Wilma Rudolph, a universal example

Writing history against everything and everyone.

The “Black Gazelle” stopped running 29 years ago. He died on November 12, 1994 in Nashville, Tennessee. Wilma Rudolph, one of the greatest sprinters of the 20th century. With his death athletics loses one of the more authentic symbols. One of those that goes beyond sport as a pure competitive result. It is a beautiful and in many ways impressive story of Wilma Rudolph, the true symbol of the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome along with Cassius Clay.

It was love at first sight between her and the capital. Impressive story? Yes, because it confronts us with our own Boundaries and what we don’t normally do to overcome them. But if a black woman from Tennessee, a former Union slave state, who also suffers from polio, could do it, it shouldn’t be so complicated for us able-bodied people, right?


It didn’t take much to sense the makings of a champion in the black athlete’s gentle but nervous, supple but exuberant gait. In athletics, being a champion is not a matter of age. If you are not one at twenty, you are unlikely to be one at thirty. And on match days at the Olympic Stadium, 20-year-old Wilma didn’t need much to make it clear who would be the star of this edition. After all, you don’t win a gold medal at the Games by chance, let alone if There are three gold medals, the first woman ever to achieve a similar result. But Rudolph’s human story is one of those that rhymes with faith, with the desire to fight against misfortune and against prejudice. Against resignation at all levels.

Wilma Rudoplh triumphs at the Olympic Games in Rome

Against a political and social system that shows discrimination in black and white. Because if a person like Wilma Rudolph, a woman in a man’s world, made it in life, Black in a white world, sick in a healthy world, then it is really appropriate to say that there are no excuses: everyone looks for the best that is in them and learns to fight. Because that is already a great victory, even without an audience to applaud or a medal to recognize the achievement. Without rhetoric, for heaven’s sake, but without trivializing the extraordinary. Starting from an “outcast” (outcast) and becoming a champion. What a story!


Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born on June 23, 1940 in Clarksville, Tennessee. Tennessee is famous for being the birthplace of country music, the birthplace of director Quentin Tarantino and for growing cotton. It is also remembered as a Southeastern entity that was not exactly on the side of “progress” at the time of the American Civil War. This condition is rarely associated with the character Wilma Rudolph. Still, it is a very American story, one of those movie-like films where the strength of the individual can overcome all odds. She is a little girl, the twentieth of twenty-two children in the Rudolph household, when she falls ill with polio. The words of doctors who are a little too hasty seem like an unchallengeable verdict:

“The girl it will lose its usefulness of the left leg.”

But years later she explained: “The doctors told me I would never be able to walk again, but my mother told me I would manage. I I decided to believe her». For years, little Wilma will be forced to wear a correction device and go to the hospital twice a week for treatment, even though the facility reserved for blacks is fifty miles from Clarksville. It is a wonderful, unforgettable day when Wilma leaves the doctors speechless after years of treatment.

Suddenly he removes the correction device with his own hands and, against every medical decision who had sentenced her to a life of disability, begins to walk and then run alone. Later he would also joke about it, as reported in “Long Ball and Pedaling” by Marco Pastonesi and Giorgio Terruzzi (Dalai Editore, 1992): “I had to be quick. I had 21 brothers: if I didn’t hurry up, I would never find anything to eat». It seems like the story of Forrest Gump seasoned with fried green tomatoes, but at least Forrest is a man. A special type, but a man. And above all, a fictional character.

Wilma Rudolph
Wilma Rudolph’s smile, photo taken September 15, 1960

She is about twelve years old and it is as if she was born at that moment. It is the desire to live that does not want to put obstacles in its way. It is happiness that unloads burdens and makes them light. Start playing sports immediately, both individually and as a team. After all, he has so many brothers and sisters that organizing a basketball game in the backyard of the Rudolph house is not complicated. But there is something that attracts them even more: She couldn’t walk as a child, but now she wants to run and beat everyone. Not even the fastest men can keep up with this sylph, which grows larger every day. At school, Ed Temple, her girls’ coach, notices her Tennessee State University who sees in her the potential to be a great sprinter. A radical decision is required: basketball or track. The hypothetical play of the cliff causes the ball to fall to the ground.


