Important New Look at Wilma Rudolph

(Re)Presenting Wilma Rudolph. By Rita Liberti and Maureen M. Smith. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015.


representingFew human endeavors so thoroughly blur reality, legend, and imposed meaning as sports. The sports hype machine constantly bombards the public with instant stars, but what do we know about them beyond the carefully crafted profiles with which we are presented? That’s precisely the question tackled by California State University professors Rita Liberti and Maureen M. Smith. By virtue of winning three gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics, track star Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994) became the most famous black female athlete of her generation–so famous that only Althea Gibson is mentioned in the same breath. Such was Rudolph’s renown that she was lionized even in her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee, located within what was still the Jim Crow South. The authors’ goal is to probe “the meanings attached to the stories” (1) told about Ms. Rudolph, and the thesis is embedded in the clever title: Rudolph has been presented and re-presented to the public numerous times, usually by constituencies appropriating Rudolph to advance particular agendas.


Liberti and Smith note that Rudolph’s public biography is selective and truncated. Although nicknamed “The Tornado,” “The Black Gazelle,” and “The Back Pearl” by sportswriters across the globe, American writers preferred to present Rudolph as “the stuff of fairy tales… a black Cinderella.” (1) As her fame gathered, she became a racialized and feminized version of Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick: premature birth, the 20th of 22 children born to a porter and a maid, crippled by polio at age four, right leg encased in a heavy brace until age nine, felled by scarlet fever at twelve, an unwed mother at seventeen, an Olympic champion at twenty, and the first American woman to win three golds. The pattern of adversity to triumph should sound familiar to viewers of televised Olympic profiles. Liberti and Smith, though, are more interested in untruths, half-truths, and invented legacies than Olympic glory. Parts of Rudolph’s legend are easy to dismantle—she was not the first U.S. woman to win triple gold, just the first to do so in the age of television—but more pernicious are the ways in which public image obscures more important truths. The most obvious of these—probed in a chapter dubbed “Wilma’s Home Town Win”—relate to how Clarksville simultaneously basked in Rudolph’s triumphs and presented her with a key to the city, yet made certain that key unlocked nothing residing behind Jim Crow’s wall. Equally troubling were the ways in which her body was exoticized and sexualized. The authors incisively juxtapose Rudolph with other American athletes from 1960, Chris von Saltza, a lithesome white, blond-haired swimmer; and muscular, chunky black discuss champion Earlene Brown. Rudolph was the perfect symbol to promote problematic Cold War propaganda of American tolerance: attractive and black, but not too black. As an AAU coach said of Rudolph, “She isn’t colored, she is gold.” (70)


But, of course, Rudolph was black, and her skin color was just one of many things “dislodged” in crafting her image. Her daughter often appeared as her “sister” in official photos, and stories of Rudolph seldom emphasized her civil rights activism or her post-Olympics financial challenges. Especially glaring by its absence is a nuclear family narrative that harped upon her moral decision to marry her child’s father, but doesn’t mention her earlier failed marriage. Re-presenting was so powerful that Liberti and Smith suspect that even Rudolph’s autobiography was mediated. They explore also how Rudolph is configured in biopics, children’s literature, and material culture ranging from monuments and postage stamps to her own tombstone. (Re)Presenting Wilma Rudolph is an impressive portrait of what we see and what we don’t in celebrity culture. The authors draw upon the latest research in areas such as memory studies, critical race theory, literary analysis, and various cultural frames, including commemoration, constructing public spaces, Otherness, body imagery, and media content analysis. Their prose flows easily and their logic is compelling.


There is, however, room for improvement should a second edition appear. Although Liberti and Smith are vivid writers, the same cannot be said of many of the postmodernist theorists they quote. Sadly, historians (Liberti) and others—Smith is a kinesiology professor—have begun to adopt cultural studies language at a time in which many humanists have soured on its ponderous prose. Liberti and Smith use theory wisely, but it would have been better had they summarized ideas in their own lucid prose rather than marring the text with clunky quotes. There is also a lot of repetition that could have been judiciously excised. That said, we are indebted to Liberti and Smith for a book that’s much more powerful than standard sports biographies. This work shows what is sacrificed in America’s quest for sports heroes—in this case, substantive engagement with racism, economic justice, gender equity, and the right to inhabit one’s own story.


Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst

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