Wilma Rudolph's short, dazzling career

Three golds and three records (in the hundred and two hundred metres, as well as in the 4x100 relay). This was the loot that the 20-year-old Wilma Rudolph brought home from the 1960 Rome Olympics. A record that, at the time, no American athlete had yet managed to conquer. At almost 1.80 metres tall with an agile and harmonious body (it is not by chance that she was nicknamed the black gazelle), Wilma Rudolph had a very fluid and elegant running form that allowed her to distance herself from her opponents by some margin: in 1960 there was probably no athlete in the world who could stand up to her.
The Olympic Stadium in Rome was named such at the 1960 Olympics
It is no coincidence that years later, when asked to compare herself with other athletes, Wilma Rudolph candidly replied that she was perhaps presumptuous, but that it was clear that compared to the others she was, simply, a separate category. Yet at the beginning of her life everything seemed to be going in the opposite direction.

Wilma's difficult childhood

Born in a poor black family in Tennessee, her father was a porter already married to another woman and Wilma Rudolph had an extremely difficult childhood. Born at just over two kilos on 23 June 1940, at the age of four she contracted scarlet fever and pneumonia at the same time, and finally polio, which left her left leg paralysed and forced her to limp. When she was eight, she used a brace to walk, then replaced by special shoes, with which, once a week, she travelled 80 km to Nashville, where she could be treated in the only hospital reserved for blacks in the area, to then return home.
A very young Wilma Rudolph in university uniform

The reaction to complicated years

These are the years and the difficulties that, as Wilma Rudolph herself reminded us in her autobiography, instill in her the competitive spirit that would have made her triumph in sport. At the age of eleven she began to play basketball and was so good that she was noticed by Ed Temple, head of the sports area at Nashville University, who introduced her to athletics and running. It was the beginning of a meteoric career: in 1956, when she was only sixteen years old, Wilma Rudolph took part in the Melbourne Olympics, where she was eliminated in the two-hundred-metre race, but then won the bronze medal in the 4x100 relay race.

The three Golds of Wilma Rudolph at the Rome Olympics

But these are only the general rehearsals of the success of four years later in Rome, where Wilma Rudolph imposes herself among the great protagonists of the Games of the XVII Olympiad (together with the very young Cassius Clay, not yet Muhammad Ali, gold medal in the category of the middle- and heavyweights). In the semi-final of the 100 meters Rudolph equals the world record of 11 "3, and then wins the final in 11" flat, that would not be recognised as a new world record because of an excessive favourable wind.
Beyond the wind, this is still a respectable result even today. The current world record, 10"49, was in fact set by the American Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1988, which still holds. The hundred metres are only the first stage of a historic 3 time record: the day after Wilma Rudolph wins the final of the 200 meters with a time of 24 "flat  (she had set the Olympic record of 23 "2 already on heat).

Wilma then wins the gold medal in the 4x100 in a torrid September 7 (the temperature exceeded 40 ° C), having won the world record in the semifinals with the time of 44 "4. These three victories have an important meaning for the young athlete because they allow her to pay homage to the four gold medals with which the black Jesse Owens, her greatest inspiration, had humiliated Adolf Hitler during the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Wilma Rudolph was simply of a separate category

Wins aside, Wilma Rudolph became the favourite of the press and spectators of the Rome Olympics: proof of this are the many nicknames with which she became known, from the fastest woman in the world of so much international press to the already mentioned black gazelle in Italian newspapers, or the black pearl of the French ones. There are even rumours of a possible love story with Livio Berruti, winner of the two hundred metres for men in the same edition of the Games and holder of the world record for distance, because of the long walks that they made hand in hand inside the Olympic village.

Heroine at home

Wima Rudolph's popularity was no less significant at home: on October 4, 1960, the day of her return to her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee, a Welcome Wilma Day was organised with festivities for the entire day. She was a guest on the Ed Sullivan Show, before being invited, the following year, to the Oval Office for a meeting with the newly elected President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
A panoramic photo of the opening of the Rome 60 Olympics
Appointed athlete of the year 1960 by the Associated Press, the following year, her world record of one hundred meters improves, running in 11 "2, this time becomes official. These were the last days of glory for the black gazelle, which already in 1962 decided, in fact, to abandon the competitions. Unable to match what she had done until then, Wilma Rudolph then confessed to having wanted to abandon running at the height of her fame so she could be remembered in her best form.

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