Imagine winning one Olympic medal in your lifetime. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Imagine winning multiple gold medals and having your name associated with world records in athletics. Sounds incredible, doesn’t it?
Now, imagine doing both as a 20-year-old at the Olympic Games. Sounds like a fairy tale, surely?
And then, imagine doing all this despite that fact that you were once told as a child you might not be able to walk again because of polio.
For American athlete Wilma Rudolph, these were not imaginary scenarios. She made them a reality during a glorious career where she overcame odds every step of the way.
To this day, Rudolph clinching three gold medals during the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome for winning the 200 metres, 100 meters and 4 x 100 meters relay event remains one of the most enduring achievements in athletics.
How Sport Inspires
Inspirational tales from the world of sport.
1960 – beginning of a new era in Olympics
To understand the Wilma Rudolph story, it is necessary to understand the context of 1960’s Rome Olympics. She was already a winner in life, because it is no mean feat to be an Olympic bronze medallist at the age of just 16, as she was at Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956 in the 4x100m relay. It was an incredible achievement for some one who had started running only a few years prior; for someone who was only able to run a few years earlier (more on that later).
To this date, 1960 Rome remains a milestone event in the glorious (and sometimes controversial) history of the Games. It was the first Olympics to be broadcast worldwide. The interest it generated was unprecedented back then.
And then, at the Games itself, American athletes were expected to dominate track and field. But what transpired in Rome came as a shock to the world. The events of September 1, 1960 were referred to as Black Tuesday: John Thomas was a sureshot gold medallist in high jump, he finished with bronze; then, the unthinkable happened as USA failed to clinch the 100m men’s gold medal for the first time since 1928. The contingent and those covering the Games were stunned.
It is also worth remembering that, around that time, women’s sport was not given due respect Stateside. David Maraniss, author of Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World was asked during an interview by NPR about how Americans viewed women’s events as not even part of the Games:
“Oh yes, absolutely. Particularly the United States track and field establishment. They would often not even cover women’s track and field. The Olympic trials for the women were not even reported in the Bible of track and field, The Track and Field News.
“But Wilma Rudolph came along at a very important time in sort of the rise of women in sports because it was the first televised Olympics. She was charismatic, had a beautiful way of running, and the story of her life was so compelling that she really helped set the stage for all of the women athletes to follow.”
And just like that, a star was born and America’s perception of women in athletics was never the same again. That Rudolph’s story to get there was nothing short of inspirational, added to the magic of the moment.
Rudolph’s inspiring journey
Rudolph was born in Tennessee in a large family: she was the 20th of her father’s 22 children. She was born prematurely.
The Olympic.org profile of Rudolph says: “As a young child she was paralysed by polio, and contracted both scarlet fever and double pneumonia. Many doctors felt she would never walk again, yet she always believed otherwise. By the time she was 12, she had regained her ability to walk and took up athletics.”
According to the Guardian, “Even before Wilma contracted polio she had been stricken with illnesses including measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever and double pneumonia, the last two of which almost killed her.”
Rudolph was fitted with metal leg braces to help her walk till she was nine. “I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to get them off. But when you come from a large, wonderful family, there’s always a way to achieve your goals,” she said.
That is a childhood that is enough to traumatise most kids but Rudolph’s incredible spirit and determination took her to the heights that made the world look up in jaw-dropping awe. “Even by the extraordinary standards set by those Olympians who overcame formidable adversities, Rudolph’s story is unique,” added the report in the Guardian which also details the helping hands, quite literally, from her mother Blanche and siblings that helped her mend.
After making her initial mark in basketball, Rudolph found her calling in track and field and made her Olympic debut at 1956 Melbourne. She did not stop there. After giving birth to daughter Yolanda as a teenager, Rudolph was back on the American track team for Rome in 1960. Her sights set on gold medal.
And 1960 Rome was to be the highlight of Rudolph’s extraordinary life story. As she broke records and became the first American women to win three athletics gold medals at Olympics, she was dubbed “The Black Gazelle” by the European press for her speed, beauty and grace.
Wilma Rudolph at Rome 1960:
02 Sep 1960: Gold in 100m final (World record broken in the heats)
05 Sep 1960: Gold in 200m final (Olympic record broken in the heats)
09 Sep 1960: Gold in 4x100m final (World record broken in the heats)
Her brilliant career ended with her retirement in 1962. She then got into coaching and as an icon for the African-American community, worked with underprivileged children. Rudolph died from a brain tumour at the age of 54 in 1994, but not before witnessing Florence Griffith Joyner match her feat of three gold medals in 1998. It filled Rudolph with pride to see African-American athletes be inspired by her. “It was a great thrill for me to see. I thought I’d never get to see that. Florence Griffith Joyner – every time she ran, I ran,” she said.
Her grace on the track was matched by her poise away from athletics as turned into an inspirational figure for women in sport.
Rudolph summed it up best in her most popular quote: “My doctor told me I would never walk again, my mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”
Significantly taller than most athletes, Rudolph once said she was the worst sprinter when it came to starting a race. “But the farther I ran, the faster I became. That’s the secret to Wilma Rudolph’s success,” she said.
Indeed, that mirrors the journey of her life too. The start was not the best, it was filled with medical hardships and unequal treatment from peers.
But she ran, ran and ran...into the history books and beyond.
You can watch Wilma Rudolph talk about her early days, 1960 Rome and retiring as a 22-year-old in 1962 with the greatest performance of her life here:
Here’s footage of Wilma Rudolph’s performance in Rome:
You can watch all three gold medal-winning performances of Wilma Rudolph here on the Olympic channel.