How world's greatest sprinter overcame impoverished childhood

In the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Wilma Glodean Rudolph became the first woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic competition. 

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

What you need to know:

  • Wilma Glodean Rudolph was stricken with double pneumonia at the age of four.
  • She overcame all her challenges to win a bronze medal as a member of the 4x100 metre relay team in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne Australia.
  • She was named 1960 United Press International athlete of the year. 

At age four, Wilma Glodean Rudolph was stricken with double pneumonia, a lung infection that attacks both lungs, severely complicating her breathing. She was also infected with scarlet fever, an ailment that covered her body with bright red painful rashes. She was later diagnosed with polio at age 11, resulting to a disabled right leg, which was laced with braces and worsened by a persistently impoverished childhood.

She overcame all her challenges to win a bronze medal as a member of the 4x100 metre relay team in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne Australia, when she was just 16. In Rome 1960 Olympics, her prudence uplifted her to become the first woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic competition. Collecting gold in the 100 metre dash, 200 metre race and the 4x100 metre relay.

Wilma grew up in Clarksville in the state of Tennessee in the vastly racist and remote southern United States. Odds were tragically stacked against her by the palpable treatment of black people as second-class citizens. Tennessee, a guardian of southern racist customs, tragically perpetuated white supremacy and the suppression of the black community. It was further worsened by the impediment of being raised in poverty as the 20th child amongst 22 siblings, from her father's two marriages.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

As late as 1950, a-third of Tennessee counties offered no high school education for black citizens. When secondary educational opportunities were provided, the racist antagonistic system ensured blacks completed far fewer years in school than whites. Blacks were egregiously denied access to public libraries and experienced vast employment discrimination, sinking them further into outrageously low levels of subjugation.

Black women experienced exclusionary employment discrimination, beyond the realm of all the other categories, creating restricted job prospects. Of the 1,270 black women who were employed in Clarksville, almost half were employed in white homes as domestic workers.

The Rudolph family endured and anguished under the weight of a racist disingenuous medical establishment, in their efforts to find treatment for their daughter's double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio. With no medical care available to blacks of Clarksville residents in the 1940s, Wilma's disenfranchised parents were forced to commute with their child on weekly visits to the historically black Fisk University Meharry Medical School. Located in Nashville, over 50 miles from Clarksville, for treatment.

Eighth grade

After years of unsuccessful treatment to regain control of her right leg, Wilma finally showed signs of recovery and was introduced to organised sports in Burt High school. She began playing basketball in the eighth grade and set a new record by scoring a sum of 803 points during her first basketball season with her team.

Wilma Rudolph: The Greatest Woman Sprinter in History, by Anne Schraff explains how in the 10th grade, Wilma was scouted by Tennessee State University's (TSU) track and field coach Ed Temple. He enrolled her as a high school sophomore, to compete at Alabama Tuskegee Institute in her first major track event. After the successful contest at the age of 14, Ed Temple invited Wilma to join his summer training camp at TSU. Leading to her winning nine events at the Amateur Athletic Union track meet in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Wilma continued training at TSU while still a high school student at Burt High School, and racing with the female track team known as the Tigerbelles. As a 16-year-old, she participated in the 1956 Seattle Washington track and field Olympic trials. She qualified to complete in the summer Olympics in Melbourne, becoming the youngest member of the US Olympic team and winning bronze in her maiden Olympic games.

In 1958, she enrolled in TSU and habituated to winning silver in the 100 meters and gold in the 4x100 metres in the Pan American Games in Chicago Illinois in 1959. Her competitive eminence led her to win the 200 metre gold medal in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and defended her title victoriously for four consecutive years.

In 1960 as a sophomore majoring in Education at TSU, Wilma competed in the Olympic trials in Abilene Texas and set a new world record in the 200 metre dash. She also qualified for the Italian 1960 Rome Olympics in the 100 meter race, while dating boxing famed Cassius Clay (Muhammed Ali).

After her triple gold medal victory at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, Wilma became the first black woman in the US to be honoured with an integrated city victory parade. Clarksville emerged to celebrate her arrival from Rome in the honour that is historically know as Wilma Rudolph Day. The segregated city that had for years denied her medical healthcare, basic education and treated her with disdain as a second class citizen, came out in historically colossal numbers, to celebrate her miraculous success.

She was named 1960 United Press International athlete of the year. She received the Fraternal Order of the Eables (FOE) award for her lifetime achievements. FOE is the same organisation responsible for culturally constituting the Mother's Day celebration.

The writer is a novelist, a Big Brother Africa 2 Kenyan representative and founder of Jeff’s Fitness Centre (@jeffbigbrother)