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Passing the Baton: Black Women Track Stars and American Identity by Dr. Cat M. Ariail

Over the course of two days in July of 1962, more than 150,000 people packed Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California for the fourth edition of the United States-Soviet Union dual track and field meet, an event organized to encourage camaraderie and counter escalating Cold War tensions.

The opportunity to witness the wonder of Wilma Rudolph also inspired the significant interest in the affair. And Rudolph did not disappoint.

In the 100-meter race, she overcame one of her notoriously slow starts to speed past the Soviet Union’s Mariya Itkina and secure the victory. She offered an even more impressive display of come-from-behind heroics in the 400-meter relay. The foursome of black women representing the United States trailed their Soviet counterparts when Vivian Brown passed the baton to Rudolph, who took off with a burst. She eliminated almost immediately the deficit and anchored another American victory.

Rudolph’s efforts, and the interpretations of them, are indicative of her remarkableness. Not only was she an exceptional athlete, but her prowess also was recognized. A young black woman from a large, poor family in rural Tennessee who had suffered from polio and other illnesses, along with the ills of race-based poverty, during her childhood, she now was celebrated as an exemplar of American athleticism. 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…for effortless grace and poise.”[1]

Only a decade prior, ahead of the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) had attempted to discourage the participation of Black women track athletes. They were considered irrelevant, even detrimental, to the emerging sporting Cold War with the Soviet Union. Even though Alice Coachman captured the high jump gold medal at the 1948 London Olympics, becoming the first Black woman to win Olympic gold, the USOC resisted providing the US Women’s Olympic Track and Field team necessary support and resources. The majority-Black team complicated the United States’ propagandistic aims. In the idealized postwar United States, conventionally-feminine white women, happily ensconced in their homes, were celebrated, while Black women, working in the homes of others, were marginalized.[2] The public Black womanhood of US women’s track and field conflicted with this vision.

In the intervening decade, things changed. Black American track women continued to compete on the international athletic stage, requiring the forces that controlled American sport — the USOC, Amateur Athletic Union, and the mainstream sports media — begin to see these young women athletes differently. The colliding demands of the Cold War and civil rights movement further encouraged this revisioning. The athletic achievements of Black women now were understood as proof of the United States’ democratic possibilities, making them propagandistically valuable symbols of how the United States wanted to see and sell itself, regardless of the realities that continued to counter this too-rosy self-image.

After she won three gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Wilma Rudolph emerged as the foremost symbol of America’s possibilities and promises. The conventionally-feminine attractiveness of the Tennessee State University Tigerbelle only enhanced her appeal. She was an uncontroversial, easy avatar of American progress, with this understanding of her culminating at the 1962 United States-Soviet Union dual.

In her 1977 autobiography, Rudolph narrated the 1962 dual as the final, majestic moment of her competitive athletic career (even though she would occasionally compete in national races through 1963), writing:

This Russian girl is about forty yards ahead of me. I give chase, I start picking up speed, and I start closing on her. She’s looking at me out of the corner of her eye, and the look is like, “What is this, I can’t believe she’s closing so fast.” Well, I caught her, passed her, and won the race. That was it. I knew it. The crowd in the stadium was on its feet, giving me a standing ovation, and I knew what time it was. Time to retire, with a sweet taste.[3]

Her decision to describe the end of her competitive athletic career as an all-American triumph suggests she accepted the dominant, inspiring version of her story, one that obviated the nation’s enduring race- and gender-based oppressions in favor of an overly-optimistic emphasis on America’s democratic progress. This opposite was in fact the case.

Throughout much of her autobiography, Rudolph recalled the racism she encountered throughout her life, shared her struggles of single motherhood, and discussed the difficulties she faced trying to establish a career after her retirement from competitive athletics. Rudolph’s narrative made it clear that she acutely understood the ways in which her racial and gender identities, while making her an inspiring icon of American democracy, conspired to cause her to continually experience the nation’s discriminations. At the end of her autobiography, she unhesitatingly asserted, “The fact of the matter is that black women athletes are on the bottom rung of the ladder in American sports.”[4]

However, the way she chose to narrate the close of her competitive athletic career indicates that, for all the ways she intimately experienced the shortcomings of her symbolism, she understood her career as a claim to her Americanness.

Rudolph and her fellow Black American women track stars thus were active, astute athletic agents. They were not mere pawns in a propagandistic project. Their athletic achievements were assertions of their Americanness, repeatedly raising questions about the raced and gendered associations of ideal American identity and requiring mainstream American sport culture to reckon with what it meant when young Black women ran in, and often won in, the uniform of the United States.

Nonetheless, these young women could not outrun hegemonic ideologies of race, gender, and sex, as the questions their athletic achievements raised ultimately would be answered in rather conservative, restrictive ways. Black women athletes, especially the appealing-feminine Rudolph, were interpreted in ways that reinforced, rather than revised, traditional racial, gender, and sexual hierarchies.

As such, the baton, carried by Rudolph in the early 1960s, must continue to be, metaphorically, passed. By taking to the track, field, court, gym, or other sporting space as representatives of the United States, Black women athletes contribute to the exposure, and, hopefully, the eventual elimination, of enduring inequalities of race, gender, and sexuality. Their athletic efforts are expressions of the possibility of an unbounded Americanness.

Dr. Cat M. Ariail is a lecturer of history at Middle Tennessee State University. She studies issues of race, gender, sex, and nation in women’s sport in the twentieth-century United States and Caribbean. Her forthcoming monograph, Passing the Baton: Black Women Track Stars and American Identity, examines how Black women track and field athletes, through their athletic achievements in the Olympic Games and other international sporting events, challenged the traditional racial, gender, and sexual conceptions of American identity in the immediate post-World War II period.

[1] Tex Maule, “Whirling Success for the U.S.,” Sports Illustrated, July 30, 1962, 14.

[2] For an analysis of postwar US propaganda, see: Laura A. Belmonte, Selling the American Way: U.S. Propaganda and the Cold War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

[3] Wilma Rudolph with Bud Greenspan, Wilma (New York: Signet, 1977), 152-153.

[4] Rudolph, Wilma, 167.