Memorable Olympic Moments: Wilma Rudolph, Summer 1960
African-American track star and three-time gold medallist
by John Gettings
Recent American sprinters Gail Devers, Florence Griffth Joyner, and Marion Jones owe a lot to the brilliant performance of a 20-year-old woman named Wilma Rudolph. Her historic performance at the Rome Summer Games in 1960 was the perfect example of what it means to be an Olympian.
Rudolph, who is black, was raised in rural, segregated Tennessee and weighed just 4½ pounds at birth. She suffered from polio, pneumonia, and scarlet fever as a young child, which left her partially paralyzed. She couldn't even walk until age eight.
Basketball and Track Star
By the time she was 11, however, she was playing basketball in the yard. In high school she became a basketball star and was recruited to run track at Tennessee State where she blossomed into a superstar.
Inside Stadio Olympico in Rome, the girl who thought she may never walk—let alone run—electrified the crowd and swiftly carved through her opposition. She became the first female runner to win three gold medals at one Olympic Games. She won the woman's 100- and 200-meter races and anchored the United States' winning 4 x 100 relay team.
Graceful Like a Gazelle
European journalists started calling her "La Gazzella" (the gazelle). And it was with this gracefulness that Rudolph carried herself off the track as well. Attractive, intelligent, and charming, Rudolph had defied the heavy odds against her and become the Olympian of which Americans should perhaps be most proud.