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Monday, 10 May 2021

Typewriter Champs Denied the Chance to Emulate Babe Zaharias’ Olympic Glory

Babe Zaharias. a champion of everything, including typing.
Clara Decima Norman and Esther Jane Williams learned typewriter skills at high school and, in Norman’s case, went on to make a good living from typing (Williams’ fortune came from a somewhat more glamorous and lucrative occupation). But they were both to regret their dreams of winning gold medals at the Olympic Games being ended by circumstances way beyond their control – the cancellation of the 1940 Tokyo and Helsinki Olympics. But for war, Norman and Williams might have realistically expected to emulate the legendary Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, a champion speed typist who ranks with Jim Thorpe as the world’s greatest ever all-round sportsperson. As Babe Didrikson, Zaharias won three Olympic Games medals, two of them gold, at the first Los Angeles Olympics, in 1932. The finest female athlete of all time, she was a champion golfer, track world record holder, All-American basketballer and a star baseballer. She also played softball, tennis and pocket billiards (pool), shot, boxed, wrestled and rowed, and was a diver,  swimmer, roller-skater and a tenpin bowler. So adept was Zaharias at a typewriter from an early age that, in 1925, at just 14, she wrote 42,000 words of an early autobiography, The Story of My Life, as her high school typing practice in Beaumont, Texas, and won a gold medal with 86 words a minute. Decima Norman later achieved similar proficiency at a typewriter, and like Zaharias was outstanding in a wide range of sports. Williams, however, had set her sights on goals beyond mere sport and typing by the time she graduated from George Washington Preparatory High School in Westmont and went to Los Angeles City College.


Frankly, I still can’t see the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games (rescheduled for July 23-August 8 this year) going ahead. Forging on with plans to stage the Games strikes me as reckless in the circumstances. But there need not be a cancellation, as there was for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics. On July 31, 1936, the International Olympic Committee, meeting in Berlin, awarded the 1940 Summer Games to Tokyo.  The Second Sino-Japanese War, which broke out on July 7, 1937, intensified the next year and on July 15, 1938, the Japanese cabinet approved the cancellation of both the Summer and Winter Olympics. The latter were set down for Sapporo in early February 1940 and subsequently awarded to St Moritz in Switzerland then Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Nazi Germany. Like the Summer Games, they were not held. On July 19, 1938, Finland accepted the IOC’s invitation for Helsinki to stage the 1940 Summer Games, but these were cancelled on April 23, 1940.


Three weeks later, on May 13, the 18-year-old Esther Williams, the champion Californian breaststroke swimmer who had been considered a certain medallist at the 1940 Olympics, accepted her Olympic dream was over and turned professional. She joined the West Coast version of Billy Rose’s “Aquacade” a music, dance and swimming show. Williams replaced Rose’s wife, 1932 Los Angeles Olympics gold medallist, Eleanor Holm. Williams went on to star in “aquamusicals” for MGM, including portraying Australian Annette Kellerman in “Million Dollar Mermaid”. Williams wrote an autobiography with the same title. She died of natural causes in her Los Angeles home on June 6, 2013, aged 91.

Esther Williams as a student at George Washington Preparatory High School in Los Angeles, where typing was among her classes.

By 1982, West Australian athlete Decima Norman had come to fear war would interfere in her life twice. She had been appointed custodian of the baton for that year’s Brisbane Commonwealth Games, at a time when Britain was at war in the Falklands. “War stopped my career before,” Decima said. “I hope it doesn’t interfere this time.” Fortunately, hostilities ended in the Falklands on June 14, five days before Decima flew to London with the baton. The baton relay started with the English Queen handing it to a British runner, and Decima then brought it back to her home town of Albany in Western Australia, from where it was relayed to Brisbane. On September 30, with Decima watching on, Raelene Boyle brought it into QEII Stadium and handed it to the late Duke of Edinburgh.

Decima Norman never used starting blocks, yet ran 11sec flat for the 100 yards.

The Brisbane Games were the third hosted by Australia – the first being the Empire Games in Sydney in 1938 and the second in Decima’s home state of Western Australia, in Perth in 1962. Decima attended all three, in 1938 as the single most dominant competitor (five gold medals in six track and field events at the Sydney Cricket Ground), the second and third as a guest of honour. In 1962 she was working as the dining room manager at the Kogarah RSL Club in Sydney when she was invited to return to WA to attend the Games opening at Perry Lakes Stadium. In the absence of a state athletics body, Decima had been denied the chance to compete at the 1934 London Empire Games and the 1936 British Olympics, so she helped form a state association herself. In Sydney in 1938 she made up for lost time.


Dubbed by newspapers as “Dashing Des”, the “Silver Streak” and the “White Flash”, Decima was not quite in the Betty Grable league – nonetheless her legs were ensured for £500 when she returned to Sydney, this time to compete and settle there, in early 1939. Decima’s sprinting style was derided by all, included herself (she “ran like a hen in flight” according to her coach), but it was sufficiently adequate to carry her to gold medals at the Empire Games in the 100 and 220 yards, the long jump and in two relays. Her five golds remained a Commonwealth Games record until Canadian swimmer Graham Smith grabbed six in Edmonton in 1978.


Decima was an experienced and highly proficient typist and promises of work, including one at a newspaper, had lured her to Sydney in 1939, where she knew conditions and competition would boost her Olympic Games chances. She was ranked seventh in the world in the long jump in 1940, plus seventh in the 200m and sixth in the 80m hurdles.

Decima in 1982 with her long-time partner, New Zealander Eric Hamilton.

The planned 1940 Tokyo Olympics were cancelled five months after the Sydney Empire Games ended, and Decima had then set her sights on Helsinki. Six months after the Finnish Olympics were called off, Decima announced she was retiring from athletics. A decade later her Australian records began to fall. Hours after being presented with an MBE by Prince Charles on April 8, 1983, Decima was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with cancer. After almost five months of treatment in Perth, she died there on August 29.

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