Wilma Rudolph – The Black Gazelle

Day 189 of Colourisation Project – November 12

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Triple Olympic gold medallist, Wilma Glodean Rudolph was never meant to walk let alone create record breaking history in track and field events at the Olympic Games.

Born in Clarksville, Tennessee, Rudolph was the 20th of 22 children! Born prematurely weighing only 4.5 pounds, she was always a sickly child and suffered bouts of whooping cough, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox and even double pneumonia. At the age of four she contracted infantile paralysis (caused by the polio virus) affecting her left leg and foot which were weakened and starting to become deformed.

Photographer: Henk Lindeboom / Anefo – Wilma Rudolph 1960 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Clearly the odds were stacked against her. Once a week her mother Blanche, a domestic worker, drove 90 miles round-trip to a Nashville hospital for therapy on Rudolph’s twisted leg, (the local hospital was for whites only). Her brothers and sisters took turns massaging her crippled leg every day. With intense and constant physical therapy, leg braces and true grit, Rudolph was walking again by age 12.

A powerful sprinter, Rudolph excelled on the track. At age 16, Rudolph won a bronze medal in the sprint relay event in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics Games. Four years later at the Summer Olympics in Rome, she created Olympic history by becoming the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in track during a single Olympic Games. She won her three events in record breaking times.  She ran the 100 meter dash in 11 seconds flat although this was not credited as a world record because it was wind-aided. She also set new world records in the 200 meter dash (23.2 seconds) and the 4×100 meter relay (44.5 seconds).

After her extraordinary achievements in the Olympic Games in Rome, Rudolph was being hailed throughout the world as ‘the fastest woman in history.’ Just about every nation had a nickname for her.  At home she was ‘The Tornado‘; to the Italians she was La Gazzella Negra (The Black Gazelle); and to the French she was La Perle Noire (The Black Pearl).

With these groundbreaking achievements under her belt, Rudolph had become one of the most celebrated female athletes of all time, elevating women’s track to a major presence in the United States.

A pioneer for civil rights and women’s rights, Rudolph through her celebrity status was able to help breakdown gender and racial barriers both on and off the field. When she learned on returning home from the Games, that her ticker tape parade was to be a segregated event she refused to attend, forcing organisers to change their ways.

Rudolph retired from athletics in 1962 at the age of 22 while she was on top and went on to become a teacher and track coach.

According to Rudolph, her greatest accomplishment was creating the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a not-for-profit, community-based organisation dedicated to promoting amateur athletics for underprivileged youth. “If I have anything to leave,” she once said, “the foundation is my legacy.”

A TV docudrama titled, Wilma, based on her autobiography of the same name was made in 1977, with Rudolph working on it as a consultant.

Rudolph received many accolades and awards throughout her life, including being voted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1973 and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974. She was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983, and into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.  In 1993 she became the first recipient of President Clinton’s National Sports Award. In 1997 the  Governor of Tennessee proclaimed June 23 as Wilma Rudolph Day.

Rudolph’s story of triumph over adversity has been and continues to be a source of great inspiration for generations of young athletes. Her accomplishments are legendary and like her hero, Jesse Owens, she paved the way for African-American athletes, both male and female alike.

Rudolph died this day, November 12, in 1994 at her home in Nashville, Tennessee, from brain cancer.  She was only 54 years old.


“My doctor told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”  Wilma Rudolph

This entry was posted in Colorization, Colourisation, History, Photography, Sport, USA, Women, Women in Sport and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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