Two years after her triumph Wilma retired from competition, still aged only 22 years. Afterwards she kept in touch with the track as a coach and as a commentator on national television.
Rudolph remained an inspiration to people of a similar background to herself and to those who strove to overcome disability. Yet she could not conquer ill-health as easily as she conquered her rivals on the track. Wilma Rudolph died of cancer in her home in Nashville, Tennessee in November 1994 – aged just 54 years. The memorial service in her honour, which was attended by thousands of mourners, was held at Tennessee State University’s Kean Hall.
At the same time as Wilma was hanging up her running shoes another star from the Olympic Games at Rome was cutting his way trenchantly through the upper ranks of world heavyweight boxing. He was (the then) Cassius Marcellus Clay, gold-medallist in the light-heavyweight division. Good-looking, charismatic and successful – truly the “beautiful people” of whom the 1960s were so proud – Clay and Rudolph were held as being the “shining face” of the modern USA. That, incidentally, at a time when a battle was being fought all around for people of their ethnic background to receive even some of the most basic human rights. Clay soon soured of the situation and after winning the professional world heavyweight championship in 1964, converting to Islam, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
He was not the first Olympic Games champion to win the professional world heavyweight title. Floyd Patterson, the middleweight champion from Helsinki in 1952, became the youngest man to that date to take the title. He had the fastest hands of any heavyweight in history but never became big enough physically to rate among the best of the “big boys”.
After Muhammad Ali, however, it became natural for the Olympic Games heavyweight champion to go on to achieve the professional crown. Joe Frazier, winner at Tokyo in 1964, and George Foreman, winner at Mexico City in 1968, along with Muhammad Ali raised the division to a standard of excellence and esteem which has not been equalled either before or since.
And there should have been a fourth: Teofilo Stevenson, winner of the Olympic gold three consecutive times from the 1970s, was very much in the same class but his country, Cuba, did not permit professional pugilism and he resisted what must have been very lucrative offers to pursue his profession in the USA.
The Kenyans hit the forefront in force at Mexico City in 1968. Although the East Africans had impressed at several major international meetings in the years leading up to these Games – not least in the Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica in 1966 – their achievement of coming third in the athletics medals table with three golds, four silvers and one bronze still took the rest of the world by surprise. The gold medallists included Naftali Temu in the 10,000 metres and Amos Biwott in the 3,000 metres steeplechase.
The latter, who had little experience in the event, used his apparently awkward style of clearing the water-jump in one leap, instead of the customary practice of putting one foot on the barrier in going over, to save him valuable seconds, and this helped him to good advantage in edging out Kenyan team-mate Benjamin Koko to finish in first place. The 4 x 400 metres relay team which won the silver medal included Daniel Rudisha, whose son, David, is a firm favourite to win the individual race in London this summer.
Kipchoge Keino, the third gold medallist, represented the face of East African athletics. He seemed always be to be running, and running at the front, in the television coverage of the Olympic Games in both 1968 and 1972 and in much just before and in-between.
Keino, both of whose parents died while he was a child, made his Olympic Games debut with promise but without medals at Tokyo in 1964 – that was where Wilson Kiprugut, with a bronze in the 800 metres, served notice of the avalanche of East African excellence that was to come. “Kip” made his name at the Commonwealth Games of 1966, prior to which he had already established new world records at 3,000 metres and 5,000 metres.
At Mexico City the Kenyan won the 1,500 metres with a resounding victory over world record-holder Jim Ryun and also took silver in the 5,000 metres. Four years later he won the 3,000 metres steeplechase and was second in the 1,500 metres. By the time he retired from competition the following year Kipchoge Keino, who continues to be involved in athletics as president of the Kenyan Olympic Committee, and his contemporaries had stamped their country’s pre-eminence in middle- and long-distance running. It has yet to be broken and has been shaken only by the rivalry of near-neighbours Ethiopia.
Sport and politics cannot be separated easily. As the Olympic Games became world-embracing they developed a vulnerability to matters of international moment. The South Africa of apartheid was edged aside by 1964, and the majority of African countries boycotted the Montreal Olympic Games of 1976 because of the participation of New Zealand, which still maintained sporting links with the Springboks.
The power blocs of the USA and the Soviet Union found cause to boycott the Games hosted on each other’s territory in Moscow in 1980 and in Los Angeles in 1984 respectively. Others saw participation, rather than abstention, as providing a platform for their views to be brought home to a worldwide audience.
That happened as far back as the Games of 1936 in Berlin of the Nazi era. Whereas Jewish organisations had advocated a boycott because of the host government’s racist policies, African-American athletes regarded the meeting as being the only opportunity available to make their point. Not all action was as direct, fortunately, as the shooting of Israeli athletes by Palestinian gunmen in Munich. Television coverage, touching millions of homes almost everywhere on earth, gave immediacy and a heightened relevance to these actions.
“Black Power” in the USA was the issue in 1968. African-Americans were losing patience with the slow process of achieving civil rights and rioting burned in the inner-city ghettoes following the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King a couple of months earlier. The issue blazed on to international consciousness during the medal award ceremony for the 200 metres. Tommie Smith, gold, and John Carlos, bronze, wearing black socks in the place of shoes, raised their black-gloved fists in the salute associated with “Black Power”. Athletes from other countries showed their support – including silver medallist Peter Norman, an Australian, who wore an appropriate “civil rights” badge. Norman, like the Americans, was ostracised for the incident by his country’s athletics administrators but Smith and Carlos, with whom he had shared the podium, were pall-bearers at his funeral six years ago.
That year it was impossible to keep African-Americans out of the headlines on track and in the field. Bob Beamon leaped a world record of 8.90 metres in the long-jump, film of which is still shown regularly in programmes of great Olympic Games achievements. It is still an Olympic record and stood as a world record for 23 years.
Similarly Jim Hines and Lee Evans set longstanding world records in the 100 metres and 200 metres respectively. While receiving their gold medals for the 4 x 400 metres relay Evans and two of his colleagues wore berets in the manner of the Black Panthers. Politics, both international and domestic, had come to the Games to stay.
The world changed substantially and dynamically in the decade after Rome in 1960, and the Olympic Games changed with it. The expansion of the competition – the number of participating nations almost doubled – coincided with the majority of African and Caribbean countries achieving their independence. Abebe Bikila laid down the blueprint for the Games that were to come, and Wilma Rudolph showed that it would be a competition in which women would have equal credit with the men, and it is a pattern that is still very much with us in 2012.