When her multiple sclerosis made it too difficult for her to write her name, Betty Cuthbert satisfied the autograph hunters with a thumbprint.

She agreed she could have had a rubber stamp made of her signature, or handed out printed cards.

"But it wouldn't be very personal, not as special," she said.

Being special was one of the things that always seemed to come naturally for Cuthbert, who died early yesterday aged 79.

Advertisement

From the time she won the Olympic 100m title at the age of 18 in Melbourne in 1956, Cuthbert has been one of the most special Australians. She won two other gold medals at those Olympic Games and as a result became known by a name somewhat devalued by overuse.

But for her it was perfect.

Elizabeth "Betty" Cuthbert was born in Sydney on April 20, 1938, a twin to her sister Marie. But from the time she hit the headlines in 1956, she was the "Golden Girl".

Cuthbert's lunge at the line in the 100m at the Melbourne Olympics, her mouth wide open and blonde hair streaming behind her is perpetuated in bronze outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground, scene of her 1956 track and field glory.

It is an image made all the more poignant by her more recent appearances in a wheelchair, the result of the multiple sclerosis diagnosed in 1974.

In the days before sport, particularly the Olympics, was cheapened by money, drugs and celebrity cults, Cuthbert represented what it was all supposed to be about. Especially to Australians.

To her, it simply came naturally.

"It's funny looking back at everything," she said. "I was never fanatical about running, never had any heroes or anything. It all just happened."

Cuthbert won the 100m, the 200m and anchored the winning 4x100m relay team in Melbourne, so becoming the first Australian to win three gold medals at one Olympic Games.

She retired briefly but returned for the 1964 Games in Tokyo, where she duly won a fourth gold medal, in the 400m, on the programme for the first time, becoming the first athlete in the world to do so in four different events.

Through it all, Cuthbert had been inspired by a bible verse given to her by her grandmother just before she ran in Melbourne. The same verse, Isaiah 40:31, which reads, in part, "those who trust in the Lord will find new strength", has been her inspiration since her illness was diagnosed.

"I've never been angry. I can honestly say that. I think there is a reason why I have MS and that is to inspire other people who are suffering from the disease," she said.

Late in her life the woman who set 16 world records and won four Olympic gold medals received official recognition as one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Along with the likes of Jesse Owens and Abebe Bikila she was among the 10 inaugural inductees, and first Australian, into the International Association of Athletics Federations' Hall of Fame in 2012.