Ralph Boston Performing Record Breaking Jump at Olympics
Ralph Boston

It was the evening of August 11, 1960. Ralph Boston had one of the best prime ribs he had ever had at steakhouse, Red Tracton’s, and was settling into a good night’s sleep before the United States track and field meet at Mt San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) in Los Angeles. This was the last tune up for American track and field athletes before the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Rooming with three-time Olympic triple jumper, Bill Sharpe, Boston engaged Sharpe in some pre-sleep braggadocio.

“At 10:30 I’m settling into bed and Phil is doing some exercises,” Boston told me. “I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘I’m preparing to break the record in the triple jump.’ I said, ‘OK. I tell you what. If you break the record, I’ll break the American record in the broad jump.’ He stared at me and said the American record is also the world record. I had no idea. I didn’t care. I went to sleep.”

August 12, 1960 went on to become a historic day in American track history as over 8,600 spectators at Mt SAC saw Americans break four world records – including John Thomas’ high jump of 2.18 meters (7’ 2”, Bill Nieder’s shot put throw of 20.06 meters (65’ 10”), and Hal Connolly’s hammer throw of 70.33 meters (230’ 9”).

The biggest world record to fall that day was one that had stood for over 25 years – Jesse Owen‘s long jump of 8.13 meters (26” 8 ¼”). And the record breaker was Ralph Boston, with a leap of 8.21 meters (26” 11 ¼”) that bettered his personal best by half a foot, and Owens’ record by three inches.

Boston had just turned 21 and he had outleapt a legend. The legend was humble. “I’m happy to see the record broken, and I’m just thankful that it stood up this long,” said triple gold medalist Owens to an AP reporter. “This shows that progress is being made in track and field. It also shows that youngsters have come along today much better than they did 25 years ago.”

Ralph Boston and Jesse Owens
Jesse Owens and Ralph Boston in Rome.

The youngster was not as prepared to face the press as the legend. “Jesse said it was all right to break it,” he told reporters that day. “He’s tired of it.”

The fact of the matter is, Boston didn’t know Owens and had never talked to him. As he admitted, he had just turned 21 that August. “I’m a neophyte. I don’t know what the heck is going on. And I’m trying to be what we call in the hood, ‘cool,'” but instead ended up sounding like a disrespectful kid.

When Boston arrived in Rome for the 1960 Olympics, and finally came face to face with America’s hero of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he was ashamed of his post-meet comments at Mt SAC. “I got on my knees, and said ‘I’m sorry.'”

But there was no denying it. Ralph Boston was now the favorite for gold in Rome, and was famous. Reporters asked him for interviews and passersby asked him for photos, including a GOAT to be.

On our way to Rome, after I broke Jesse’s record, we hung around LA, and we flew to NY to get processed and head to Rome. We pulled in front of the hotel, people were exiting, and this young man came up to me and said, “Ralph Boston. I want to shake your hand. I want to take your picture.” I asked him who he was, and he said, “You don’t know me. But you will. My name is Cassius Marcellus Clay.’ 

Ralph Boston Muhammad Ali Wilma Rudolph_TSU
TSU Olympic legends Ralph Boston and Wilma Rudolph hang out with Muhammad Ali during one of his visits to Tennessee State University. (TSU archives)
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Wilma Rudolph and Richard Nixon in Nashville_1960

It’s an oft-told tale of Black Americans triumphing overseas – soldiers, athletes and musicians – only to come back home to a world of discrimination and second-class citizenship.

Wilma Rudolph broke the mold.

In the Rome Olympics in 1960, Rudolph won gold in the women’s 100 and 200-meter races, as well as the 4×100 relay, and arguably became the most popular athlete in the world due to her beauty and charm. (That’s saying a lot since Cassius Clay was also on the scene.)

Nearly a month after the end of the Rome Olympics, it was announced by officials of her hometown, Clarksville, Tennessee, that October 4 would be “Wilma Rudolph Day”, and that according to ESPN, Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington, was going to lead the celebration. Tennessee at the time was a segregated state, a place where authorities or owners could require the separation of races in the activities of daily life, like drinking from a water fountain, riding a bus, or eating at a restaurant. And Governor Ellington was a man elected on his support of continued racial segregation.