Coach Ed Temple is right, because Wilma Rudolph will soon turn out to be an athlete on an international level. She is 16 years old and has the physique of a woman (she is 180 centimeters tall and weighs less than 60 kilos) and the gait of a gazelle. The “black gazelle,” as it is called, never loses a race Even when he wanted to, he achieved extraordinary achievements, surprising even those who had recognized his talent in unsuspecting times. These achievements enabled her to take part in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, where she achieved an extraordinary first result: she won the bronze medal in the women’s 4×100 meter relay, showing all the enthusiasm of a girl but also tactical wisdom a veteran.

After returning home, bolstered by a certain level of fame and the ability to finance her studies, the young champion finally enrolled in school Tennessee State Universitywith the intention of obtaining a degree in primary education, but the desire to stand out in the race gradually takes over everything: the main goal is Rome 1960. At the XVII. Wilma Rudolph, who is just twenty years old, will be one of the major protagonists of the modern Olympic Games, which will be held in the capital from August 25th to September 11th, 1960 Results that last to the history not just of athletics, but of sport In general.

“All Olympic Games create a myth. The myth that blossomed in this edition of the games bears the name of a twenty-year-old black girl, an American from the United States: Wilma Rudolph. She is young, beautiful, proud. She is the fastest woman in the world.

Corriere della Sera, September 9, 1960

The paparazzi around the world will only have shots of her, more than of Cassius Clay, of Nino Benvenuti, of Abebe Bikila, the marathon runner who will triumph barefoot under the Arch of Constantine. The gold in the 100 meter race belongs to the “Black Gazelle”., with an extraordinary time compared to over half a century ago: 11” net, a world record that was not approved due to excessive tailwinds. And who knows if that’s true Reports the New York Times, the most prestigious and reliable newspaper (on paper) in the world: That is, the day before the race, Wilma sprained her ankle by sticking her foot in a hole during training.

“The twenty-year-old teacher from Clarksville quickly wins the audience’s sympathy, but most importantly, she wins the gold medal in the 100-meter dash with extreme ease.”

The fact is that Rudolph repeats himself three days later in the 200 meter dash, having set the Olympic record of 23″2 in the heats (the world record set on July 9, 1960 in Corpus Christi, Texas with a time of 22). put forward such a hypothesis love story with Italian sprinter Livio Berruti, winner of the men’s 200 meters at the same edition of the Games. Associated Press the nomination “Sportswoman of the Year” in 1960 and 1961the year in which he improved the world record over 100 meters with an 11″2 run on July 19, 1961 in Stuttgart.


In 1962 at just 22 years old, Wilma makes a drastic and in many ways unexpected decision: he withdraws from competitive activity. What she experienced in track and field was beautiful, but making amends for a difficult life isn’t everything, she has other plans. She works as a physical education teacher, athletics coach and sports commentator. The following year he married and his marriage produced four children. In the mid-1970s, Wilma Rudolph’s name entered history Hall of Fame of world athletics. In 1977, “Wilma Rudolph on Track” was published, a very detailed autobiography that served as the inspiration for the film “Wilma,” which stars, among others, the very young Denzel Washington.

In the decades that followed, it held Conferences in the United States of America and in 1991 she was also an ambassador for the European celebrations of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Back in Tennessee, Rudolph helped open and run sports clinics and advised college athletics teams. He also founded his own organization, the Wilma Rudolph Foundationwhich is dedicated to promoting amateur sports.

“I would have been disappointed if I had only been remembered as an athlete because I feel like it is my contribution to it American youth far exceeded that of the Olympic champion.”

Wilma Rudolph

However, in July 1994, the former “black gazelle” faced an opponent who was worse and even faster than her: she received the diagnosis a fulminant brain tumor. For the first time, “the unbeatables” lose a sprint, the decisive one. On November 12th, 29 years ago, Wilma Rudolph died at the age of 54 in Brentwood, Tennessee. In 2004, ten years after his death, the United States issued a stamp commemorating Rome’s triple achievement. And Tennessee, where Wilma’s ancestors and parents played a minor role, to say the least, now loves (and celebrates) its most representative athlete.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *