Dorothy Tyler: Athletics’ Silver Lady who stood up to Hitler

Sanderstead resident and Croham Hurst golfer Dorothy Tyler was one of this country’s greatest pioneers of women’s sport – two Olympic silver medals and two Empire Games golds as a high jumper demonstrated that. Following Tyler’s death this week, STEVEN DOWNES pays this tribute

“They’re all cheats!”

The little white-haired woman was quite fearless as she announced this to a 500-strong audience that included a couple of peers of the realm and the Princess Royal. Dorothy Tyler certainly knew how to get people’s attention.

Dorothy Tyler with her two Olympic medals, photographed in 2008

Dorothy Tyler with her two Olympic medals, photographed at her home in Sanderstead in 2008

It was a 60th anniversary event of the second London Olympics, where in 1948 Tyler, after enduring six years of the Blitz and the privations of rationing, won her second Olympic silver medal. Twice, she might have been the first British woman to win a Games track and field gold.

And now, in 2008, Tyler was a guest of honour at an awards lunch, with John Inverdale taking his microphone around the tables. Princess Anne had made it clear she had no intention of being interviewed; Lord Coe had been his normal diplomatic self; Kelly Holmes bubbled excitedly.

Dick Fosbury, the man who in 1968 had re-invented modern high jumping, was over from America and provided a typically gracious anecdote.

But when Tyler spoke, the audience sat up from their digestivs and coffee. Tyler wrote off 40 years of sporting history by declaring that the Fosbury Flop should never have been allowed.

“You can’t go over the bar head first,” said Tyler. “It’s cheating.”

As she sat down after managing to make the headlines once more, Tyler felt a tug at her arm from a neighbouring table. It was Dame Mary Peters, who confessed that had she not been allowed to Fosbury Flop in 1972, she would never have won her Olympic pentathlon gold.

Different times, different rules. Watching high jumpers today soar backwards over the bar is a commonplace. Tyler was twice a victim of her time: different rules applied at different times might have produced different, golden results. And had she had the benefits of modern equipment, rather than having to jump into a shallow sand pit…

But that lunchtime six years ago, and back in the spotlight for the first time in decades, Tyler, a true pioneer of women’s sport, stole the show in a typically combative style which, when she was a teenager, had even seen her confront Adolf Hitler.

Dorothy Jennifer Beatrice Tyler, nee Odam, died on September 25 at a nursing home in Suffolk, following a short illness. She was 94. She and her husband Dick had been moved to the home from their Sanderstead home a few months earlier, to be closer to their family and to ensure that they had proper care.

Action woman: Tyler in action in the 1940s, long before the Fosbury Flop

Action woman: Tyler in action in the 1940s, long before new landing mats made the Fosbury Flop possible

Odam was born in Stockwell on March 14, 1920. When in her teens, Odam won a schools sports day, with the prize a membership of the local athletics club, Mitcham AC. At that time, sporting participation by women and girls was frowned upon, but Odam used her sport “as means of escape from home”.

Women were allowed to compete in just five events by the 1936 Olympics. The Berlin Games were just the third time that women were allowed to take part in track and field.

“They didn’t like us to do the long jump back then,” Tyler said later, “because they thought it would damage our abdominal muscles.”

Odam was certainly outstandingly talented for her time. In later years, she would win the Women’s AAA pentathlon and hurdles titles. In 1935, schoolgirl Odam finished second in the high jump at the national indoor championships at Wembley, where Harold Abrahams, the Chariots of Fire sprinter by now a senior British official, identified her as one to watch. A year later the teenager was one of 12 women in the British athletics team for the Olympic Games in Berlin.

“When we got there, there were 40-foot Nazi flags everywhere, everyone seemed to be in uniform. It was all very militaristic.

“We were staying in a large dormitory. The first morning, I was woken up by the sound of marching, and outside there were hundreds of Hitler Youth parading.”

In Berlin for a fortnight before her event, “the only time the chaperones allowed us out, they took us shopping,” Tyler said. “When the shop assistant said ‘Heil Hitler!’, we just said back: ‘Hail King George’.”

Invited to an official drinks reception thrown for the women competitors by Joszef Goebbels before the Games, it was there that the London schoolgirl met Hitler. Asked what she made of the Fuehrer, Tyler said, “He was just a little man in a big uniform.”

She wore homemade vest and shorts to compete in. “I didn’t even measure my run up. I just picked a spot, ran and jumped over the bar. It was just something I did.”

Competing in only her second international competition, and travelling abroad for the first time in her life, in front of 80,000 people in the Berlin Olympic Stadium, Odam – using the scissors technique which jumpers employed to allow them to land on their feet in the shallow sand pits of the era – was the first to clear 1.60 metres. No one would jump higher in the three-hour competition staged on a fiercely hot day.

