Wilma Rudolph biography sheds new light on the Olympian

Grace Butcher[1]

Rita Liberti & Maureen M. Smith (Re)Presenting Wilma Rudolph 328 pages, pbk. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press 2015 (Sports and Entertainment) ISBN 978-0-8156-3384-6
Rita Liberti & Maureen M. Smith
(Re)Presenting Wilma Rudolph
328 pages, pbk.
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press 2015 (Sports and Entertainment)
ISBN 978-0-8156-3384-6

Authors Liberti and Smith take a close look at the story of Wilma Rudolph, one of the greatest sprinters of all times (3 gold medals in the 1960 Rome Olympics: 100, 200, and 4 x 100 relay) through the lens of current events, “by examining who is served by continually romanticizing the track star and her achievements for the past half-century.” In seven chapters, arranged thematically rather than chronologically, plus a lengthy introduction and conclusion (along with almost a hundred pages of notes, bibliography, and index) the authors dig deeply into events as presented in the media of those times. They focus on errors, omissions, and misrepresentations that now seem obvious with hindsight in our own era of intense and instant scrutiny of the lives of famous athletes.

The erroneous identification of Rudolph as the first woman ever to win three gold medals in the Olympics is quickly corrected although it has persisted over the decades. “What is safe to say is that Rudolph was the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field in a single Olympiad… also the first African American woman….”

Chapter One describes the behind-the-scenes activity, the planning and plotting, as Clarksville Tennessee became the focal point of the nation for the brief period of Rudolph’s homecoming celebration. Her unusually bold request to public officials that her homecoming events, the parade and dinner, be integrated, led to Clarksville’s claim to being in the forefront of a new and liberal South. In reality, few changes would occur in the status of Blacks in that city or elsewhere in the South for years after Rudolph’s few moments of glory.

Chapter Two, subtitled “The Politics of Race and Beauty,” calls our attention to Rudolph’s image as taken up by the press: “… a slender beauty… the legs of a showgirl” (sports columnist Jerry Footlick). Or Newsweek: “… unlike many American female athletes, she looks feminine.” Sports Illustrated called her a “cafe au lait runner,” a reference to her light skin color. Mademoiselle: “…the very embodiment of black grace, a beautiful, flowing, lissome sight….” Her athletic accomplishments were often in the background of an article as if proving that her beauty, femininity, grace, poise, and sweetness were her most important attributes.

At the sold-out (14,000) Los Angeles Invitational indoor track meet in Jan. 1961, her presence completely overshadowed that of any other Olympians, male or female. One of the photos in this book shows her prior to the meet, in a form-fitting skirt and frilly blouse, feminine above all else, jogging on the indoor track, followed by Olympians Dickie Howard and Don Bragg appropriately dressed in their USA warm up suits. This photo, ironically, is the only one in the book that shows her on a track, “running.” Some photos of her Olympic victories—or any other of her races—would have been welcome, but Liberti and Smith have chosen to de-emphasize her athletic accomplishments, as much as the media of her day seemed to do, in their goal of spotlighting, instead, everything that was not brought to light during Rudolph’s journey to Rome and beyond.

The US insisted on scoring separately, to be able to say that while our women lost, our men won.

In Chapter Three we see the unexpected connection between the Cold War and female athletes in the US. In the famous dual meets between the USA and the USSR, the Soviets granted their women equal respect and status as athletes, their points in the meets being totaled with the men’s to determine the outcome of the competition. The US insisted on scoring separately, to be able to say that while our women lost, our men won. The incongruity of this approach was not lost on athletes and fans alike. The obvious reason for it was that at the time US women were not of the caliber of the Soviet women whose training was serious and intense year round, providing an unfavorable comparison of the US “democratic” way and the USSR’s “communist” commitment to excellence.

The government-funded Soviet programs “designed to develop fully the most talented, irrespective of gender… cast a rare spotlight on US female athletes….” The beauty issue continued to rear its ugly head. However “the nation’s fears of being beaten by the Russians eclipsed anxieties of mannish women running around a track.” It could be said the real winners of the Cold War were all the young American girls so long denied opportunity to excel in sports.

Ironically, Rudolph’s victories also served to call attention to our years of racism and segregation. We glorified our Black athletes only when it was politically expedient and relegated them to obscurity once the spotlight was turned off. The 1961 film, Wilma Rudolph, Olympic Champion, produced by the United States Information Agency, “features the athlete’s accomplishments on the track, as it simultaneously obscures the racial injustices she endured away from it.”

Rudolph’s only known participation in public protest, a failed attempt, with others, to be served at a Clarksville restaurant in June of 1963, received little notice in the press other than a small headline in the Pittsburgh Courier that read “Wilma Finds Key to City Doesn’t Work.” By 1964, with husband Robert Eldridge, her high school sweetheart, she had settled into relative domesticity and didn’t even mention the incident in her 1977 autobiography, apparently opting to remain “a Cold War icon rather than a civil rights soldier.”