Rudolph understood the leverage she had at that moment, and said she would accept only if all activities related to Wilma Rudolph Day were racially integrated. It was an offer that no matter where you stood on the political and racial divide, you could not refuse. Rudolph was not to be denied, and so that day was the first time in Tennessee that blacks and whites would be allowed to mix socially.

I found this letter to the editor in the Milwaukee Journal from October 22, 1960, where one Virginia Williams of Wisconsin wrote in praise of Rudolph as the finest of role models for black Americans.

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JFK and Wilma in the Oval Office

Wilma Rudolph, the Negro girl from Clarksville, Tenn., who won three gold medals at the Olympics for her running, also won praise for her good looks and charming ways. This unassuming Negro girl, coming from a large family of average income, brought honor to her race and her country. She brought credit to her country as an ambassador of good will.

County Judge William Hudson spoke in Clarksville at an integrated banquet give for Wilma. With tears in his eyes he said: “If I can overcome my emotions, I’ll make you a speech. Wilma has competed with the world and brought home three medals. If you want to get good music out of a piano, you have to play both white and black keys.”

And in order for America to maintain her leadership in the world, she has to tap all of her resources, utilize all of them. Negroes need America and America needs them.

As one can imagine, race relations in America has improved, but it has been a bumpy road. A few years later, Sports Illustrated caught up with Rudolph on the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and see how domestic life was treating her. While she was busy being a mom, she was also out on the occasional protest.

It was different in May of 1963, when Wilma took part in two demonstrations at Shoney’s, which is considered one of Clarkesville’s finest restaurants although it does not have much more to offer than hamburgers. She was turned away, together with the other Negroes. “I cannot believe it!: she said to a reporter. “Remember the reception they gave me in 1960?” A few months later Clarksville was integrated.  (Sports Illustrated, September 7, 1964)

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Ed Temple with, from left, Carla Mims, Edith McGuire, Vivian Brown and Wyomia Tyus at the women’s Olympic track and field tryouts on Randalls Island in New York City in 1964. Credit Ernie Sisto/The New York Times

Ed Temple was a black man who became a track coach for a women’s team in Tennessee, who overcame, along with the women on his teams, a severe lack of resources as well as significant racial prejudice in the deep south, to become one of the most historically impactful coaches in American track.

In a career of over 40 years at Tennessee State University, Temple coached 40 Olympians who garnered 13 gold, 6 silver and 4 bronze medals, including the belle of the 1960 Rome Games, Wilma Rudolph, and her successor at the 1964 Tokyo Games, Wyomia Tyus. At the 1960 games, the four members of the American women’s 4X100 team that blazed to gold were all members of Temple’s Tennessee State University team, affectionately known as the Tigerbelles. On September 22, 2016, Temple passed away at the age of 89.

To be black and female in the southern states in America was a challenge in a good part of the 20th century. Black athletes, whose competitions would take them all over the country, had to deal with long hours in cars hoping to find a place that would serve them food or put them up for the night, thanks to legally or socially enforced segregation along racial lines. David Maraniss, who wrote about Temple in his book, Rome 1960, said this in a Nashville newspaper interview in 2008:

We’re talking about the Jim Crow era, a period when the Tigerbelles . . . traveled through the deep South and endured harsh conditions to appear at meets. You look at what he accomplished and the obstacles he faced, and it’s simply one of the great triumphs in sports and history.

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Cassius Clay and Ed Temple both appeared at the 1960 Rome Olympics

Temple believed that for a black woman to persevere and win in America at that time, they had to be disciplined and smart. Temple’s standards were high, so training on the team was painful. The Tigerbelles were locked into practices three times a day, starting at 5 in the morning, resuming at 9:30 am, and then again at 2pm, often times in the searing heat of summer. Tyus, who was crowned fastest woman in the world by winning the 100-meters in both Tokyo in 1964 and in Mexico City in 1968 said that Temple practices were “just brutal. I just thought, ‘this man has got to be crazy.’” The Tigerbelles wrote and sang a song that reflected their feelings towards Temple and his practices: “It’s So Hard to be a Tigerbelle”.

And yet, the Tigerbelles won. But simply winning wasn’t enough for Temple. He was not only their coach. He was their father and mentor, one who showed a bit of tough love and expected them to keep up with their studies. Tyus was interviewed in the book, Tales of Gold: An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games Told by America’s Gold Medal Winners, and she wrote about Temple was a father to her.

