Wilma Rudolph’s Scars and Star: The Appreciation of Complicated Female Athletes

When she was Wilma Eldridge she couldn’t get nothing. They didn’t know Wilma Eldridge; they knew Wilma Rudolph. – Coach Ed Temple [1]

 By Cat Ariail

Describing the post-athletic career of Wilma Rudolph, her collegiate coach perceptively captures the limitations of her heroine status. At the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Rudolph won the 100-meter sprint, 200-meter sprint, and 4×100-meter relay with Martha Hudson, Barbara Jones, and Lucinda Williams. Her feat –the first United States female athlete to win three gold medals in a single Olympiad – resulted in the national and international presses’ and publics’ heaping enthusiastic praise on the so-called “Black Gazelle” or “La Perle Noire.” Rudolph’s timely athletic triumph in a moment of Cold War tensions and civil rights demonstrations, combined with the sympathetic stories of her childhood illnesses and her “look of mingled graciousness and hauteur that suggests a duchess,” established her the iconic model for female athleticism for the late twentieth-century. [2]

Rudolph running the 50-yard dash at Madison Square Garden in 1961. (Wikimedia Commons)

Rudolph running the 50-yard dash at Madison Square Garden in 1961. (Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to numerous awards from the mainstream and black sporting communities, Rudolph received an invitation to join the United States’ new president for an exclusive conversation in the Oval Office. After discussing her victories, President Kennedy asked her about her many popular nicknames. As Rudolph relates in her 1977 autobiography Wilma, “He asked me if I liked all of the nicknames I was picking up in the press, and then he named them: ‘The Black Gazelle,’ ‘Mosquito,’ and so on. I told him no.”[3]

Rudolph’s conversation with Kennedy demonstrates that, along with not “know[ing] Wilma Eldridge,” the sporting public of the 1960s did not know the real Wilma Rudolph either. And, as the inheritors of the image of a Wilma Rudolph who is “the star at the top of the whole Christmas tree” of female athletic heroines, neither do contemporary supporters of women’s sport. [4] As the statue in her hometown, U.S. postal service stamp, and the awards named after her attest, a certain Wilma Rudolph – the triple-gold medalist who retired with an unvarnished international record and experienced a post-career life commensurate with her accomplishments – occupies a prominent status in the genealogy of female athletes.

Since 1996, the Women’s Sports Foundation has honored “a female athlete who exhibits extraordinary courage in her athletic performance, demonstrates the ability to overcome adversity, makes significant contributions to sports and serves as an inspiration and role model to those who face challenges, overcomes them and strives for success at all levels,” with the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award. [5] Likewise, in 1997, Michigan representative Carolyn Kilpatrick introduced a bill “to authorize the President to award a gold medal on behalf of the Congress honoring Wilma G. Rudolph in recognition of her enduring contributions to humanity and women’s athletics in the United States and the world,” further justifying the commemorative medal by insisting her “life truly embodied the American values of hard work, determination, and love of humanity.” [6]

These honorific platitudes fail to capture the daily pains and oppressions she had to overcome in order to serve as an inspirational icon. In contrast, Rudolph’s autobiography begins to reveal the real Wilma Rudolph. Although her narrative omits or elides aspects of her life, appreciating the experiences she emphasizes allows a better understanding of the real Rudolph, a woman shaped by complicated, messy life struggles, challenges, and mistakes who, nevertheless, comes to represent the “quintessence of Olympian effort.” [7]

Rudolph running the 100 meters at the 1960 Rome Olympics. (Wikimedia Commons)

Rudolph running the 100 meters at the 1960 Rome Olympics. (Wikimedia Commons)

Recalling the racist injustices she witnessed as a child, Rudolph writes, “You grow up seeing and hearing about things like that, you get scars deep inside of you that sometimes never heal,” (emphasis added). [8] Describing how she experienced the leg braces that confined her until age twelve, she states, “I used to tell myself, if I could find one person in the whole world who really loved me, I’d be the happiest person on earth. I had an emptiness that needed filling,” (emphasis added). [9] Her teenage pregnancy and motherhood resulted from efforts to fill her emptiness. Yet, these experiences would also add to her hidden collection of emotional scars.

