Rudolph Becomes the Fastest Woman in the World Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Wilma Rudolph became the first American female athlete to win three gold medals during a single Olympic Games, setting a record as the fastest woman in the world. Her wins marked the first time any American woman had accomplished such a feat, and the wins were especially notable because she lived with polio as a child.

Summary of Event

At the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome, African American sprinter Wilma Rudolph became the fastest woman in the world after winning the 100-meter and 200-meter races, tying and breaking previous records. She then anchored the American women’s 4 x 100-meter relay race to a win. In all, she won three gold medals, becoming the first American woman to do so in a single Olympics. Called “The Black Pearl” and “The Black Gazelle” in newspapers worldwide, Rudolph, at twenty years old, won the admiration and adulation of fans both at home and abroad. Athletes;Wilma Rudolph[Rudolph] Track-and-field athletics[Track and field athletics] Olympic Games;1960 100-meter dash, 1960 Olympic[One hundred meter dash nineteen sixty] 200-meter dash, 1960 Olympic[Two hundred meter dash nineteen sixty] 4 x 100-meter relay race, 1960 Olympic[Four by one hundred meter relay race nineteen sixty] African Americans;athletes [kw]Rudolph Becomes the Fastest Woman in the World (Sept. 7, 1960) [kw]Fastest Woman in the World, Rudolph Becomes the (Sept. 7, 1960) [kw]Woman in the World, Rudolph Becomes the Fastest (Sept. 7, 1960) Athletes;Wilma Rudolph[Rudolph] Track-and-field athletics[Track and field athletics] Olympic Games;1960 100-meter dash, 1960 Olympic[One hundred meter dash nineteen sixty] 200-meter dash, 1960 Olympic[Two hundred meter dash nineteen sixty] 4 x 100-meter relay race, 1960 Olympic[Four by one hundred meter relay race nineteen sixty] African Americans;athletes [g]Europe;Sept. 7, 1960: Rudolph Becomes the Fastest Woman in the World[06650] [g]Italy;Sept. 7, 1960: Rudolph Becomes the Fastest Woman in the World[06650] [c]Sports;Sept. 7, 1960: Rudolph Becomes the Fastest Woman in the World[06650] Rudolph, Wilma Temple, Ed Gray, Clinton Rudolph, Blanche

Rudolph was well prepared and trained for her Olympic feat in 1960. She had already won a bronze medal for the 4 400 relay at the age of sixteen at the Melbourne Olympics of 1956, and was still in high school at the time. Even before she went to college at Tennessee State University, she was mentored and coached by the college women’s track coach Ed Temple. Her high school track coach, Clinton Gray, recognizing her potential, personally drove her to the college campus every day so she could train. Suffering several health setbacks between 1956 and 1960, including pulled muscles and a tonsillectomy, she was ready for the Olympic Games in 1960. Five feet eleven inches in height, and slender at about 130 pounds, Rudolph was one of the calmest of athletes when she was about to perform. Described as relaxed and nerveless, she was even known to drift off to sleep lying on the massage table getting a rubdown for an upcoming meet.

At the Rome Olympics, Rudolph had good starts in all her races, running with arms pumping and legs moving in a flowing stride. In the 100-meter semifinal she tied the record, set at 11.3 seconds, and in the finals won the race three yards ahead of her nearest competitor. Her time for this race would have been a world record except that the race’s judges determined there had been a tail wind of 2.752 meters per second, which was 0.752 meters per second more than the maximum accepted. Nevertheless, she won her first gold medal of the meet. She then went on to win the 200-meter race in 24 seconds (she had run this race in the trials at a world record 22.9 seconds), winning her second gold. The relay race might have been lost except for her exceptional effort. The German team’s runner had been leading, and Rudolph had been initially hampered in the run-up when a teammate made a faulty baton pass, but Rudolph, running the anchor position, soon overtook the German sprinter. The American team won the race in 44.5 seconds. In the semifinals, the team had set a world record for its event at 44.4 seconds.

Rudolph’s wins at the 1960 Games opened the floodgates to other outstanding achievements. In 1961, she was invited to compete in the Millrose Games Millrose Games (1961) in New York’s Madison Square Garden, the first time in thirty years a woman was invited to compete in the indoor track meet. She won the 60-yard dash in 6.9 seconds. Later that year she won the 60-yard dash in 6.8 seconds in the New York Athletic Club Games. She competed in a Louisville, Kentucky, meet and broke a world record for the 70-yard dash, and in a meet in West Germany she set a women’s world record in the 100-meter dash.

Rudolph’s achievements as the first American woman to win three Olympic gold medals could not have been more unexpected. Her ability to run so fast is itself phenomenal, under any circumstances. However, when she was born on June 23, 1940, in the small town of St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, about 50 miles from Nashville, she weighed only 4.5 pounds. She was feared to be too small and sickly to survive. Even after surviving her premature birth, she suffered through other health problems, including measles, mumps, chicken pox, scarlet fever, and double pneumonia. At age of four, she developed polio, losing the use of her left leg; she had to wear a metal brace.

