Fast Train from Clarksville
A Sprinter's world is measured out in 10ths of a second, a mayfly's dance between the starter's gun and the tape. For Wilma Rudolph, the most elegant and revered woman sprinter of all, life was more a distance race, an often hard road, well and courageously run. Rudolph was 54 when she died last Saturday of brain cancer in her native Tennessee, and it is a measure of her enduring vitality that those who knew her spoke not only of her athletic glories at the Olympics in Rome 34 years ago but also of her abiding involvement with the Olympic movement and her work with children everywhere.
The Wilma Rudolph story is the stuff of fairy tales, only in her case the fairy tale came true. Born in Clarksville, the 20th of her railroad-porter father's 22 children from two marriages, Rudolph was a frail and sickly child. Stricken with double pneumonia and scarlet fever when she was four and later diagnosed with polio, she went through childhood with a crippled right leg. She had to wear a brace and orthopedic shoes that, she said, "always reminded me something was wrong with me."
The leg slowly improved, and when she was 12 the brace came off for good. Her first love was basketball, and she became a high school star. Six feet tall and still less than 100 pounds by the time she was a junior, she picked up the nickname Skeeter, short for Mosquito. She set a Tennessee Negro girls' record as a junior by scoring 803 points in 25 games. By then her speed had been discovered, and at 16 she won a bronze medal in the 4 X 100-meter relay at the 1956 Olympics.
Her track career might have come to a sudden end when, in the middle of her senior year of high school, she became pregnant. But her parents and coaches stood by her. She gave birth to a daughter, Yolanda, placing her with a married sister in St. Louis. Then she went on to Tennessee State on a track scholarship with the 1960 Olympics as her goal.
Her performance in Rome was overwhelming. She won the 100 and the 200 and anchored the gold-medal-winning 4 X 100-meter relay team. The image of Rudolph and another hero of those Games, Cassius Clay, majestic and flush with youth and promise, riding together in a pink Cadillac convertible in the afterglow of Rome, is among the most memorable of that era.
For the past three decades she used her life as a touchstone for lessons in perseverance that she imparted to people in the worlds of business and education, but especially to children through the Wilma Rudolph Foundation. "I don't consciously try to be a role model, so I don't know if I am or not," she once said. "That's for other people to decide."
The decision was made long ago. Wilma Rudolph will be laid to rest with her casket draped in the Olympic flag.
The Center Cannot Gold
It should be no surprise that Hakeem Olajuwon's 1993-94 NBA championship ring is a bit shinier than his teammates'. After all, as the league MVP last season and the man who led Houston to its first title ever, the Dream surely deserved a bonus diamond or two. As it turns out, the extra luster is the result of the center's having his circlet made of platinum. Olajuwon's devotion to Islam forbids him to wear gold, the element of choice among his fellow Rockets. We assume that the Dream won't be complaining about a lack of Pt this season.