Her family supported her pregnancy, but they demanded she sever her relationship with the baby’s father, Robert Eldridge. Coach Ed Temple had a “no-mother” policy for his athletes; however, he made an exception for Rudolph, as long as she distanced herself from her daughter and Eldridge. Not only forbidding Rudolph to care for Yolanda during the track season and school year, Temple also prohibited her from visiting her daughter, who lived in St. Louis with Rudolph’s sister Yvonne. Pained by the separation, Rudolph and Eldridge eventually decided to execute a late-night “rescue” mission to Missouri to take back their daughter, a journey that led to a more satisfying arrangement with Rudolph’s mother caring for Yolanda in Clarksville, Tennessee. [10]

The effort to fill her emptiness continued after her athletic career and, like her early motherhood challenges, produced more scars. Rudolph struggled to secure meaningful employment, assuming a transient life that began with an elementary school teaching job in her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee. She then worked for Hubert Humphrey’s Operation Champ in urban, black communities such as Chicago, joined the Job Corps in St. Louis and Maine, returned to teaching in Detroit, served as a community center director in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, secured an administrative position in the Afro-American Studies program at UCLA, relocated to Chicago to participate in Mayor Daley’s Youth Foundation, and engaged in fund raising efforts for the Track and Field Hall of Fame in West Virginia. [11]

Wilma Rudolph, women's track head coach at DePauw University. From depauw.edu

Wilma Rudolph, women’s track head coach at DePauw University. From depauw.edu

By the late 1980s, twenty-five years after her 1960 performance, Rudolph finally seemed to have assumed control of her career, serving as the head coach of DePauw University’s women’s track and field team in Greencastle, Indiana before establishing her own public relations firm and charitable foundation. [12] However, death at age fifty-four due to a brain tumor and throat cancer prevented her from finding lasting, sustainable enjoyment in her post-athletic career. Rudolph’s frustrations about her position with the Mayor Daley Foundation aptly summarize her quest to find a meaningful career. She states, “There was one administrator who just wanted to use me – ‘There’s Wilma Rudolph, she works for us now.’” Describing the lack of autonomy in her position, she notes, “I felt used and betrayed and exploited right there.” [13]

While her struggles illuminate the racist and sexist economic terrain she encountered when trying to make a career, her refusal to settle for an unsatisfying, exploitative job represents an assertive expression of self-determination – or Black Power. Her post-athletic life thus tells a story of inspiration deriving from injustice, two themes that characterize the movement for black freedom, as well as that for full equality for women. These themes also resonate with women’s experience in sport. The memory and imagery of female athletes, however, has obscured the messy, complicated experiences of injustices that make possible such inspirations, thus replicating the “There’s Wilma Rudolph” strategy of the MDYF and other organizations that hired Rudolph. Perhaps, the African American press of the 1960s provides a more promising strategic model for reconciling injustice and inspiration. Their coverage of Rudolph throughout her athletic career and beyond demonstrates a simultaneous ability to appreciate Rudolph’s mistakes, triumphs, shortcomings, and victories.

A photo from a 1963 edition of the Baltimore Afro-American describing Rudolph's martial troubles. From The Baltimore Afro-American, 2/9/63.

A photo from a 1963 edition of the Baltimore Afro-American describing Rudolph’s martial troubles. From The Baltimore Afro-American, 2/9/63.

