Black History Sports Spotlight

By Tony McClean
Updated: July 3, 2006

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — Grace, beauty, and athletic skill. We’ve seen that over the years with many great female African-American runners such as Gail Devers, Evelyn Ashford, and Florence Griffith-Joyner.

But the queen of this court may well have been Wilma Rudolph.

Born on June 23, 1940 at Bethlehem, Tennessee, Rudolph suffered from scarlet fever, double pneumonia, and polio as a child.

This left her with limited use of her left leg and she wore a brace until age nine.

By age 12, Rudolph was the fastest runner in her school. At Burt High School, she starred in both track and basketball.

At a track meet in Tuskegee, Alabama, Rudolph impressed coach Ed Temple, who invited her to a summer track camp in Nashville. She went on to a place on the 1956 U.S. Olympic 4 x 100-meter relay team in Melbourne, which won the bronze medal.

In the 1960 Olympic games in Rome, Rudolph won gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and the 4 x 100-meter relay. Rudolph was the first American woman to win three Olympic gold medals.

The next year, she received a Sullivan Award, which is given annually to the top amateur athlete in the United States. Subsequent honors included the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame and in 1993, she became the first recipient of President Clinton’s National Sports Award.

Rudolph held the world record in all three events when she retired from amateur competition in 1962.

After graduating from Tennessee State University in 1963, Rudolph dedicated her professional life to youth programs and education. She worked with the Job Corps in St. Louis and Boston, and the Watts Community Action Committee in Los Angeles, California.

Rudolph was also inducted to the Black Sports Hall of Fame in 1973, the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1980, and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983.

In 1981, she founded the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on developing young athletic talent. In 1977, she published her autobiography, Wilma: The Story of Wilma Rudolph.

On Nov. 12, 1994, Wilma Rudolph died of a brain tumor at the age of 54. The Olympic flag covered her casket at her funeral.

She will always be remembered for her inspirational determination to overcome her physical disabilities. Her achievements led her to become one of the most celebrated female athletes of all time.

In addition, her celebrity caused gender barriers to be broken in previously all-male track and field events.

NOTE: The African-American Registry contributed to this story.