Vilma! Vilma! Vilma! On September 8, 1960, Rome’s Stadio Olimpico rumbled with exuberant cheers as the crowd celebrated the woman known as “the Tennessee Tornado” and “the Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” The Italian press called her “the Black Pearl.” The French dubbed her “the Black Gazelle.” The Russians considered her “the Queen of the Olympics.”
The woman was Wilma Rudolph. Earlier in these Olympic Games, she won the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes. Then, in the 400-meter relay, she fumbled the baton on the exchange, only to overtake West Germany’s Jutta Heine during a dramatic anchor-leg comeback. Sixty years ago this month, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympic Games.
The significance of Rudolph’s achievement transcends the world of sports. Because of her childhood disability, she was cast as an exemplar of American pluck. Because of her gold medals, she was a powerful weapon in a cultural Cold War. Because of her appealing style, she became a darling of the mainstream press, challenging numerous stereotypes of Black womanhood.
It is, perhaps, too easy to praise Rudolph as an individual—someone with “inner stuff” or the heart of a champion. But if we place her into wider social context, we appreciate her as a representative of tangled struggles. She was an athlete, a woman, a poor country girl from Clarksville, Tennessee, and she was Black.
Rudolph was born premature and suffered from polio and scarlet fever. At age four, her leg was partially paralyzed. From ages six to twelve, she wore a bulky leg brace. Yet as a teenager, her athletic talents blossomed. She started training at Tennessee A&I University in Nashville under the legendary coach, Ed Temple. At age 16, she ran the 200-meter dash for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
Rudolph then became the lynchpin of the track and field dynasty at Tennessee A&I. By 1960 the school had won six straight national indoor titles and five straight outdoor ones. In this same era, white American women were mostly abandoning competitive track, which bore a stigma as unfeminine. Black colleges, however, imagined sports as a means of racial uplift. With scarce resources, Coach Temple forged world-class athletes, emphasizing discipline and technique. In Rome, the entire 400-meter relay team was from Tennessee A&I.
In a case of unintended consequences, the Cold War boosted the standing of female athletes, including African Americans. Communist-bloc nations were producing first-class athletes in both gender categories of competition, and with medal counts serving as unofficial arbiters of global supremacy, women’s and men’s events weighed equally. So Black female track stars, such as Alice Coachman in 1948 and Mae Faggs in 1952, served as symbols of national power. In 1960, nine of the thirteen women representing the U.S. track team were African American. Ed Temple was the only African American coach.
Rudolph emerged as the most popular, engaging American track hero from the 1960 Olympics. Beyond her athletic dominance, she charmed the public with her pert good looks and demure personality. She fended off autograph hunters and wedding proposals. She was the star attraction during a European tour, and civic leaders in Clarksville organized an elaborate commemoration.
Rudolph captured the world’s fancy by negotiating a delicate balance. Sidestepping threats to masculine power, she vowed to never race men. She wore skirts and high heels. Reporters called her “willowy” and “very feminine.” The pop culture stereotypes of Black women consisted of bossy “Sapphires,” beefy “Mammies,” and bewitching “Jezebels.” Rudolph, by contrast, wore her athletic grace with a coat of respectability.
In his book Negro Firsts in Sports, which highlighted Black athletes as ambassadors of racial progress, A.S. “Doc” Young celebrated Rudolph as “the first Negro woman to draw worldwide praise for her beauty.” This, he added, “is indisputable proof that ‘things are getting better’ for Negroes!”
But the barriers to racial progress stayed high, even for celebrities such as Rudolph. In May 1963, Rudolph joined 300 activists seeking service at a segregated drive-in restaurant in Clarksville. They returned the next day, but the restaurant had locked up. A mob of white youths heckled them. “I just can’t believe it,” said Rudolph, “remember the reception I had here in 1960?”
Her incredible feats brought on heavy burdens. Track meet organizers added slates of women’s events when Rudolph was the star attraction, but she struggled to reconcile her career ambitions with traditional domestic life. Rather than compete in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, she was home with a baby.
Even though she performed the acceptable, traditional femininity that garnered such positive attention, racial prejudice hindered Rudolph’s marketability. White women such as figure skater Peggy Fleming grew rich, while Rudolph bounced from job to job, searching for her niche. It took a made-for-TV movie and the running boom of the late 1970s to finally boost her profile.
“The triumph cannot be had without the struggle,” Rudolph once reflected, “and I know what struggle is.” Because of her ailments as a youth, she became the subject of countless juvenile biographies. In the world of track and field, she was beloved and respected. Yet when she died of brain cancer in 1994, at age 54, her Olympic achievements had faded from popular memory.
That is a shame, because Wilma Rudolph served as a barrier-breaking symbol—a Jackie Robinson for Black women. She made women’s track popular, allowing stars such as Allyson Felix to sprint in her footsteps. She showed that athletes could be icons of Black womanhood, paving the way for cultural icons such as Serena Williams. She leveraged her stardom for racial justice, forging a path for today’s sports activists such as Maya Moore.
Maybe most important, Rudolph was a real Black woman, not a stereotype. The Olympics lent her a special platform at a unique moment in American history, and Rudolph capitalized upon it with grace. Before there could be a Michelle Obama or Kamala Harris, there had to be a Wilma Rudolph.