wilma_rudolph

When you see a champion, there is almost always a role model.

For Olympic champions like Florence Griffith Joyner, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Evelyn Ashford, the role model is Wilma Rudolph, the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic Games. Crowned the fastest women in the world at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Rudolph easily won the gold in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, and anchored the American 4×100 team to victory.

Due to her modest grace and her apparent beauty, as well as a life story of overcoming difficult odds to become the best in the world, Rudolph was in the early 1960s the most famous female athlete in the United States, if not the world.

And while she is well known for helping to integrate her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee when she insisted on the relaxation of segregation laws during her Clarksville Welcome Home celebrations, she has perhaps had a more lasting impact on the success of women, particularly black women, in sport.

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At the banquet in her honor during “Wilma Rudolph Day” on October 4, 1960, she made this statement: “In every effort I have been motivated by one thing: to do justice to those who believe in me and to use my physical talents to the glory of God and the honor of womanhood.” David Maraniss, in his book Rome 1960, pointed out that phrase as a symbol of Rudolph’s true lasting influence.

…it was the last phrase of her banquet speech – the honor of womanhood – that resonated deepest and longest. She was by no means the first great woman Olympian, but a unique combination of personal and cultural forces – her style and attractiveness, her candor and pride in who she was and where she was from, the leg braces of her childhood, the fact that she flashed onto the scene so brilliantly at the first commercially televised Olympics, her international esteem – made her a powerful symbol of the rise of women in sports. If there were a Mount Rushmore of women athletes, her profile would be one of the four chiseled faces. “For every woman athlete who came after, she was the person who opened the door,” Ed Temple said later. “Wilma opened that door, and for all women, not just in track and field. She had that smile. She had that charisma.”

Maureen M. Smith wrote the book, Wilma Rudolph: A Biography, and proclaimed, “Wilma Rudolph’s story is more than the races she won and world records she established. It is the story of a young woman who overcame tremendous obstacles that should have kept her from ever experiencing athletic success, and yet she is the epitome of triumph.”

Here was a woman that women, particularly black women, could look up to with pride, and set as the bar for achievement. When Rudolph passed away in November, 1994, here’s what Joyner-Kersee had to say about her idol.

She was someone I could always talk to. She was very inspirational. She was always in my corner. If I had a problem, I could pick up the phone and call her at home. It was like talking to your sister or your mother, someone you knew for a lifetime. I always thought of her as being the greatest, and not only athletically. You respected her as a woman.

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Jackie Joyner-Kersee with medals

None other than 1960 Olympics teammate and USA team captain, Rafer Johnson, wrote in his autobiography, The Best That I Can Be, that Rudolph’s contribution cannot be overlooked.

One of the most important changes has been the advancement of female athletes. In my day, the public suffered under the assumption that women could not compete in the same sports as men, or had to be protected if they did. I remember women’s basketball, for instance, when each team had an offensive and defensive unit so the players did not have to run full court. Most of the male athletes I knew had great respect for their female counterparts; we were not surprised to see the strides women have made since Wilma Rudolph dazzled the world in Rome.

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wilma_rudolph_lucinda_williams_barbara_jones_martha_hudson_1960
Left-right: Wilma Rudolph, Lucinda Williams, Barbara Jones and Martha Hudson at the Rome Olympics

She was by then the Queen of Rome at the 1960 Summer Olympics. American sprinter, Wilma Rudolph, had already won gold in the women’s 100- and 200-meter sprints. But her teammates from the famed Tennessee State Tigerbelles had been left out of the medal count. The 4×100 was their chance to join Rudolph in Olympic glory. And Rudolph, as described in David Maraniss’ fantastic book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, promised to help them get the gold on one condition:

In the warm-up room before the race, the Tigerbelles huddled and prayed together. “Just get me that stick,” Rudolph, who would run the anchor leg, said at the end. “Just get me that stick, and we’re going to get on that stand. We’re going to win that gold medal!” her teammates could barely contain themselves; no jealousy now, just fire burning inside.

Maraniss went on to tell the story how her teammate, Lucinda Williams, in the third leg was going so fast heading into the exchange with the anchor, Rudolph, that they needed two attempts to get Rudolph the baton, at one point Rudolph needing to stop to grab it. In the fumbled exchange, Maraniss wrote that the team lost about a meter to the competition in that moment. But like a locomotive, Rudolph reached the leaders at about 60 meters, and then blew past them to win gold for the team.

