At almost any international sporting event in which the US competes, it is now common (and appropriate) to remark on the composition of the American team’s ethnic and racial diversity. It is now accepted that a competitor with “USA” on their jersey/uniform does not have to “look” a certain way in order to represent the country . They can be African American, Latino/a, Asian American, Native American, or any other racial or ethnic background.
For many decades of Olympic/international competition, this was not the case. It is the challenge to these limitations that Cat Ariail discusses in her work, Passing the Baton: Black Women Track Stars and American Identity (University of Illinois Press, 2020). Here, by examining the careers and importance of women such as Alice Coachman, Mae Faggs, and Wilma Rudolph, the author demonstrates the tensions and opportunities created by the US’ desire to triumph against Eastern-bloc foes (both on the field of athletic competition, as well as in international diplomacy). Ultimately, it was the talent of these competitors that overcame many discriminatory assumptions and forced the nation’s sports cultures (both white and African American) to broaden the notion of who could don the USA moniker in Olympic venues such as Melbourne and Rome.
While eventually coming to accept, grudgingly, the notion that African American women should compete on behalf of the USA, not all barriers fell, as Ariail argues in her chapters on Wilma Rudolph. Here, she focuses on the fact that Rudolph “looked” the way a US female athlete should. Further, her “performance” closely mirrored what was expected of white female athletes (this, in turned, required the covering up of Rudolph being an unwed mother). Still, she looked the part, and this made it possible for more African American women, and eventually white females, to gain acceptance so as to be able to compete for the US in track and field.
This work provides an excellent overview of the talent and determination it took for female athletes from schools such as Tennessee State University to challenge, and surmount, many, though not all, of the limitations that the sporting culture of post-World War II US society placed on them.