Under modern countback rules, Odam would have won. But under the 1936 rulebook, with the junpers tied on the same best clearance, a jump-off was called for, and as the young Briton wilted in the heat, Ibolya Csak, of Hungary, took the gold. Odam, according to the official British Olympic Association report, “certainly excelled herself and with a little luck might have been our first woman champion”.

Tyler in 1948, with her sons David (left) and Barry

Tyler in 1948, with her sons David (left) and Barry

Two years later, Odam had to give up her office job to take four months out to travel to Sydney for the third Empire Games, where she was the only Englishwoman to win athletics gold, setting a Games record 5ft 3in – the same 1.60m height she had managed in Berlin.

In 1939, she broke the world record by jumping 1.66m, only to have her primacy snatched away from her soon after by a jump by Germany’s Dora Ratjen.

It was a feature of Tyler’s life that she bitterly objected to being cheated. She had been suspicious of Ratjen since she’d met the German at the Berlin Olympics. In an interview conducted in 2009, Tyler recalled, “They wrote to me telling me I didn’t hold the record, so I wrote to them saying, ‘She’s not a woman, she’s a man’. They did some research and found ‘her’ serving as a waiter called Hermann Ratjen.

“So I got my world record back.” The world record progression was not formally corrected by the world governing body, the IAAF, until 1957.

During the Second World War, Tyler’s south London family home was bombed out, while she joined up as an auxiliary lorry driver with the RAF, and she also trained as a PE instructor.

Afterwards, in an era of strict sporting amateurism, she took a secretarial course, “because secretaries don’t work on Saturdays”, enabling her to prolong her track career. She would compete in four Olympic Games, then a record for a British woman, and win two Empire Games gold medals before her retirement from competition in 1957.

In 1940, she married Dick Tyler, though she would barely see him for the next five years while he was on active service. After the war, they had two sons, with Barry, the younger, born just nine months before the 1948 London Games. His mother had barely got back into competition in time to gain selection.

In that final, again on the last day of the Games, Tyler and Alice Coachman both cleared the Olympic record height 1.68m, but the American managed it on her first attempt. Now the new countback rule worked against Tyler.

Tyler had had to delay her first attempt because of the entry of the runners at the end of a gruelling marathon, in which Tom Richards – a South London Harrier who like Tyler had often trained at Tooting Bec track – pattered on to the crushed red-brick cinders in the old Wembley Stadium in second place, finishing just 14sec behind the gold medal-winner. To this day, Richards remains the closest a British man has ever come to winning an Olympic marathon.

Dorothy Tyler at the 2008 sports awards event where she claimed all Fosbury Floppers, including Dick Fosbury, right, were cheats. With them is Britain's 2008 Olympic 400m gold medal-winner, Christine Ohuruogu

Dorothy Tyler at the 2008 sports awards event where she claimed all Fosbury Floppers, including Dick Fosbury, left, were cheats. With them is Britain’s 2008 Olympic 400m gold medal-winner, Christine Ohuruogu

The pause in concentration saw Tyler fail in her first attempt at 1.68, so although she cleared it at the second try, Coachman would take the gold. Tyler would say later that as her American rival was injured, had they gone to a jump-off, as she’d done in 1936, she was sure that she could have won the gold.

But Tyler’s second Olympic silver made her the only woman to win medals either side of the Second World War. In 1950, she won her second Empire Games gold – “retaining” the title a full 12 years after first winning it.

At 34 years old, she would win a third Empire Games medal, this time the silver in Vancouver in 1954, on a swelteringly hot day when the men grabbed all the headlines: Roger Bannister for breaking the Mile world record in the “Race of the Century” against Australia’s John Landy, and Jim Peters for his staggering exhaustion at the end of a dramatic marathon.

After retiring from competition in 1957, Tyler taught PE and was an innovative coach. Her mother had been a dancer, and she called prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn to work with some of the country’s top athletes at Bisham Abbey.

The Tylers settled in Sanderstead and in 1967, she took up golf, joining Croham Hurst Golf Club. Her fierce competitiveness found another outlet. She got her handicap down to 11 and won a massive collection of club and other trophies, three times becoming the national champion in her age group in her 80s.

A stroke in 2006 curtailed her golf. “I only play three times a week now,” she would joke, but in the last couple of years of her life, Tyler became increasingly frail. As one of the few remaining survivors of the 1948 London Games, she might have had a prominent role at the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, but was not well enough to take up the organisers’ invitation. Being the official starter for the 2012 London Marathon was her last public appearance.

Dorothy Tyler is survived by Dick, approaching his 98th birthday, her husband of 74 years, sons David and Barry and four grandchildren.

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