Obituary: Dorothy Jennifer Beatrice Tyler, athlete

Dorothy Tyler MBE: All-rounder who was Britain's first female athletics medallist at any Olympic Games. Picture: Getty
Dorothy Tyler MBE: All-rounder who was Britain's first female athletics medallist at any Olympic Games. Picture: Getty
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Born: 14 March, 1920, in London. Died: 25 September, 2014, in Suffolk, aged 94

The remarkable Dorothy Tyler was a world record-setting high jumper and all-round sportswoman who had the distinction of being the only woman to win an Olympic medal on either side of the Second World War.

She became Britain’s first female athletics medallist at any Olympic Games when, as a 16-year-old, she took the high jump silver in the Berlin Games of 1936.

Some 12 years later she repeated the feat in the first post-war Olympiad in London.

Tyler also won gold at the Empire Games, now the Commonwealth Games, in Sydney in 1938, and then emulated her Olympic double achievement by taking gold again, also 12 years on, in the first post-war Empire Games in Auckland.

Born Dorothy Odam in Stockwell, London, she took up athletics after her family moved to Mitcham in Surrey. Entirely self-coached, she won her school sports day’s top prize, which was free membership of Mitcham Athletics Club.

She proved naturally adept at the high jump, but was also a sprinter, hurdler and long jumper, and despite lack of coaching and facilities, she was soon ranked number one in Britain in her favoured event.

These were the days of high jumpers using the scissors or Western roll techniques to clear the bar and land in a sand pit in an event which had been pioneered in Scotland in the previous century.

Tyler’s technique and fearlessness marked her out from an early age and in 1936 she was selected to be one of only 13 women athletes in the British team for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which are best remembered for the black American athlete Jesse Owens winning four golds to make a mockery of the Nazis’ Aryan racial supremacy theories.

At a social evening for the women athletes attended by Nazi leaders, Tyler met Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, recalling the former as “a little man in a big uniform” and the latter as “a womaniser”.

In the event itself in front of 80,000 spectators in the Olympic Stadium, wearing her home-made outfit, Tyler was the first woman over 1.60m, but Ibolya Csak of Hungary equalled that height with her second jump and they went into a jump-off in which the more experienced Csak triumphed.

There was no “countback” rule in those days, otherwise Tyler would have won as she was the first to clear the bar at 1.60m.

Two years later, Tyler gave up her office job to compete for England at the Empire Games in Sydney, returning with the team’s only female-won gold medal after the six week round journey.

Just before the outbreak of the war, Tyler set a new world record of 1.66m at an athletics meeting in Essex, but the record was not actually recognised until nearly 20 years later.

That was because Dora Ratjen of Germany had already cleared 1.67m – the only problem being that Ratjen was really a man called Hermann. When the German ruse was discovered in 1957, Tyler was awarded the retrospective record in all the official statistics by the sport’s governing body, the IAAF.

At the start of the war, she married a fellow athlete Dick Tyler, whose family hailed from Shetland. He went off to fight in the Far East while she stayed at home and narrowly escaped death when a German bomb blew off the front of the family home while she and her mother were in a back garden shelter.

Tyler served as an RAF driver and PE coach during the war, and after her husband’s safe return, she gave birth to her two sons, Dick and Barry. The latter was born just nine months before the London Olympics of 1948, but Tyler insisted on competing.

Tyler again won silver, beaten this time by Alice Coachman of the USA. As in 1936, she and Coachman had the same height, but the American won on the new rule of “countback” – the same rule that had not been applied in 1936.

To put that feat in context, Britain has only won one Olympic medal in the women’s High Jump since Tyler – Dorothy Shirley’s silver in Rome in 1960.

She began to be coached by Arthur Gold, later Sir Arthur, the influential coach and administrator who changed her from a “scissors” jumper to a “Western roll” exponent.

Tyler then won her second Empire Games gold and captained the English women’s team in Vancouver in 1954, where she won silver.

Proving her all-round ability, Tyler also won the Women’s AAA title in the long jump and pentathlon in 1951. Her appearances at the Olympics in 1952 and 1956, where she finished seventh and 12th respectively, made her the first British woman to compete at four Olympic Games.

Encouraged by Gold, Tyler became a noted coach, and came up with such innovations as using ballet techniques to improve strength and flexibility. Dame Margot Fonteyn, no less, was one of her first “crossover” coaches. Tyler also wrote a coaching manual, Teaching Athletics in School and Club.

Moving to Sanderstead in Croydon, in her late 40s she took up golf at nearby Croham Hurst Golf Cub and was still competing in her old age, becoming national over-80 champion three times.

Awarded the MBE in 2001, Tyler suffered a stroke in 2006, but complained only of having to cut back on her golf. She was inducted into the English Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009 and was the official starter for the London Marathon of 2012.

With her health failing badly, latterly both she and her husband were residents of a nursing home in Suffolk where she died on 25 September.

Dorothy Tyler is survived by Dick, her two sons and four grandchildren.