commonwealth Games, she captured gold medals in the 4x110 yards relay (with Winsome Cripps and the non-Olympians Gwen Wallace and Nancy Fogarty).

Marjorie with a height of 1.72 m and weighing 66 kg, set four world records at Helsinki 1952 Olympics; 11.5 sec in the 100 metres on July 22; 23.6 and 23.4 in heats and semi-finals of 200 metres on July 25; 46.1 sec in 4x100 metres relay heats on July 27. Her personal best achievements were 100 metres in 11.4 sec in 1952 and 200 metres in 23.59 sec in 1952.

It’s hard to fathom how big Marjorie was in 1952. If there is a consistent theme to her life it is one of ‘hard work.’ What made Marjorie Jackson a ‘Queen of Athletics’ is a remarkable tale.

Birth and Growth

Marjorie Jackson was born on September 13, 1931 in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales. Her father William, a toolmaker, moved to Lithgow after the World War II broke out to work in a rifle-making factory. Initially, the rest of the family stayed in Coffs Harbour, but as it became apparent the war was going to last long the family moved to the Blue Mountains town.

Marjorie has memories of winning school-age races in Lithgow and across the Blue Mountains. Her school friends dubbed her ‘Bernborough’ after the famous race horse of the time. Then, she went to Sydney for the country championships and won every race she entered.

For perhaps the only time in her life Marjorie started to get a little ahead of herself, until her father delivered a lesson she would always carry with her. “I was 15 and had my first photo in the paper,” she remembers. “Well, I thought I was someone.”

Her father told, “Now, God gives us all a gift and yours just happens to be running. And don’t you ever believe you are better than anyone else, because you’re not. From that moment on it never entered my head to think I was any better than anyone else. I think through him and what he said to me I was able to firmly keep my feet on the ground; realizing I wasn’t any better than anybody else as a human being.”

Marjorie joined the South Sydney Athletics Club and competed in the National Championships, which were used as the selection trials for the London 1948 Olympics. Crouched on the starting blocks she saw her competition take off a fraction before the gun, she stayed, believing they would be called back for breaking the start. They weren’t. She missed selection.

Marjorie worked as a typist. Her loving father bought her second-hand spiked shoes, a bit too large, so they were stuffed in the toes with newspaper and he built her a set of starting blocks.

She trained on the potholed Lithgow Oval, until her home town build her a cinder track. Yet, Marjorie had to train at night and there were no lights. Her trainer, Jim Monaghan, would light the track with his car headlights.

And remember Lithgow in winter is a bone-chilling kind of place. “Winter it was so cold and freezing, the fog would be so deep, you couldn’t see the person next to you, it was that bad,” she said. After training, she had to walk home alone in the dark.

Breaker of Barriers

The story of Marjorie’s emergence from small-town obscurity to the highest Olympic pinnacle is the stuff of Hollywood scripts. This was a girl who became the talk of her town when she flew to Melbourne for a race after she had beaten the legendary Dutchwoman Fanny Blankers-Koen. She actually flew. She had never been in a plane before; nor had anybody else she knew.

A time before cinder tracks, sponsorships, institutes of sport, professional coaches, abundant international competition. It cost a month’s pay for Jackson to buy a pair of running shoes that actually fitted.

In 1949, Blankers-Koen made a visit to Australia. She was the closest thing the Olympics had to a female mega-star. Dubbed the “Flying Housewife” because she had two children back in Amsterdam, she had won four gold medals at the London 1948 Olympics. Her husband-coach Jan had accepted the trip under the assumption that her races would be exhibitions rather than competitions.

Marjorie won all three of their encounters. In the last of them, on turf at the Sydney Sports Grounds, officials arranged to mow Fanny’s Lane to billiard-table smoothness and left long grass in the other lanes. It didn’t help. Blankers-Koen pulled up, yet Marjorie won it in better time than the Olympic record the Dutchwoman had set in London.

