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Vale Betty Cuthbert - A tribute to a great Australian who lived with MS

Betty Cuthbert
7 August 2017

MS Australia mourns the passing of legendary Australian athlete, Elizabeth “Betty” Cuthbert AM, MBE, who has died after a long battle with MS aged 79.

Betty was dubbed the ‘Golden Girl’, when, at just 18, she completed in the (1956) Melbourne Olympics where she won the sprint double and anchored the winning 4x100 metres relay team to a world record, making her the first Australian to win triple gold.

Born in Sydney, NSW in 1938, Betty Cuthbert’s Olympic expectations were so modest that she bought herself a ticket to watch. (Source: Athletics Australia Hall of Fame).

A four-time Olympic gold medallist and world record holder, Betty Cuthbert was diagnosed with Multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1974.

MS Australia CEO Deidre Mackechnie said today:

“The world knows Betty Cuthbert as a remarkable athlete – who achieved greatness on the track.

 “What is also known by many, and something I wish to highlight today is Betty Cuthbert’s remarkable devotion to and efforts for the MS community.

“Betty was a passionate advocate that people living with MS should receive the best possible support and services. She also advocated for research into MS. Her lived experience with MS has helped raise invaluable awareness of the condition”, said Ms Mackechnie.

“Betty often stayed at the MS Studdy Centre in Lidcombe when visiting her mother who lived not far away.

“The staff remember her fondly when she stayed”, continued Ms Mackechnie. “In fact, she was staying at the MS Studdy Centre in Lidcombe on the day she held the Olympic torch, with MS staff helping her get to the event.

“In honour of the champion that she was, a rose was named after Betty and the road to the MS Studdy Centre in Lidcombe was renamed to Betty Cuthbert Drive.”

“Betty Cuthbert helped to raise the profile of the disease in Australia and importantly needed funds”, said Ms Mackechnie.

In 2012, (Betty), with two carers, flew to Barcelona to be the first and only Australian to be inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame. The highlight of the night, for her, came when the most famous inductee of all, Usain Bolt - of course, the fastest human on the planet - came across, bowed, touched her tenderly on the shoulder and exclaimed: "Four Olympic gold medals and 16 world records ... wow! You sure could run ... "

For Betty, this was the pinnacle of her sporting life.

A fighter from the early days (Betty and her twin sister grew up in Sydney during the 1930s depression) and as reported some years ago by the ABC, Betty used to love running barefoot between the rows of plants in her father’s plant nursery. In 1981, Australia was shocked to learn that Betty had contracted Multiple Sclerosis. (Source

A 2015 Weekend Australian feature article by Trent Dalton , profiled Betty Cuthbert and her long-time friend and carer Rhonda Gillam (at that stage for 24 years) - for half of “the Golden Girl’s” 46-year battle with multiple sclerosis. 

Some key extracts follow below:

…(in 2009) Betty moved into Aegis Greenfields (an ‘ageing in place’ facility in Mandurah, South of Perth) when her specialist told Rhonda her MS care needs were too high for Rhonda to handle alone.

Melbourne, 1956. The blonde-haired, twig-thin 18-year-old daughter of Parramatta nursery workers – a high school graduate who, only months ago, was making baby clothes in a ­Sydney factory…

One of the many side-effects of Betty’s MS – and the effects can be different and unpredictable for all who live with it – has been messages not making it to muscles. She long ago lost muscle movement in a stomach that in 1956 could crack coconuts.

“She didn’t ever want to go in a wheelchair. But then she just said to me, ‘Rhonda, I have to get a wheelchair’.”

The symptoms were subtle. Limbs falling asleep. Limbs wagging briefly and involuntarily. When Betty’s clothes brushed against her skin her body would tingle. Then an arm muscle would fail abruptly and a teacup and saucer would crash to the kitchen floor. It was the Australian summer of 1969. It wasn’t until February 1974 that Betty would receive a definitive diagnosis of MS, a disease that 23,000 Australians live with today.

