In Rome in 1960, for the first time since 1928, women were allowed to compete over 800 metres at the Olympics. Soviet women had won over the distance at the 1954 and 1958 European championships, and had set the previous five world records. In the Olympic heats, Australia’s Dixie Willis had the fastest time, 2:05.9. She led in the final, from the start until the home straight. In a jostling contest around 70 metres from the finish, she lost the lead, then staggered and trod briefly off the track. Passed by others, including the Soviet’s Lyudmyla Shevtsova, the ultimate winner, and fellow-Australian Brenda Jones, the silver medallist, Willis stepped back onto the track and jogged up the straight.
She finished the race, well behind the rest of the field, in a time estimated at around 2 min 27 sec. For many years it was assumed in official records that she did not finish, but this was an injustice. The official Australian Olympic team report (the officials concerned were the highly respected chef de mission Syd Grange and the athletics manager Julius “Judy” Patching) recorded Willis’s performance as “ninth in final, no time recorded”. This was supported by perusal of videos of the race.
While the Russian gold medallist had less success in the years that followed, Willis went on to better things. In March 1962, in her home town of Perth, she set a world record of 2:01.2 for 800 metres, clipping the previous record by a huge 3.1 seconds. Later that season she won the British Empire and Commonwealth Games 800 metres gold medal in 2:03.85. She was selected for her second Olympic Games in 1964, but succumbed to a viral illness, possibly glandular fever, in the weeks before the Games. At the Olympics in Tokyo the team doctor ruled her unfit to compete. She retired after those Games.