Coach Temple was an advisor as well as a coach. My father died when I was only 15, so he became a father figure as well. He was very strict, and he was very tough. He used to say, “If we’re going to run, let’s run. If we’re going to be spectators, then let’s get up in the stands where we belong.” He also insisted that we train the European way, which to him meant “No play; just hard work.” When I look back on it, I sometimes wonder how I made it, but I also know that he was very good for us as women. He was always there to lend a helping hand, but if you needed to be reprimanded, he was also very good at that. And academics always came first with him. We had to have a C average to compete, but he always pushed us to do much better than that. His whole philosophy was that we were not going to be athletes all our live, so we had to take advantage of this opportunity to get a college education. We did, and he was always so proud of the fact that of the 40 of us who competed in the Olympics, 38 have college degrees.

Temple insisted that his Tigerbelles be smart, not only intellectually, but also fashionably. There was a school of thought at that time that blacks who wanted to succeed had to hold themselves up to a higher standard of behavior and appearance in order to simply get accepted in broader swathes of society. According to Maraniss in his book Rome 1960, Temple made sure his women looked good.

As the caravan approached its destination, an order would come from the front: “Get your stuff together.” This mean rollers off, lipstick on, everything brushed and straightened. The sprinters were a free-spirited group; some chafed at Coach Temple’s rules of behavior but grudgingly obliged. “I want foxes, not oxes,” he told them. The Tigerbelles had perfected the art of emerging from the least flattering conditions looking as fresh as a gospel choir, for which they were often mistaken.

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Cassius Clay wins gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics after defeating Zbigniew Pietrzykowski by decision in the finals of the light heavyweight championship.

Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3, 2016, and the internet flooded with tears.

A great man has passed, and all we can do is remember.

In 1960, Ali was known as Cassius Marcellus Clay. The 18-year-old from Louisville was certainly one of the noisiest Americans at the Rome Olympic Games. He did claim to be the Greatest to anyone who would listen, but he was not viewed as a leader of the US team. According to David Maraniss in his book, Rome 1960, Clay was simply not recognized on the same level as fellow US Olympians like decathlete Rafer Johnson, sprinter Wilma Rudolph, high jumper John Thomas, basketball players Oscar Robertson and Jerry West.

Rafer Johnson running in 1960
Rafer Johnson in Rome in 1960.

As discus thrower Rink Babka, the discus thrower from USC was quoted as saying, “When I think of 1960 and hear people say Cassius Clay was Mr. Olympics and everyone went to see him – bullshit.”

But one person in particular found Clay to be a kind of kindred spirit, or rather an alter ego. Maraniss wrote touchingly about the relationship between 1960’s Greatest Athlete in the World, decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, and boxing’s self-proclaimed Greatest of All Time.

“He (Johnson) felt close to the young boxer from the first time they met at the Olympic Village in Rome. Months after they had won their gold medals, they toured the South together on a speaking tour of predominantly black colleges. They were roommates on the road and stayed up late at night as Clay told Johnson precisely how he planned to become an unforgettable character as well as the heavyweight champion of the world. Many of the cocky phrases and poems that Clay – and later Ali – brought to the world, he first tried out on Rafer Johnson in their hotel rooms. Johnson saved those discussions for posterity on a small tape recorder.

The friendship, for Johnson, was an attraction to an opposite, or a repressed part of self, and he was self-aware enough to appreciate it, saying of Cassius Clay: “I love the way he talked. He was just brash and challenged people, and he said it the way he felt it, and he talked about it. I am not that type of person. I carry it inside. I talk about it a little bit, but I don’t need to say everything. He seemed to need to say everything. He wanted to talk about the beginning, and how he was going to do it, and the end, how he was going to finish. I just couldn’t do that. That just wasn’t my makeup. But I loved him for being that kind of person. I loved him for that.”

Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire
1960 Olympian and gold medalist Muhammad Ali defeats 1968 Olympian and gold medalist George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, in 1974.

Clay won the gold medal in the light-heavyweight division at the Rome Olympics. He would go on to fame, recognition and notoriety four years later as Muhammad Ali. You can read all about that on the Internet, where Ali will indeed go down in history as the Greatest of All Time.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in The Thrilla in Manila
1960 Olympian and gold medalist Muhammad Ali defeats 1964 Olympian and gold medalist Joe Frazier in The Thrilla in Manila, in 1975.