SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian sprinter Betty Cuthbert, the only athlete to have won the Olympic 100, 200 and 400 metres titles, has died aged 79 after battling multiple sclerosis for nearly half a century, Athletics Australia said on Monday.
Cuthbert won the 100m and 200m double as a teenager at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and returned after a brief retirement to claim the 400m title in Tokyo eight years later in the final race of her career.
She also anchored Australia to the 4x100m relay gold in a world record time at the Melbourne Games and remains the joint second most decorated Australian Olympian behind swimmer Ian Thorpe.
That relay record was one of 16 she set during her career and she was among the first batch of athletes inducted into the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Hall of Fame in 2012.
Cuthbert was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1969 and had spent much of the latter part of her life confined to a wheelchair.
She returned to the public eye when the Summer Games were hosted by her home city of Sydney in 2000 and was one of the bearers of the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony.
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Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull led a flood of tributes to Cuthbert on Monday.
"Rest in peace Betty Cuthbert -- an inspiration and a champion on and off the track," he posted on his official Twitter feed.
The sight of the blonde Cuthbert pounding down the track to victory in her distinctive high-striding style with her mouth agape was among the most enduring images of the Melbourne Olympics.
Only 18, her haul of three gold medals in one Games was unprecedented for an Australian, although swimmers Murray Rose and Dawn Fraser later matched her feat to add more gloss to the country's first Olympics.
"The Golden Girl tag attached itself to her for all the years afterwards, symbolic of her entrenchment in the collective affection of a nation," Australia's peerless Olympic historian Harry Gordon wrote of Cuthbert.
Cuthbert set four world records in 1958 but injury was to hamper her campaign at the 1960 Olympics in Rome and she retired for 18 months immediately afterwards.
A woman of deep religious convictions throughout her life, Cuthbert said an "inner voice" had persuaded her to return to the track in 1962 for a tilt at the inaugural women's 400 metres crown in Tokyo.
Running what she later described as the only flawless race of her career, Cuthbert stormed to victory in 52.01 seconds ahead of Britain's Ann Packer.
Her battle with multiple sclerosis began only a few years later but Gordon said it had not left her embittered.
"She is utterly content, usually bright to a point of perkiness, sustained by the company of friends and memories and the comfort of deep faith," he wrote in 2000.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Ian Ransom)