In January 1950, she set the first of her 10 world records, clocking 10.8 secs for 100 yards in Adelaide. Later, at the 1950 Auckland British Empire and Commonwealth Games Marjorie won four gold medals with the sprint double of 100 yards and 200 yards and two medley relays, 3x110/220 yards and 4x110/220 yards.

Between the years 1950 and 1954, she defeated reigning Olympic 100 metres and 200 metres champion Fanny Blankers-Koen a number of times. She earned the nickname of “the Lithgow Flash,” after the New South Wales town of Lithgow where she lived and had grown up.

Helsinki 1952 Olympic Games

The Helsinki 1952 Olympics turned Marjorie into the nation’s most-loved sporting star. A song Our Marjorie hit the charts, and when she returned from Helsinki she was given an open-topped car ride so people could cheer and wave. Not so unusual you might think, except that it stretched from Sydney Airport to Lithgow in the Blue Mountains, a distance of more than 150km.

At every town along the way, thousands came out of their homes and workplaces to acclaim their hero. For a shy country girl, it was all a little overwhelming. “They had me on every front page of every paper. They went absolutely hysterical,” she remembers. You could imagine that sort of adulation could turn anyone’s head.

Before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, official Olympic historian Harry Gordon was asked to choose Australia’s five greatest Olympians. He picked Herb Elliott, Murray Rose, Dawn Fraser, Betty Cuthbert and Marjorie Jackson-Nelson.

It was her performance at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 that entranced the nation. In the process, the ‘Lithgow Flash’ became the first Australian woman to win an Olympic gold medal for track and field and the first Australian of either gender to win an Olympic gold medal on the track since Edwin Flack in 1896.

The 100 metres was in a world record 11.5 sec and her winning margin of nearly four metres is the greatest winning margin in Olympic women’s 100 metres history. Daphne Robb-Hasenjager from South Africa won the silver clocking 11.8 whilst compatriot Shirley Strickland secured the bronze with 11.9 sec.

Marjorie set world records in both her Heat 3 (23.6 sec) and Semi-Final (23.4) of the 200 metres before winning the gold medal comfortably clocking 23.7 sec. Bertha Brouwer of the Netherlands and Nadezhda Khnykina of the Soviet Union won the silver and bronze medals clocking 24.2 sec.

With three finalists in the 100 metres final and winning their heat of 4x100m relay untroubled with a world record of 46.1 sec, the team of Shirley Strickland, Verna Johnston, Winsome Cripps and Marjorie were hot favorites. Tragically, as the baton was passed on the final change, Marjorie’s baton hand struck Cripp’s knee and she watched the baton fly out. The team recovered but could only manage fifth.

The greatest prize for Jackson in Helsinki 1952 was the love of her life, the Australian Olympian Peter Nelson, whom she met on the aircraft enroute to Helsinki for the Olympic Games.

Marjorie lowered the 100m world record to 11.4 at a meet at Gifu, Japan on October 4, 1952. Her achievements throughout 1952 earned her the title of ‘The Outstanding Athlete of 1952’ bestowed by the prestigious Helms Foundation in the United States.

Commitment to Marriage and Retirement

Marjorie Jackson tied the knot with the Olympic road and track cyclist Peter Nelson on November 7, 1953 and settled down in Adelaide. Both aged 22. At the Vancouver 1954 Commonwealth Games, Marjorie won three gold medals in 100 yards, 200 yards and 4x110 yards relay. Between 1950 and 1954 she won every state and Australian title for the 100 yards and 220 yards.

Then Marjorie hung up her spikes. She was just 23 and at the peak of her athletics career. The Melbourne 1956 Olympics to be staged in her country was on the horizon. She explained, “I give 100 per cent when I’m doing something and my marriage was more important to me than athletics. To me, athletics was a fleeting thing. You can’t run forever and I wanted my marriage to work.’’

Marjorie and Peter raised three children. Daughter Sandy says her mother was “entertaining, humble and energetic,” although she was never treated as “famous”.

