- 05 Sep 1960
- Rome 1960
Remarkable Rudolph defies odds with sprint treble
The USA’s Wilma Rudolph was the world's fastest woman in 1960, and was the undisputed star of the sprinting events in Rome, and one of the Games indeed one of the standout performers across any sport.
Rudolph came from a huge family. The 17th of 18 children, she was born prematurely and then contracted infantile paralysis at the age of four, leaving her with a twisted left leg. There was no miracle cure and she was forced to wear a brace for the next five years.
By the time she was 12, Rudolph had also had to contend with polio and scarlet fever and had only recently begun to walk normally. Yet, despite all the physical challenges she had been forced to endure, she was already dreaming of becoming an athlete, and had developed the spirit and mental strength of a champion that was to serve her well.
Her first sporting breakthrough came in basketball, a sport at which her sister shone. Rudolph turned out to be even better, breaking records and leading her team to the state championship. However, she was also already showing huge promise as a track athlete.
Her rise to prominence was astonishingly quick. At the age of just 16, she was selected for the Olympic team for the 1956 Games in Melbourne and returned home with a bronze medal from the 4x100m relay. Three years later, she won the first of four consecutive national 100m titles. Yet her greatest triumph was still to come.
Rudolph equalled her own world record in the semi-finals of the 100m with a time of 11.3 seconds. Then, drawn in lane one for the final, she surged ahead of the field, winning by a margin of a quarter of a second in a time of 11.18 seconds. It was not an official world record, because it was wind assisted, but few doubted that Rudolph was running faster than any woman had run before.
A few days later she added a second gold in dominant fashion as she won the 200m final by nearly half a second. And she capped a triumphant Games with a third gold in the women’s 4x100m relay, running the anchor leg.
Rudolph received the baton two metres behind the German runner Jutta Heine, but cruised past her over the closing metres to clinch the victory.
Rudolph returned home to a heroic reception, but was never to compete again at an Olympic Games. She retired in 1962 and later became a teacher and a commentator.