Aware of their readerships’ personal, empathetic understanding of the struggles of African Americans, the Baltimore Afro-American, Chicago Defender, and other newspapers did not hesitate to publish accounts of Rudolph’s tribulations. Along with celebrations of her “ultra femininity,” these newspapers covered the disintegration of her brief, secretive first marriage to William Ward in 1963, including rumors of the “cruel and inhuman treatment” of Rudolph by Ward. [14] In 1969, the Afro-American and Defender informed readers’ of her supposed-bankruptcy after the Communist Italian newspapers Il Tempo and Il Paese Sera published critical articles with this accusation prior to Rudolph’s upcoming paid lecture trip to Rome. Rudolph denied both of these accusations.[15]

Nevertheless, rather than questioning their factual validity, the existence of such rumors and their subsequent publication in the African American press suggest such challenging circumstances were conceivable. For instance, after her hometown of Clarksville held an integrated parade and party to celebrate her success at the 1960 Olympics, a local café padlocked the doors when Rudolph and 300 other African Americans attempted to integrate the restaurant in 1963.[16] This reality resonates with the commentary in Il Paese Sera; “She had raised her head, she had asserted her personality and the race to which she belonged: she had demolished, in the very moment of triumph which could have assured her an easy and comfortable life, the myth of success open to all, white and colored.” [17]

Rather than erasing her shortcomings in order to portray Rudolph as an unassailable role model or rebuking her for failing to represent someone always worthy of emulation, these newspapers, often-known for their adherence to more conservative, middle-class conventions, criticized and celebrated Rudolph – a more nuanced “politics of respectability” sensitive to respect for Rudolph. Unfortunately, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “The Negro Family: A Call for National Action” offered another alternative for judging black women and female athletes. The public misinterpretation and sensationalization of Moynihan’s 1965 report resulted in the state-sanctioned rebuke of black women who faced difficulties similar to those that beset Rudolph, labelling such women morally irredeemable for having children out of wedlock, engaging in unsteady relationships, failing to secure permanent employment, and remaining mired in poverty.

In the historical canon of women’s sport heroines, Rudolph’s challenges, hidden in her moment, have remained simplified and invisible, avoiding moralistic criminalization. In the twenty-first century, talented female athletes with life struggles have encountered different fates. Recently, 2014 WNBA champion and Defensive Player of the Year Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury and now-World Cup champion and Golden Glove-winning United States goalkeeper Hope Solo were involved in domestic violence and assault disputes. Debates about the degree of condemnation these women deserved soon ensued, positioning their great successes and disappointing struggles as un-reconcilable oppositions rather than constitutive aspects of these stars’ identities and experiences.

While not dismissing the criticism they may deserve for participating in violent behavior toward others, these episodes provide an entry point for establishing a new, richer model of female athlete iconicity that resembles the appreciation of Rudolph by the African American press. In her autobiography In My Skin, Griner describes school scuffles that emerged from struggles with her sexuality and identity, as well as internal, on-court battles to contain her aggression during games, a tension that she has failed to contain in some instances. Solo’s Solo relates that she frequently witnessed and participated in violent arguments with family members during her childhood, suggesting violence assumed a quotidian, normal status in her home. Both women also have had complicated relationships with their fathers. While Griner’s authoritarian, conservatively Christian father constrained her, Solo’s peripatetic, often-homeless father served as the most stable presence in her life. These challenges, and the many others they courageously share, are inextricable from their great athletic successes.[18] Griner and Solo have lives that belie categorization as eternally admirable icons or controversial anti-heroines.

Hope Solo at a match in early 2015 (Wikimedia Commons)

Hope Solo at a match in early 2015 (Wikimedia Commons)

Recalling the aftermath of Rudolph’s 1960 successes, Coach Temple states, “[It was] hoo-hoo-hooray after we got of the plane from Rome but after a week we were back to second-class citizens.” [19] Although he aims to capture the lack of economic opportunity for Rudolph and her teammates, his statement applies to Griner and Solo, as their mistakes should not relegate them to second-class citizenship in women’s sport. Like Rudolph, Griner, and Solo, many female athletes in the past and present have faced struggles and made mistakes due to experiences of racial, social, economic, ethnic, and sexual discriminations that lead to sometimes ugly, confusing lives both on and off –tracks, -courts, and –fields.

