Women are relative newcomers to the Olympic track and field program, first appearing at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, where they performed feats that were incredible by those days' standards. Elizabeth Robinson of the U.S. raced the 100 meters in 12.2 seconds, Canada's Ethel Catherwood high jumped 5 feet 3 inches, and a Pole by the name of Halinaa Konopacka heaved the discus 129 feet 11¾ inches.
The discus champion of 1928 could never match the efforts of Russia's powerful Nina Ponomaryova who will have a bad day in Melbourne if she doesn't make 170 feet. The high jumper with her old scissor-style leap would be stunned to see today's three top jumpers. Thelma Hopkins of Great Britain has been topping the bar at close to 5 feet 11 inches in practice. Rumania's Yolande Balas is still the recognized world record holder, though lately she has had little competition outside of the Iron Curtain. Mildred McDaniel of Tuskegee Institute is the U.S.'s only solid gold medal hope. Just before shoving off for Melbourne, Mildred unwrapped her long legs and rolled effortlessly over the bar at 5 feet 9½ inches with better than an inch to spare. Then, setting the bar at 6 feet 3 inches, she flopped on the grass and stared at it. She didn't jump, she didn't speak, she just stared, saving the 6-foot effort for Melbourne.
Today at Melbourne the 1928 sprinter would be left plowing along in the cinder dust raised by Betty Cuthbert and Marlene Mathews of Australia at the head of a pack of girls, all capable of 11.5 or better. In the 200-meter distance, Maria Itkina of Russia should prove that Russia has done a great deal since the '52 Games to complement her supremacy in the throwing events. Americans who have a chance to get into the finals are Tennessee State's Mae Faggs and Wilma Rudolph.
In the shotput 28 years ago, a woman with enough nerve to pick up an eight-pound shot was lucky to reach 39 feet. Today the Russian women, Defending Olympic Champion Galina Zybina and her 220-pound shadow, Tamara Tyshkevich, have raised the standard for the shotput so high that any girl who places in the first six will have to reach at least 50 feet. Among outsiders with a chance to break into this charmed throwing circle is Germany's Marianne Werner. The U.S.'s surprising Earlene Brown, who has had less than a year's experience at this highly technical event, could break up the Russian one-two monopoly.
The 80-meter hurdle event has been a difficult one for women to master. In 1928 a time of 12.2 was good in the event. But now 10 women in the world consistently run less than 11 seconds. Sente Gastl of Germany and three crackerjack Russians are tops.
Women, on the other hand, have always been good broad jumpers, and they were doing 19 feet at the time of the Amsterdam Games. But it will take a hike of 20 feet or better to gain placement in Australia. After a year's absence for medical degree study, Polish Elzbieta Krzesinka-Dunska is back in competition with a record-breaking leap of 20 feet 10 inches, while the attractive Russian, Galina Popova (SI, Aug. 27), has just about regained her peak after her recent illness.
In the javelin throw back in 1932 the late Mildred Didrikson Zaharias wowed the spectators with a toss of 143 feet 4 inches, then an unheard-of distance. In Melbourne, Czechoslovakia's Dana Zàtopek, the defending champion, and Russia's Alexandria Chudina and Virva Roolaid should push each other well over 170 feet.
All in all, the Russian women, highly trained and internationally experienced, seem likely to thoroughly trounce the opposition and, with the exception of the high jump, have at least one woman placing in every one of the nine women's events.