Chapter Four deals with Rudolph’s childhood of illnesses and disability: “double pneumonia, scarlet fever, whooping cough, measles, chickenpox, a tonsillectomy and an appendectomy” plus a leg brace from age five, worn for some years. However, by the time she was in high school, and later in college at Tennessee State under famous coach Ed Temple, her running ability brought her the feeling of freedom that her actual daily life did not. Even in traveling with the highly respected Tigerbelles track team she experienced all the restrictions in transportation, hotels, and restaurants as she always had throughout her earlier life.

Discovering she was pregnant in her senior year of high school seemed barely an issue. She says, “The black girls stayed in school pregnant, like nothing was wrong at all…and there really wasn’t any stigma to it….” She enrolled at Tennessee State shortly after having her daughter who went to live with Rudolph’s sister while Wilma pursued her Olympic dreams. She had actually won a bronze relay medal at age 16 in the 1956 Olympics, a feat little noticed by press or community. Her goal was gold four years later. But after achieving that goal, she settled into family life, finding few opportunities for competition and focusing instead on the value of relationships within her very large family. (Her dad’s two marriages had produced twenty-two children.)

They see these stories as “devoid of any political and social context…filled instead with stereotypes and misrepresentations of [prevailing attitudes about] disability.”

“Biopics, Nostalgia, and Family in the 1970’s” is the subtitle for Chapter Five, “Wilma”. The famous Olympic documentary film maker, Bud Greenspan produced the film of that name saying, “I wanted hers to be a true sports story.” Yet her relationship with her father seems to be the main focus of the film. The authors argue that Greenspan presents a nostalgic and unrealistic look back at the significance of family in the 50’s: “Rudolph’s life and her experiences are flattened, simplified, and made two-dimensional” as the film neglects “larger social issues and forces.” Liberti and Smith take issue with Greenspan’s overlooking her real life as a “poor black girl raised in the Jim Crow South,” and giving audiences only “cinematic comfort food.”

The four major male figures in her life—her father, her high school track coach, her coach at TSU, and later her husband—command so much screen time in the film in their directives and decisions about her future that her athletic accomplishments seem “barely an afterthought… throughout the film.” Greenspan’s “determination to be inspirational” leaves us viewing Rudolph’s track career as if through the wrong end of a telescope while magnifying a family life that was lived under the shadow of the racism of the times. In films, children’s books, newspapers, and magazines from Rudolph’s own era, we’re never told the whole truth of the struggle by female athletes in general and Black female athletes in particular for recognition and opportunity.

Chapter Six re-emphasizes the limitations of biographies written for children. The twenty or so books about Wilma focus on her overcoming a crippling disability in early childhood, persisting in her Olympic goal, and eventually triumphing through hard work and determination. In these books her life is “seen as being under the total command of the track star herself,” while in reality, every step of her journey was made with great difficulty as she struggled with the discrimination and social injustice of the 50’s and 60’s. Liberti and Smith maintain that “[B]ooks written for children about Wilma Rudolph remain mired in [the] past….” They see these stories as “devoid of any political and social context…filled instead with stereotypes and misrepresentations of [prevailing attitudes about] disability.”

The last chapter shows us, in part through the few illustrations, the various earlier efforts to memorialize Rudolph: a statue, an obscure historical marker, a neglected section of local highway bearing her name, an event center in Clarksville and a dorm and indoor track at TSU also named for her. In 2004 a twenty-three cent stamp bearing her likeness was issued by The United States Postal Service as part of its Distinguished American series. At the time, that was the price of a postcard.

In their conclusion, the authors say, “We often lamented her early death [from a brain tumor in 1994 at age 54]…and the loss of her voice and the opportunity to ‘re-write’ her story.” In this book, they have, in a sense, done just that. They find it less than honest to separate this great athlete from every nuanced detail of her difficult life and to focus only on the inspirational story which has prevailed for many decades. One must delve into the history of the segregated South and weave it into every aspect of her too-brief life in order for any story about her to be true and complete.

Re-writing/revising/re-presenting history can be a daunting task. It couldn’t happen in Rudolph’s own time, but the authors have dug deeply and made it happen now. Liberti and Smith seem to wish that the media back in the day had told it like it was, and that Wilma Rudolph could have used her golden powers for social change. Instead she chose post-Olympic domesticity and relative obscurity.

Perhaps she had no golden powers then. She was Black, she was female, she ran.

Copyright © Grace Butcher 2015

[1] Grace Butcher: “The reason I chose to review the book on Wilma Rudolph is that in 1959, when I was US 800m champion, I was on the US team vs. the USSR in Philadelphia at Franklin Field, one of the several dual meets that were so intriguing during those Cold War years. Wilma was on that team as well, so of course the title caught my eye. In 1960 she and I both ran in the Olympic Trials in Abilene, Texas, with Wilma going on to glory in Rome while I stayed home with a broken foot. ”I’m still running, though, some 65 years now (I’m 81) having come up through the age groups in Masters Track. The last eight years, however, have been just fitness running as opposed to training since in 2007 I went back to my earliest passion, horses. Much time and energy go into riding, training, and caring for my buckskin Quarter Horse gelding whom I bought when he was only 3. The newest age group in Masters track is 100-104, so I run enough to stay fit should I choose to compete again. I ‘d like to make it to 120, so I hope they add some new age groups when I get up there. I mean, if I’m 120, I don’t want to have to run against some 100 year old!”
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