Shirley Strickland has won more Olympic medals than any other Australian in athletics. She is also ranked 10th on the all-time Australian Olympic medal tally, the first nine all being swimmers.*
Growing up on a farm in Western Australia near the wheatbelt region of Pithara, her father was a talented runner who won the Stawell Gift of 1900, the oldest and richest short-distance running race in Australia. He had hoped to attend the Olympics however lacked the finances to fund the voyage.
Shirley’s early schooling years were by correspondence until a school was established in the region. She went on to attend the University of Western Australia where she obtained a Bachelor of Science in Physics with honours, before accepting a role as a teacher at Perth Technical College. Here she was coached by a former world sprinting champion and began to take running seriously.
After winning the 1947 state title in four races plus the shot-put she went on to win the national title in the 80m hurdles which secured her a place at the 1948 Summer Olympics. (click here to read more about the 1948 Olympics)
Shirley was Australia’s most successful athlete of the games after she won silver as a member of the women’s 4 x 100m track relay and two bronze medals in the 100m and 80m hurdles respectively. She also competed in the 200m where she came fourth, however a review of the footage thirty years later showed that she actually finished just ahead of the third-place finisher so really should have finished on the podium.
At the 1950 British Empire Games (today the Commonwealth Games) in Auckland, New Zealand, she won three gold medals; two in relays and one in the 80m hurdles. She also won two silver medals (100 yards and 220 yards). On a personal note, also in 1950, she married geologist Lawrence Edmund de la Hunty who she had met while teaching at the Perth Technical College, he had actually been one of her students.
Two years later at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki she won her first gold, claiming victory in the 80m hurdles in world record time. She also won bronze in the 100m, behind Australian Majorie Jackson who claimed the gold medal and set a world record in the semi-finals. Jackson also won gold in the 200m. With a strong team the Aussie women set a world record in the heat of the 4 x100m relay, heading into the final as the favourites. Unfortunately, a baton mix-up during the race saw Australia come in fifth with the USA team setting a new world record to claim the victory.
In 1953 she gave birth to her first son and then went straight back to competing, joining the Aussie Olympic team to bounce back at the 1956 home Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia and win the 4 x 100m relay. Once again, she took home the gold for the 80m hurdles.
This would be her last attendance at an Olympic meet as an athlete, however she would attend the 1968 Mexico City and 1976 Montreal Olympics in an administrative capacity. She also had three more children, a daughter and two more sons.
She was one of the torch bearers inside the stadium at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and also in the year 2000 she was appointed as an officer of the order of Australia (AO). Back in 1957 she had been appointed a member of the order of the British Empire (MBE).
In 1985 she was inducted into the Australian Sport Hall of Fame and in 1995 was elevated to “Legend” status. In 2011 she was then an inaugural inducted posthumously (having died aged 78 in 2004) into the WA Women’s Hall of Fame and then in 2014 into the International Association of Athletics Federation’s Hall of Fame.
Outside of sport Shirley was known for her role in politics, particularly in WA where she was as founding member of the state’s Australian Democrats (AD) Party and later served as President (the AD was created from splinter groups of the Liberal Party). She stood for election to several levels of government on multiple occasions and though she was never elected to state or federal parliament she did serve two terms as a city councillor for Melville (1988-96 and 1999-2003).
She is remembered for her commitment to the environment and for her dedicated conservation work. A reserve is named after her in the Perth city of Melville.
Controversially, she made headlines in 2001 when she sold her sporting memorabilia including her medals. She did this to help pay for her grandchildren’s education and to make a donation to secure a forest to stop developers destroying it. A group of anonymous businesses ensured the items were secured and made their way to the National Sports Museum in Melbourne.
There is currently a film being made about Shirley which apparently features her communist activities, that recently released documents claim she undertook while being monitored by ASIO when she competed behind the iron curtain in Poland, in 1955. (To read more about this project check out The West Australian newspaper article: click here)
*Did you know that 8 of Australia’s top 10 most successful Olympians, by number of medals won of any colour, are women.
When ranked by the number of medals achieved at an Olympics events the top 10 includes 8 women, of which 7 are swimmers and one is an athlete.
The only two males to feature on this list are Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett.
"Shirley Strickland AO MBE", Sport Australia Hall of Fame, <https://sahof.org.au/hall-of-fame-member/shirley-strickland/>
"Shirley Strickland", Olympics.com, <https://olympics.com/en/athletes/shirley-strickland-de-la-hunty>
"Shirley de la Hunty, nee Strickland AO MBA, 1925-2004", Athletics Australia, <https://www.athletics.com.au/hall-of-fame-directory/shirley-strickland/>
Steve Butler, "ASIO Sped on WA Sprint Star Shirley De La Hunty", The West Australian (13 October 2018), <https://thewest.com.au/news/wa/asio-spied-on-wa-sprint-star-shirley-de-la-hunty-ng-b88983796z>
Jane Cadzow, "Death of a Golden Girl", Sydney Morning Herald, 22 January 2006, <https://www.smh.com.au/national/death-of-a-golden-girl-20060122-gdmtmy.html>