In her book “Passing the Baton: Black Women Track Stars and American Identity,” Dr. Cat M. Ariail explores how issues of race and racism impacted some of America’s most heralded female track and field athletes.
“When you’re looking at women’s sport history, you’re limited by the kind of sources that are available,” said Ariail. “A lot of libraries and museums don’t necessarily have a rich body of primary sources, yet Wilma Rudolph [1940–’94] was one of those figures that did have a lot of attention. I was able to track down some archival sources to serve as my starting point.”
Rudolph, a sprinter, won three gold medals at the 1960 Olympic Games, making her one of the most decorated female athletes of the modern Olympic era. Coming out of the 1950s, which had been described as a low point for U.S. women’s sports, Ariail wanted to explore what led up to Rudolph’s success and what happened after the Olympics.
“These were not women who were on the sidelines of what was important in society and in sports in this time period,” said Ariail. “What they were doing was kind of reflective of bigger conversations and negotiations about race, gender and American identity.”
The book starts with Alice Coachman (1923–2014), who won gold in the high jump at the 1948 Olympics. Ariail noted that the U.S. media and sports culture did not really want her and other Black women to succeed on the world stage.
“These women kept competing and kept succeeding, then as the Cold War heated up, they became propagandistically useful in that the U.S. could promote someone like a Wilma Rudolph or a Mildred McDaniel [1933–2004, winner of the high jump at the 1956 Olympics], and say, ‘U.S. democracy, it’s open to all,’” said Ariail. “Of course, the realities in the United States were quite different.
“What I wanted to emphasize was because these women kept competing despite not getting funding, resources or support, they forced mainstream U.S. sport culture to recognize them,” she continued. “Especially in the South and across the U.S. there was a resistance to celebrating women of color, but in that Cold War context abroad they were useful examples of what the U.S. at least imagined itself to be, even though it diverged from the reality.”
The book concludes with Wyomia Tyus, the first athlete in history male or female to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 100 meters (1964 and ’68). Putting it in historical and social context, Tyus’ success came at a time of civil rights activism and the rise of the Black Power movement, so she was overlooked.
Ariail hopes that in the upcoming Olympics, Black female athletes will receive positive attention. In the book, Ariail calls them “barometers of American belonging.”
“How they are celebrated, on what terms and by who can serve as a lens or a window into broader conversations and negotiations of American identity and belonging,” she said. “Thinking of their achievements not just in context of quantitative [medal] tally but looking at a larger cultural perspective.”