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Obituary: Esther Brand, high jumper who proved she wasn't too old

05 July 2015 - 02:00 By Chris Barron

Esther Brand, who has died in Bloemfontein at the age of 92, broke the world high jump record in 1941 and won the gold medal for the high jump at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland, after initially being left out of the South African Olympic team because she was considered too old. She was three months short of turning 30.On March 29 1941, at the age of 18, Brand, under her maiden name Van Heerden, set a world high jump record of 1.66m at the Coetzenburg athletics stadium in Stellenbosch. But it took 19 years for her achievement to be officially recognised.The acknowledged world record at the time was 1.67m, held by German jumper Dora Ratjen.Only in 1960, several years after Ratjen had been exposed as a man, did the International Association of Athletics Federations recognise Brand as having been the world record holder in 1941. Her record was broken on July 27 1941.Brand was left out of the team for the 1952 Olympic Games because the national selectors felt she was over the hill and it would be a waste of money sending her to compete.Brand was determined to prove them wrong and she set about organising her own funding.Fortunately, athletics bodies in the Western Cape, unlike any of the other provinces, including her "home" provinces of the Free State and Northern Cape, shared her conviction that the selectors had got it wrong.They banded together and collected enough money to send her to Helsinki.Brand always said she believed there were political reasons for her exclusion, but she never elaborated.Her winning height of 1.67m was short of both the then world record of 1.71m and the Olympic record of 1.68m.Lean, tall (1.85m) and long-legged, Brand used the scissors method of jumping.She later believed that if she'd used the Fosbury Flop favoured by today's jumpers she would have jumped higher.Brand was born in Springbok, in the Northern Cape, on September 29 1922. She matriculated at Maitland High School in Cape Town and was working as a typist in the prosecutors' office in Kimberley when she won gold at Helsinki.She and 16-year-old Joan Harrison, who won gold for the 100m backstroke, were the first South African women to win Olympic gold medals.Brand is still the only South African woman ever to have won an Olympic gold in a track event.She was inducted into the South African Hall of Fame in 2006.She is survived by two children, both former Springbok swimmers. Her eldest, Johan, died in a car accident 24 years ago.Her husband, Jan, a Springbok cyclist who she met while training in the same stadium, died seven years ago. 1922-2015..

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