Australia’s golden girls

Fanny Durack & Mina Wylie, Australia's first female Olympians (1912). Image source: State Library of New South Wales

by Mark Gwynn

The Games of the XXX Olympiad will see more than 180 women representing Australia in London over the next fortnight. The history of Australian women’s participation in the Olympic Games is a hundred years old, and has been marked by success, triumph, and the emergence of the Australian term golden girl – a female Olympic champion.

‘Golden Girls. Congratulations to the women of Australia. Two Gold Medals – and at least two more to come in the swimming events! Who could help being proud of these great-hearted young women? Who can help seeing the shining symbol of the nation’s future in the gold medals of the Golden girls? Bless them!’ (1956, Melbourne Argus)

Betty Cuthbert winning at the Melbourne Olympic Games (1956)



A hundred years ago in Stockholm Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie were the first Australian women to compete at an Olympic Games.  The Australian sense of golden girl did not exist then but Durack, the first Australian woman to win an Olympic gold medal, certainly deserves this accolade. Initially refused permission to enter the 1912 Olympics, she won the 100m freestyle event and set a new world record, while her compatriot Wylie won the silver medal. Durack held world record times in swimming from 100m to mile events for almost a decade.

In the late 19th and early 20th century the term golden girl referred to a woman who was rich, successful, or beautiful. By the time of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games golden girl was used to refer to Australian female recipients of the gold medal. Most prominent was sprinter Betty Cuthbert who won three gold medals in the 100m, 200m, and 4 x 100m relay event. Also prominent at these Games were sprinter and hurdler Shirley Strickland, swimmer Lorraine Crapp, and up-and-coming swimming great Dawn Fraser.

Cathy Freeman lighting the cauldron at the Sydney Olympic Games (2000)

Australian women have won a disproportionate number of gold medals relative to the historically higher participation of their male counterparts. The Sydney Games of 2000 celebrated women’s Olympic participation when golden girls past and present brought the Olympic torch through the stadium in the opening ceremony: Betty Cuthbert, Raelene Boyle, Dawn Fraser, Shirley Strickland, Shane Gould, and Debbie Flintoff-King, with soon-to-be golden girl Cathy Freeman lighting the cauldron.