Not only did the Tigerbelles share a momentous team victory, Rudolph’s star in Rome and the world went super nova, the first ever American to win three track gold medals in a single Games. When President Kennedy heard that Rudolph was in Washington DC a few months after her return from Rome, he invited Rudolph to the White House and spent so much time talking with her in the Oval Office that he kept his next appointment cooling his heels for thirty minutes.

But as a child, Rudolph, was not the radiant and confident person she was to become. She was born prematurely in 1940, and due to polio, had to deal with a left leg and foot that twisted unnaturally and made it difficult for her to walk. Doctors had her wear braces and special shoes, and she had to be carried from room to room by family members. As one could imagine, to be seen as so different from your family and friends must be so terribly hard on a child. Maraniss wrote:

As Wilma later described her early childhood, she was depressed and lonely at first, especially when she had to watch her brothers and sisters run off to school while she stayed home, burdened with the dead weight of the heavy braces. She felt rejected, she said, and would close her eyes “and just drift into a sinking feeling, going down, down, down.” Soon her loneliness turned to anger. She hated the fact that her peers always teased her. She didn’t like any of her supposed friends. She wondered whether living just meant being sick all the time, and told herself it had to be more than that, and she started fighting back, determined to beat the illness.

Maraniss went on to describe how Rudolph’s condition gradually improved to the point that she was able to secretly remove her braces so she could run around outside with her siblings. And then her parents did something wonderful, presenting Rudolph with a gift so ordinary and yet so life affirming that it transformed the shy, despondent girl into one filled with promise, bursting with energy.

Then one day her father, who did the shopping in the family, came home with regular shoes for Wilma, marking a dramatic change in her life. As Yvonne remembered the scene: “They were no longer the high-top shoes that she had to have with the braces. And my mother took her in to a room all by herself; she didn’t even let us know she had these shoes. And they put them on her, and she came out of the room, and she was beaming all over. It was like she was a whole new little girl. And after that it was like she knew she was not different, and it gave her more confidence at that point.”

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After that, you couldn’t stop Rudolph from running. A blur on the basketball courts, she picked up the nickname “Skeeter” because she flitted about so quickly like a mosquito. Her head coach at Tennessee State, Ed Temple, marveled at this determined young woman, but also wasn’t sure if she had everything needed to be a champion. Just prior to the 100-meter finals, Temple hid in the tunnels of the Stadio Olimpico, barely able to see Skeeter in lane 3. Rudolph, a notorious slow starter, fell behind. But he also knew that Rudolph, like today’s sprinting God, Usain Bolt, finished like a locomotive.

According to Maraniss, Temple had to be told that Rudolph had won easily in a blazing 11 second, what would have been a world record if not for the wind. His reaction? “You’re joking.” I’m sure it was a remark born out of ambivalence, that moment when one thinks one has a champion, but is not really sure, until proof is presented on a shining platter. That moment, when Rudolph crossed the tape to become the fastest women in the world, marked that rite of passage for champions, when all doubt is erased, expectations and achievements merge, and all is right in the world.

Cassius Clay wins gold in rome
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.
New York Times, October 16, 1964
New York Times, October 16, 1964

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was at the height of his influence and powers in 1960. At the kickoff of the Olympic Summer Games in Rome, he released a letter to all Olympians that grew feelings of good will towards the Soviet Union.

Rome 1960_MaranissAs David Maraniss wrote in his brilliant book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, “Khrushchev’s message was meant not just for the Soviets but for all athletes gathered in Rome, even if it was boilerplate Soviet rhetoric… ‘The Olympic Games were worthy because they improved brotherly contact among sportsmen of different countries,’ he noted, concluding: ‘I wish all sportsmen taking part the best success in sports as well as in work, studies, and their private lives.’”

Maraniss emphasized that “American diplomats had been frustrated for days by the seeming propaganda coup the Soviets gained when newspapers around the world reported on the message of peace and friendship that Premier Khrushchev sent to the Olympians in Rome.”

Khruschev, in the summer of 1960, was heading to New York City to address the United Nations, and he was at the top of his game.

But four years later, at the end of the first week of the Tokyo Summer Games, the world learned that one of the most powerful men in the world was deposed. As Ron Barak, US gymnast at the 1964 Games related to me, it was all a bit of a mystery.

“The day in the Village began like any other day during that two-week period. Then people began noticing the Soviets were gone. No one had witnessed their departure and until they returned late in the day, no one knew what was behind it. But there