Temple and his Tigerbelles: the brilliant sprint queens of Tennessee | Richard Williams

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If you happened to catch sight of the Tennessee Tigerbelles on a grainy black and white telecast during the 1960 Olympic Games, you might – as an impressionable adolescent boy – have come to the conclusion that you had never seen anything, not even the Everly Brothers singing Bird Dog on The Perry Como Show, quite as stirring.

Had the Tigerbelles been singers rather than athletes, they would have been the first girl group: before the Bobbettes and the Chantels, before the Shirelles and the Chiffons, before the Crystals and the Supremes. There’s a photograph from the 1960s of their male coach leading them down the steps of an airliner, arriving at the Olympics. In his smart overcoat and hat he looks like Berry Gordy Jr proudly shepherding his Motown proteges to international stardom.

That coach, Ed Temple, died this week, aged 89. From 1950 until his retirement in 1993 he guided the Tennessee State University’s women’s track team: the legendary Tigerbelles. A regime of three training sessions a day, the first of them at 5.30am, whatever the weather, produced 40 Olympians who between them won 13 gold medals, six silver and four bronze, starting with Mae Faggs and Barbara Jones, who won gold with the US 4×100 team in Helsinki in 1952. Temple’s successes made him one of the most significant coaches in the history of athletics.

As coach of the US women’s Olympic track team in 1960, he could maintain his habit of leading his latest star sprinter to the athletes’ tunnel then hurrying to take his seat in a prearranged spot, so that she would know where he was. That sprinter was the 20-year-old Wilma Rudolph, the greatest of his athletes and, in his view, the greatest female athlete of all time.

The 20th of the 22 children born to her parents, a railway porter and a maid, in the small community of St Bethlehem just outside Clarksville, Tennessee, the new-born Wilma Glodean Rudolph weighed in at four and a half pounds. She suffered a variety of ailments in infancy – measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox and double pneumonia – before contracting polio at the age of six.

Treatment was hard to come by for a black child in the segregated American south. The local hospital was for whites only and Clarksville had only one black doctor. When polio was diagnosed, her parents were told she would never walk again. But twice a week for two years her mother took her on a 100-mile round trip to a black medical college in Nashville, where the child was fitted with a brace on her left leg and given physical exercises. With the help of her siblings, who administered daily leg rubs, by the age of 12 she was walking without the brace or crutches and was making up her mind to become an athlete.

She had grown tall and captained her school basketball team to a state championship. Then she came to the attention of Temple, who invited her to his summer coaching sessions for high school students at Tennessee State, a historically black university. At the age of 16 she was heading for Melbourne and her first Olympic Games, where she and the Tigerbelles, wearing US colours, won a bronze medal in the 4×100.

When she arrived in Rome four years later it was as the mother of a two‑year‑old daughter. In the Stadio Olimpico she became the first US woman to win three gold medals, in the 100m, 200m and sprint relay. Sharing the podium with Rudolph in both the individual events was Dorothy Hyman, the 19‑year‑old daughter of a Barnsley coalminer, who took silver in the 100m and bronze in the 200m but lost the chance of a third medal when Britain’s relay quartet failed to get the baton round.

The young Cassius Clay – a native of Louisville, Kentucky, less than 200 miles from Clarksville – was winning a gold medal in Rome but Rudolph outshone him. On her return home to Tennessee she was welcomed with a parade and accompanied by a military band in what was said to be the town’s first integrated public event. She retired from the track in 1962, married twice and had three more children. Having studied elementary education at college, she worked as a teacher while coaching athletes at her old high school. In later years she lived in Indianapolis, where she presented a local TV show until her death from cancer in 1994, aged 54. In Tennessee, 23 June – her birthdate – is officially Wilma Rudolph Day.


Wilma Rudolph after winning Olympic 100m gold in 1960 in Rome, with Great Britain’s silver medallist Dorothy Hyman, right. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Temple’s next protege was almost as memorable. In Tokyo, in the second round of the 100m at the 1964 Games, the 20-year-old Wyomia Tyus equalled Rudolph’s world record of 11.2sec. Edith McGuire, her fellow Tigerbelle, also aged 20, took the silver behind her in the final and then the gold in the 200m. In Mexico City four years later Tyus became the first athlete, male or female, to win back‑to-back Olympic sprint titles.

“Look,” Ed Temple had told his first set of female college athletes, “if the boys can do it, you can do it.” He also exhorted them not to overlook their studies. “Athletics opens up doors for you,” he said, “but education keeps them open.” His plans for developing his squad were encouraged by his college principal, whose ambitions for the establishment included winning an integrated title in any sport. Under Temple, the Tigerbelles became that team. The gratified principal presented them with an old DeSoto station wagon to take them to distant track meetings, with the coach as their chauffeur.

The last of Temple’s athletes to achieve world renown was Chandra Cheeseborough, who took the individual 400m silver medal in Los Angeles in 1984 while also becoming the first athlete to win gold medals in both relay events. In 1999 she was appointed to Temple’s former role as head coach of Tennessee State’s women’s and men’s athletics.

There is a statue of Temple outside a sports stadium in Nashville. A Tennessee State tracksuit and a pair of spikes are on display in the US’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in Washington DC last week. But the old coach’s best memorial will always be the sight – in snatches of newsreel film or, more vividly, stored in the memory – of Wilma Rudolph, grown strong and tall and swift in the face of society’s odds, rising from the blocks in the Roman sunshine to burn off her pursuers with devastating elegance, and in the process recalibrating the world’s ideas of what a black woman could be.

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