Peter Nelson remained active in cycling and would do things such as ride to Broken Hill to help raise money for homeless kids. A non-smoker and drinker, it was a shock when he was diagnosed with the leukaemia that would kill him aged only 45. Jackson-Nelson nursed her husband over 22 months until his death on February 2, 1977, not leaving his bedside for the last 10 days of his life.

“I saw a hell on earth I never knew existed,” Marjorie said. Solace though was at hand. She turned on the religious TV program ‘Hour of Power’ and found a sermon called ‘How to Make a Comeback from Heartbreak.’ In part, it read: “Do not look at what you have lost, look at what you have got left. Don’t disgrace your loved one by your behaviour. Grief can be a dictator if you let it. It can turn you into a cynical, doubting, self-pitying recluse or drunkard. Sorrow will never leave you where it found you. It will change you.”

“That was my lifeline. I read that every solitary, single day of my life.” It was from that point, she started the ‘Peter Nelson Leukemia Research Fellowship Fund,’ which is aimed at finding a cure for leukemia. It has been run since 1977 by a band of volunteers and Jackson-Nelson is still out there cajoling people to contribute to the cause.

She appears so excited by the development of the fund and hard to imagine whether she is any more thrilled about her Olympic golds. “The fund to me is the pinnacle of my life because as I have said before ‘what’s running’? All right, I have won Olympic gold medals, but if we find a cure for leukemia you are saving other people’s lives.”

She has been heavily involved in sports administration, including roles within team management. And she was first female overall manager of an entire multi-disciplined team, the 332-strong Australian contingent to Victoria 1994 Commonwealth Games. She played pivotal roles at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games and Kuala Lumpur 1998 Commonwealth Games as well.

She accepted a post on the board of the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXVII Olympiad. She took up the role as a challenge: to help build the finest Games ever, one that would give huge benefits to Sydney. She talked about the legacy of magnificent venues, as she recalled the age of headlights in the park. She was very positive as always.

Then, she was one of the eight flag-bearers of the Olympic Flag at the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympic Games. She also has a road named in honour of her at the Sydney Olympic Park, beside the Sydney Superdome.

She was one of the final four runners who carried the Queen’s Baton around the Melbourne Cricket Grounds at the Opening Ceremony of the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games.

Accomplishments and Honours

Marjorie Jackson-Nelson was appointed the 33rd Governor of South Australia in 2001 and served till 2007. Another generation of South Australians embraced her and she was mostly known as “Our Marj’’.

The honours bestowed on Marjorie: The Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1953; Induction into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985; the Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) upon appointment as the Governor in 2001; the Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO) in 2002 during Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to South Australia; the Olympic Order, the highest order bestowed by the IOC in 2007.

In 2013, Marjorie became only the second Australian inducted in the IAAFs’ Hall of Fame after Betty Cuthbert. The citation from the IOC stated that the award was made for her “having illustrated the Olympic ideal through her actions, having achieved remarkable merit in the sporting world and having rendered outstanding service to the Olympic movement through her community work and as Governor of South Australia.”

In 2021, Jackson-Nelson was awarded Commonwealth Games Australia Life Membership. She is also a Dame of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and a Freeman of the City of London. In 1993, the State Transit Authority of New South Wales named a Sydney River Cat ferry after Jackson-Nelson.

Living the Olympic Credo

Marjorie described, how she has tried to live by the Olympic credo: “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. In contrast to today’s era of big-money sport, she recalls running in a pair of men’s second-hand shoes, stuffed with newspaper as they were too large, and how athletes had to supply their own starting blocks. She remembers the thrill of representing her country but also the hard work of running a family business and the pain of losing someone close.”

Marjorie Jackson-Nelson used to say, “Take each day as it comes. You only have today. There’s no point worrying about tomorrow. You don’t have it. I found that out long ago.”

(The author is an Associate Professor, International Scholar, winner of Presidential Awards and multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. His email is [email protected])