In Palo Alto, California, in late July 1962, with the second largest crowd in the history of US track and field watching, Wilma Rudolph waited. The young woman who had captured the hearts of Americans by sprinting to three gold medals at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome stood still, at least temporarily. Then, she readied herself to run.
To her side, Mariya Itkina and Galina Popova successfully exchanged their baton, seemingly situating the Soviet Union to win the women’s 400-meter relay at the fifth annual dual track and field meet between the United States and Soviet Union, held in front of more than 153,000 at Stanford Stadium. Mere seconds later, Vivian Brown passed the baton to Rudolph. Rudolph took the stick. And then she took off with a burst. She eliminated almost immediately the deficit and anchored another American victory. The relay win, scored in one of the most symbolically significant battles of the sporting Cold War, appeared to affirm Rudolph’s exceptionality. As Sports Illustrated enthused, “But in action or repose, red or red-white-and-blue, black or white, male or female, no one in Palo Alto could match the incomparable Wilma Rudolph Ward for effortless grace and poise.”
Nonetheless, for all Rudolph’s self-evident athletic excellence, it is necessary to critically consider how and why Rudolph could be so lauded as the exemplar of Americanness. How and why was this great and graceful young black woman considered an uncontested icon of the United States? And why was it Rudolph, in particular, who would attain this cultural status? How and why could she appear to overcome long-entrenched ideologies of race, gender, and sexuality to represent ideal Americanness?
The 1962 relay victory not only serves as an apt window into the rise of Wilma Rudolph but also introduces how black American women track stars index the boundaries of belonging…