Iolanda Balaș was born on December 12, 1936, in Timișoara to an ethnic Hungarian family. Her mother, Etel Bozó was a homemaker, while her father, Frigyes, was originally a locksmith. Her father served in the Hungarian army until he was captured and brought to the Soviet Union and later back to Hungary, where he settled in Budapest.
Iolanda tried to reunite the family and move to Hungary, but although she managed to obtain a Hungarian passport in 1947, she was not allowed to leave Romania. When asked in an interview in 2005 whether she had ever thought about defection, she said that it had crossed her mind; however, as it could have resulted in serious retaliation against her relatives, she did not want to risk it.
In the interview she said: “I feel sorry that I did not win Olympics for Hungary. But a person represents herself and after that a nation. It was not given for me to bear the Hungarian colors, to make happy those who speak my mother tongue. It evolved this way and I feel sorry for it, but I would have gone mad if I would thought constantly about this contradictory situation. I hope that besides Romanians also Hungarians are proud of me.”
Iolanda Balaș at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo
Iolanda took up athletics owing to her caretaker Luisa Ernst, who was also a retired high jumper. In 1953 she transferred from Timișoara club “Electrica” to CCA (CSA Steaua). After finishing fifth in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, she won Olympic gold medals at Rome in 1960 (becoming the first Romanian woman to do so) and Tokyo in 1964.
At the 1964 Olympics Iolanda competed with a torn tendon, which forced her later to withdraw from the 1966 European Championships. Nevertheless, between 1957 and 1966, she won 154 consecutive competitions, not including qualifying competitions or exhibitions.
Iolanda improved the world record 14 times, from 1.75 m to 1.91 m, and equalled it once outdoors and once indoors. She was the first woman to jump over six feet. Her technique was a sophisticated version of the scissors technique.
Her record of 1.91 m, set in 1961, lasted until the end of 1971 (beaten by Ilona Gusenbauer from Austria), when jumpers with a more efficient technique (the straddle technique, and later the Fosbury style) took over.
Iolanda was named an honorary citizen of Timișoara (in 1999) and of Bucharest (in 2001).
In 2010, she received the royal decoration “Nihil Sine Deo” for special merits to the Romanian sports from Michael I of Romania, in a ceremony held at the Elisabeta Palace in Bucharest, for the way she led the Romanian Athletics Federation and to promote Romanian excellence in sport and young athletes.
In 2000, Track & Field News voted Iolanda as the best female high jumper of the 20th century. She was inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame in 2012.
Iolanda was diagnosed with type II diabetes several years before her death and was hospitalized several times after that. She died on March 11, 2016, following gastric complications at Elias Hospital in Bucharest, Romania, at the age of 79.
She is buried at Ghencea Cemetery in Bucharest.