Motivated by their struggles and successes, this trio of women’s sport stars have demonstrated admiration-worthy expressions of self-determination, epitomized by Rudolph’s refusal to settle for a meaningless career and Griner and Solo’s resistance to the demands of “apologetic behavior,” relevant to the diverse population of real female athletes. Appreciating the full complexity of their lives, as well as recovering those of Rudolph and her contemporaries, presents an opportunity to establish a new model for female athletes; one that that does not de-throne Rudolph but values how, in the words of Temple, “Nothing came easy. You can believe that….” [20]

Cat Ariail is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Miami. She researches women’s sport and race in the late-twentieth century Americas. You can contact her at cat.m.ariail@gmail.com.


[1] Ed Temple, interviewed by Cat Ariail, University Library, Tennessee State University, June 9, 2014

[2] Barbara Heilman, “Like Nothing Else in Tennessee,” Sports Illustrated (November 14, 1960).

[3] Wilma Rudolph, Wilma (New York: Signet, 1977), 150.

[4] Heilman.

[5] “Wilma Rudolph Courage Award,” Women’s Sports Foundation, http://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/home/programs/awards/wilma-rudolph-courage-award, 2011.

[6] H.R. 2717, 105th Congress, Session 1 (October 23, 1997).

[7] Olympian Quintessence: A Girl’s Triple Win, A Caper in the Colosseum, A Russian Victory,” LIFE Magazine 49.12 (September 19, 1960), 115.

[8] Rudolph, 26.

[9] Ibid., 10.

[10] Ibid., 109-118.

[11] Ibid., 158-165.

[12] Marla Williams, “Wilma an Olympian in the Long Run; Twenty-Eight Years After Winning Three Olympic Gold Medals, She’s Still Making Fast Tracks,” Chicago Sun Sentinel, June 2, 1988. Margaret Sheridan, “Even Off the Track, Keeping Up with Wilma Rudolph is No Mean Feat,” Chicago Tribune, June 15, 1988.

[13] Rudolph, 164.

[14] Thomasina Norford, “On the Town with Thomasina Norford,” New York Amsterdam News, December 17, 1960. “Wilma Admits Marriage on the Rocks,” Afro-American, February 9, 1963. “Wilma Files For Divorce,” New York Amsterdam News, February 9, 1963. “Trouble Continues to Dog Wilma, Who’s Never Had An Easy Life,” Chicago Defender, February 21, 1963.

[15] “Wilma Denies ‘Broke’ Stories,” Chicago Defender, March 29, 1969. “Wilma Denies Destitute Story, Plans Rome Visit,” Afro-American, March 29, 1969. Sam Lacy, “AFRO Accused in Story by Commies on Wilma,” Afro-American, April 5, 1969.

[16] “Hometown Café Nixes Wilma’s Key,” Afro-American, June 8, 1963.

[17] John Capelli of Il Paese Sera in Lacy.

[18] Brittney Griner with Sue Hovey, In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court (New York: It Books, 2014). Hope Solo with Ann Killion, Solo: A Memoir of Hope (New York: Harper, 2012).

[19] Temple interview.

[20] Ibid.

2 thoughts on “Wilma Rudolph’s Scars and Star: The Appreciation of Complicated Female Athletes

  1. Just reviewed (Re)Presenting Wilma Rudolph by Rita Liberti and Maureen Smith (2015) and would recommend that you incorporate it into your work. It is one of a few critical pieces of research on Rudolph to date.


  2. Wilma Rudolph was a strong and courageous woman. She was a black woman in the 1960s, which during that era meant that she would have nothing going for her. However, she overcame so many obstacles and triumphed through all her struggles. I found this article to be very inspiring it amplifies a human spirit that is unbelievably driven. Through all the obstacles she came up against, it didn’t seem to phase her ultimate goal in life. Which I feel is the definition of an Olympic athlete. On the other hand it appears she fought extreme emptiness and heartbreak off and on throughout her entire life. This brings me to the question of, what kind of adult influence as a young child? Who instilled the morals and the self-driven character that she seemed to possess? I would be more interested to know who was around her as a young child growing up.


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