By Dennis J. Freeman
In the month of September during the 1960 Olympics, Wilma Rudolph lit up the Summer Games with her southern charisma, engaging smile and smoldering good looks. Rudolph also turned the XVII Olympiad into her own coming out party.
Rudolph shined at the Summer Games in a way that transformed her from a lanky, speedy runner from a small historically black college in Tennessee to an international icon. The 1960 Olympics was a beacon of triumph for Rudolph.
More importantly, Rudolph’s recording of three gold medals in track and field at those Summer Games, proved to be a breakthrough performance for women in general in sports. Ed Temple, the legendary Tennessee State University track coach in which Rudolph became his prized pupil, said the Clarksville native became the standard to be measured for women in track and field.
She was the first,” Temple said in a 2007 interview. She was the first to win three gold medals.”
Rudolph’s success at the Olympics that year particularly galvanized the cause of African American women, who had to battle racism, sexism and sometimes being ostracized as female athletes.
“Women don’t receive recognition as a whole for anything that they do,” said 1968 Olympian John Carlos. “Secondly, they didn’t get the recognition they deserved if they were a bunch of black women doing it.”
One of 22 children, Rudolph coolly stepped on the world stage and claimed it as her own when she ran her way into the record books with victories in the 100 meters, 200 meters and running a leg on the all-Tennessee State University gold-winning U.S. 400-meter relay team. With her triumphs secured, Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at an Olympics.
Rudolph wasn’t the only runner that the glare of the spotlight shined on. It also shined brightly on her teammates from Tennessee State University.
Aside from Rudolph’s historic achievements, the runners from TSU, better known as the Tigerbelles, propelled the United States women track team into a major force at the Olympics, securing six of the 11 gold medals that America’s women would bring back home from Rome. Lucinda Williams, Barbara Jones and Martha Hudson were also mainstays on that Olympic team as well as Rudolph.
Magnifying Rudolph’s and the Tigerbelles’ golden efforts that year was the fact that this was the first time that the Olympics was being viewed on television around the world.
The exposure of the Olympics assisted Rudolph and the Tigerbelles in shattering long-held stereotypes about women athletes and their femininity. For African American women in particular, the Tigerbelles success in Rome in front of an international audience, gave reason to celebrate.
While the Civil Rights Movement amped up its fight for equality for African Americans against the injustices of Jim Crow racism, the voices of black women during this period in the United States, were, for the most part, muted.
“I know that times are better, but there are situations that we are still trying to overcome,” Williams said. “But it is nothing to the degree that we knew back in those days-you can’t go to the bathroom; you can’t drink at the water fountain; you’d better not say anything cross. My mother would always say that there would be a better day coming. I have always remembered that.”
The Tennessee State Tigerbelles didn’t just run; they ran with purpose and with pride-a purpose that appeared to be intent on eradicating barriers and the pride of a people and country. In a 2009 interview, Hudson said she felt that pride welling up inside of her when she and her American teammates participated in the Summer Games opening ceremonies.
“It was a feeling like I’ve never had before,” said Hudson. “I was so proud to be an American. Walking in that stadium, hearing people chant, USA! USA! It felt so good.”
In a two to three decade window, the Tigerbelles became, arguably, the greatest assembled track athletes to ever come from one school. Under the long-running tenure of Temple, the Tigerbelles established numerous American records, set world marks and captured 34 national championships.
Cementing their legacy in track and field history is the fact that during their dominant reign in the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, the Tigerbelles produced 23 Olympic medals, 13 of them gold. During that span, Temple churned out 40 Olympians. Some were good. Some were great. Others ran their way into track and field’s Hall of Fame.
The Tigerbelles’ all-time roster contains a who’s who list among track and field’s greatest contributors to the sport. Among them was the late, great Rudolph.
Rosa Parks became the centerpiece of the civil rights movement with her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. African American women helped spur the bus boycotts in the South, but their involvement in the struggle for equality was more secondary and supportive. At that time most African American women were either homemakers or domestic servants for whites.
Rudolph and the Tigerbelles helped shed that imaging of black women with their accomplishments five decades ago. By becoming ambassadors for America with their athletic feats during the country’s ugly racial time period, Rudolph and the Tigerbelles emphatically dispelled the notion that African American women were only fit to slide into domestic servitude, farm labor or any other type of menial work.
They were more than homemakers. They were college educated, articulate, beautiful, and the best representation for the United States at the 1960 Summer Games. Rudolph and the Tigerbelles didn’t just represent Black America at the Rome Olympics; they were and are America.
No, Rudolph and the Tigerbelles didn’t invent the wheel in track and field. They just added a little more luster and eloquence to the male-dominated sport. Long before Title IV came on the scene, which granted female athletes equality in collegiate sports, the Tigerbelles proved to the world that the threshold of success could not be denied to women.
And they proved it with their many achievements on the track. Audrey Patterson was the first black woman to win a medal in an Olympic setting. Mae Faggs, who often referred to as the “Mother” of the Tigerbelles, became the first American woman in track and field to appear in three Olympics.
There are many stories that speak on the greatness of the Tigerbelles. However, none is greater than that of Rudolph.
“Wilma Rudolph was the real deal,” Carlos said.
©Copyright 2010 Dennis J. Freeman