She kept the disease to herself, telling only a small group of family and friends, and got on with her life. But the symptoms increased. Inserting a key into a keyhole became a challenge of physical and mental endurance. Turning on a light switch. Applying lipstick without smudging it across her cheeks.

“I can remember going to Betty’s home, I think it was in the ’70s,” recalls Raelene Boyle. “We had a barbecue in her backyard and I can remember she fumbled a couple of times and tripped a couple of times; it just didn’t seem right. I didn’t really think about it at the time. I thought, ‘She’s just having a bad day’. It was part of the MS and she hadn’t announced at that stage that she was unwell.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like to have your physical ability to move and look after yourself and everything in life – your freedom of movement that takes you out into the big wide world – I can’t imagine what that would be like, having been an athlete, to have that taken away.”

Fiercely independent, increasingly solitary, Betty moved reluctantly into the home of her older sister, Jean, and accepted support from a deeply loving family: parents Les and Marion, brother John and twin sister Midge.”

As the MS deepened, so did Betty’s faith.

“Betty describes her MS as though she’s a frog who’s been thrown into a pot of cold water then someone turned on the gas,” Rhonda says. “It boiled her slowly and she didn’t even realise.”

(Ron) Clarke has followed his friend Betty’s life from near and far throughout her MS struggle.

“In the sunroom, Rhonda looks at Betty, smiles. Rhonda’s been praying lately for a miracle. “MS is all to do with the nervous ­system,” she says. “Wouldn’t be hard for God to send down a new nervous system?” 

“Because I knew the truth - God gave it to me for a reason - that's all I used to think. I never, ever, once said, 'Why me?' "

"Because God wanted me to use this to help other people. My condition generated a lot of publicity, and because of that a lot of people gave to the MS Society and it just went on from there ... "
Betty Cuthbert




Signage at Betty Cuthbert Park, Perth, WA
“Betty Cuthbert (Golden Girl) won three gold medals at the Melbourne Olympics (1956) and another gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics (1964). During her athletics career she held 16 world records. Betty moved to Mandurah in 1991 and became an inspiration to the community through her talks to school children about her Olympic achievements and for her education on the impacts of multiple sclerosis.”

The Betty Cuthbert Rose
This beautiful soft apricot rose was named to honour Betty Cuthbert’s work to raise awareness for multiple sclerosis.

ABC News report 7/8/17:
WA Premier Mark McGowan has (today) offered a state funeral for (Betty) Cuthbert.

She was born in Merrylands in Sydney in 1938, a twin with her sister Marie, and moved to Western Australia several decades ago, where she lived in Mandurah, south of Perth.

Awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in 1984, Cuthbert was well known for campaigning to raise awareness of multiple sclerosis.

She was a torch bearer at the Sydney Olympic Games' opening ceremony in 2000 along with her friend and fellow sprinter Raelene Boyle, who pushed Cuthbert's wheelchair during the ceremony.

Betty Cuthbert and MS Research Australia
Betty Cuthbert jointly launched MS Research Australia with the former Prime Minister, John Howard AC at Parliament House, Canberra in 2004.

…The Betty Cuthbert Scholarship and the Betty Cuthbert Fellowship (awards) were jointly funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), MS Research Australia and the Trish MS Research Foundation to assist research in to the causes of MS and speed-up the development of new treatments and therapies to reduce the effects of the disease.”

About Multiple sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition of the central nervous system, interfering with nerve impulses within the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. It is characterised by sclerosis a Greek word meaning scars. These scars occur within the central nervous system and depending on where they develop, manifest into various symptoms.

MS affects over 23,000 in Australia and more than two million diagnosed worldwide. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20-40, but it can affect younger and older people too. Roughly three times as many women have MS as men.

There is currently no known cure for MS however there are a number of treatment options available to help manage symptoms and slow progression of the disease.