Wilma Rudolph: Track & Field
American Star of the Women’s International Sports Hall of Fame
When I was a 14-year-old boy in 1960, Wilma Rudolph and Muhammad Ali helped change my life. I had just visited the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. My image of the world had been shattered. While I knew about racism, seeing the bold face of it in its most horrible form made me grow up fast. How were people capable of committing such mass murder against other people? It made me realize that for me in my lifetime, I had to fight against racism and sexism. From Dachau, I went to Rome, where the Olympics further changed my life. I saw the suspension of hate and people living in an idealized world where race, gender, and political ideology were irrelevant. I recognized that it was only temporary, but on those fields and in the arenas life was like it should be. The power of sport was real, and for me it was exemplified by the lives of Ali and Rudolph. I am not sure when I realized it but the template for my life’s work was being set.
Wilma Rudolph was born prematurely in 1940 in the segregated American South. America was still recovering from the hardships of the Great Depression. Rudolph’s parents, Ed and Blanche, were like millions of people who were poor and, sometimes, homeless as they struggled to live. Ed Rudolph worked as a railroad porter and handyman while his wife Blanche was a housekeeper for wealthy white families. In the face of such poverty, Mrs. Rudolph often made their daughter’s dresses out of flour sacks.
Wilma Glodean Rudolph, the 20th of their 22 children, was born in Clarksville, Tennessee, weighing only four and a half pounds at birth and needing extra care. As in so many other southern towns, the local hospital was a whites-only facility and there was only one African-American doctor in the city.
Over the next several years, young Wilma was nursed by her mother through measles, scarlet fever, chicken pox, and double pneumonia. However, when her mother discovered her left leg and foot were becoming weak and deformed, Rudolph had to be taken to the doctor. At a very young age, Rudolph was diagnosed with polio, a crippling disease for which there was then no cure. The doctor told Rudolph she would never be able to walk.
After that visit to the doctor, Mrs. Rudolph took Wilma for treatment 50 miles away twice a week to seek treatment at Meharry Hospital, the medical college of the historically black Fisk University in Nashville. After two years, little Wilma was finally able to walk with the assistance of a metal leg brace. To prevent the Rudolph family from incurring the steady cost of traveling miles to get treatment, the doctors taught Mrs. Rudolph how to administer physical therapy at home.
Rudolph was able to attend a segregated school when she was seven years old after being home schooled for the previous years. Five years later, she was able to walk normally without a brace or corrective shoes. While Rudolph was in junior high school, her older sister Yolanda joined the basketball team. Wilma followed but sat on the bench for three years. Wilma earned the starting guard role and set the state scoring record for the most points in a game and led her team to a state championship. During the championship tournament, Tennessee State’s legendary track and field coach, Ed Temple, was very impressed by her talent and asked Rudolph to train at Tennessee State’s summer camp. She eventually earned a full scholarship as part of the Tennessee State Tigerbelles.
Only four years after she stopped using the leg braces, Rudolph became a track and field star. A16-year-old in 1956, Rudolph earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team in Melbourne, Australia. In spite of her youth, Rudolph won a bronze medal as a member of the 4 × 100-meter relay. Rudolph did not stop there and in 1959, she qualified for the next year’s Olympics by setting a world record in the 200-meter. At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy, Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals. Rudolph won the 100- and 200-meter dashes and then anchored the U.S. 4 × 100-meter relay to victory, despite an ankle injury. Because of her success, gender and racial barriers in track and field began to fall.
After returning from Rome, Rudolph began to receive numerous awards. In 1960, she was named the United Press Athlete of the Year and the AP Woman of the Year. The following year, Rudolph became the first woman to receive the James R. Sullivan Award for Good Sportsmanship. She was also the first woman to receive the European Sportswriters’ Sportsman of the Year and the Christopher Columbus Award for Most Outstanding International Sports Personality. In 1980, she was named to the Black Sports Hall of Fame and in 1983, she was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame.
Rudolph stood up for justice against her segregated roots when she confronted the governor of Tennessee as a 20-year-old by refusing to participate in a parade that the governor had proposed to acknowledge her tremendous accomplishments. Rudolph boldly told him she would not participate unless blacks and whites were allowed to share in the event together. She was granted her wish and Clarksville, Tennessee, had its first racially integrated event. One more example of the power of sport. An integrated banquet followed.
In 1962, Rudolph retired from track and field and returned to Clarksville to teach at her old school, Cobb Elementary School, as well as be a track coach at her alma mater, Burt High School. The following year, she married Robert Eldridge and had four children, Yolanda, Djuanna, Robert Jr., and Xurry. Also in 1963, Rudolph received her bachelor’s degree in English from Tennessee State. After a brief stint of teaching and coaching in her hometown, she moved on to coach in Maine and Indiana, along with becoming a sports commentator on national television and co-hosting a network radio show. Rudolph traveled across the country sharing her story of overcoming misfortune by believing in herself and those around her. She would advise her listeners that “winning is great, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday.”1
Rudolph is a true demonstration of someone who was a trailblazer for racial and gender equity, but also for people facing personal hardships. She became a living testament that adversity does not have to have the last word, stating: “Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion. The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” As a child, doctors told her she would never walk. Instead, she ran through pain, discrimination, and racial and gender inequity and became a role model and pioneer for all to follow. On November 12, 1994, at the age of 54, Rudolph was finally caught. After being in and out of the hospital receiving treatment for brain cancer, Rudolph died. Nonetheless, Rudolph’s legacy will last forever. Including for the 14-year-old boy in Rome in 1960
1. Wilma Rudolph, “Wilma Rudolph Quotes,” http://www.wilmarudolph.net/more.html (accessed July 10, 2007)
The previous excerpt was written by Dr. Richard Lapchick and Marcus Sedberry