Her parents, Ed and Blanche Rudolph, were not wealthy. Ed had fathered twenty-two children in two marriages—Wilma was number twenty—and he was a retired porter. Blanche worked as a domestic. The couple had to stretch their money, so the girls in the family had to wear homemade dresses made from flour sacks. When Wilma lost the use of her leg and doctors declared she would never be able to walk, Blanche took her to doctors at the all-black Meharry Medical College of Fisk University in Nashville, where Wilma was given physical therapy. The 100-mile-round-trip drive to Nashville became a weekly routine for Blanche and Wilma. At home Blanche and some of the older siblings took turns massaging Wilma’s leg several times each day until Wilma was eight years old, when she could walk without the metal brace. By age twelve, she was learning to play basketball in the backyard with her brothers.

Rudolph’s athletic prowess was first noticed when she became an outstanding high school basketball player. In her sophomore year at Burt High School in Clarksville, she scored 803 points in twenty-five games, a record for high school girls’ basketball in Tennessee. Her athletic abilities quickly came to the attention of Temple, who agreed to train and mentor her. Gray ensured that she got to the college’s summer sports camp every day to practice under Temple’s guidance. She graduated from high school in 1957 and received a full scholarship to attend Tennessee State. Her athletic performance gained her so much celebrity that she took off a year from her college studies to compete in international track meets and for personal appearances around the United States. She graduated from college in 1963 with a degree in education.

Significance

Although her accomplishments as an athlete are outstanding, Wilma Rudolph’s work continued. She was concerned with other issues, such as racial segregation in her home state. When she was to be honored after her Olympic victories with a parade in her hometown, she insisted that the celebrations be open to everyone. For the first time in the town’s history, a parade and celebratory banquet were integrated. Rudolph participated in later civil rights protests in Clarksville, leading the town to strike down its segregation laws.

When Rudolph started teaching, first in a Clarksville elementary school and later in Maine and Indiana, she also coached girls’ track; wrote an autobiography, Wilma Wilma (Rudolph) (1977); and saw it made into a television movie. Her awards and accolades over the years include the 1960 United Press Athlete of the Year award, the James E. Sullivan amateur athlete award in 1961, the 1962 Babe Zaharias Award, and the Women’s Sports Foundation Award of 1984. She was inducted into the Black Sports Hall of Fame in 1980, the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994. She also established the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a community-based sports program. When she died of brain cancer at age fifty-four on November 12, 1994, she was almost universally acknowledged as a woman of grace, dignity, and extraordinary accomplishment.

Rudolph’s outstanding performance in the 1960 Olympic Games reverberated throughout the sports world, as she set a high standard for female athletes in the most prestigious of international sports events; her athletic accomplishments gave her a listening audience for African American civil rights as well. She served as a United States goodwill ambassador to French West Africa, and she inspired girls and women everywhere to surmount any obstacles to reach their goals. Athletes;Wilma Rudolph[Rudolph] Track-and-field athletics[Track and field athletics] Olympic Games;1960 100-meter dash, 1960 Olympic[One hundred meter dash nineteen sixty] 200-meter dash, 1960 Olympic[Two hundred meter dash nineteen sixty] 4 x 100-meter relay race, 1960 Olympic[Four by one hundred meter relay race nineteen sixty] African Americans;athletes

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harper, Jo. Wilma Rudolph: Olympic Runner. New York: Aladdin, 2004. A fictionalized biography of Rudolph written for young readers. Contains details of training and training techniques and insight into Rudolph’s relationship with her coaches. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krull, Kathleen. Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman. New York: Harcourt, 1996. A biography written in a conversational style that makes Rudolph personable. Written for young readers and illustrated with drawings and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rudolph, Wilma. Wilma. New York: New American Library, 1977. Rudolph’s 172-page autobiography. Includes illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Lissa, ed. Nike Is a Goddess: The History of Women in Sports. New York: Grove/Atlantic, 1998. An anthology of essays by noted sports journalists that trace the historic and cultural significance of female athletes and of sports events. Rudolph’s Olympic wins are discussed and illustrated with photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wigginton, Russell T. The Strange Career of the Black Athlete: African Americans and Sports. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2006. Examines the history of African Americans in sports. Discusses the little-known fact that African Americans were major participants in sports such as golf, horse racing, hockey, and tennis, before these sports became dominated by whites. Chapters include “When the Rooster Crows: African American Athletes in the Struggle for Civil Rights, 1954-1968” and “She’s Done More for Her Country than What the U.S. Could Have Paid Her For: African American Women and Sports.”

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