World Athletics is deeply saddened to hear that Marlene Ahrens, the 1956 Olympic javelin silver medallist, died from heart failure on Wednesday (17) at the age of 86.
More than 60 years after reaching the podium at the Melbourne Games, Ahrens remains the only woman from Chile to win an Olympic medal in any sport. She is also the only South American athlete ever to win an Olympic medal in a throwing event.
Born to German parents in the Chilean city of Concepcion in July 1933, Ahrens’ father instilled in her a passion for sports from a young age, and she played field hockey, volleyball and gymnastics in her youth.
During a trip to the Chilean town of Cachagua for a hockey tournament, Ahrens and her then boyfriend Jorge Roberto Eberspeger (later her husband) enjoyed a day at the beach, where they threw pebbles into the sea. When they returned to their local sports club, Eberspeger told the sports coach about Ahrens’ ability, saying: “here is a natural thrower”.
After just two weeks of training, Ahrens competed at a junior event and produced a mark that ranked her fifth on the senior South American all-time list at that time.
She continued to train for the event and married Ebensperger in November 1953. In March 1955, Ahrens gave birth to her daughter, Karin, who would later enjoy a short international athletics career before becoming a prominent journalist.
Ahrens made her major championships debut at the 1956 South American Championships in Santiago. Cheered on by the home crowd in the Chilean capital, Ahrens smashed the championship record by six metres with 48.73m, a mark that stood for 18 years.
But while Ahrens dominated her discipline on the continental level, she faced much tougher opposition later that year at the Olympic Games in Melbourne – where, despite being Chile’s flag bearer, she was the 19th-ranked entrant – and was up against defending champion Dana Zatopkova and world record-holder Nadezhda Konyayeva.
Soviet thrower Inese Jaunzeme led from the first round with an Olympic record of 51.63m, while Konyayeva and Zatopkova moved into podium positions in the second round. Later, in the fifth round, Ahrens produced the throw of her life, a South American record of 50.38m, to move into the silver medal position ahead of Konyayeva and Zatopkova.
Leader Jaunzeme was the only athlete to improve in the last round, extending her Olympic record of 53.86m to secure the gold while Ahrens, the surprise performer of the competition, held on to the silver medal.
Two years later, Ahrens successfully defended her South American title and went on to win gold medals at the 1961 and 1963 editions. She also won the Pan American Games in 1959 and 1963, breaking the Games record at the latter with 49.93m.
She was Chile’s flag bearer once again at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, where Ahrens finished 12th in the final.
Following a dispute with a national newspaper, Ahrens was banned from competing at the 1964 Olympic Games and was forced to retire from athletics. She soon took up tennis, though, and won the mixed doubles at the Chilean national tournament in 1967.
After injuring her knee, she dedicated her life to equestrianism. In 1995, some 36 years after her debut at the competition, Ahrens represented Chile in equestrian at the Pan American Games in Mar del Plata. She retired from horse riding in 2012 at the age of 79.
Ahrens leaves behind her daughter Karin and son Roberto.