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Bonds, Rosie (c. 1944—)

Bonds, Rosie (c. 1944—)

African-American track star. Born around 1944; grew up in Riverside, California; attended the Junior College of the University of California at Riverside.

Set several national records in the hurdles; won the national outdoor hurdles championship (1963, 1964); competed internationally, though her athletic career failed due to lack of financial support; represented U.S. in Tokyo Olympics (1964).

Competitive sports have long had an aristocratic cast. In the 19th century, many with private fortunes were free to spend their hours on the playing field, and for many years this high-born perspective mandated that Olympic athletes remain amateurs who did not sell their skills in the marketplace. This bias was profoundly detrimental for athletes without private means to subsidize their training, many of whom were forced to leave Olympic competition. It had an especially negative effect on many exceptional African-American athletes struggling against poverty. Competing in the mid-1960s, Rosie Bonds was one such athlete who fell victim to the class structure of athletics in the U.S.

Bonds grew up in a black-Mexican ghetto in Riverside, California, although her father earned enough money to purchase the family home. One of her brothers was California's high hurdles champion and the other held the state championship in the long jump; a third was a professional baseball player. In a family of athletes, Bonds' determination to participate in track and field was considered quite normal. In a world where the only whites she ever saw were her schoolteachers, Bond began reading books by Richard Wright and the Black Muslims to gain perspective on racial inequities. She graduated from Polytechnic High School, before attending the Junior College of the University of California at Riverside where she worked with coach Dennis Ikenberry, who encouraged her to train seriously in track and field.

As Bonds' athletic talent soon became apparent, Ikenberry had her competing locally and then nationally. Films of her races from these early days demonstrate a clumsy style and lack of training. During the 80-meter hurdles at the national 1963 AAU outdoor meet in Dayton, Ohio, Bonds stopped each time she ran up to a hurdle before clearing it; yet, despite the lack of style, she beat Jo Ann Terry , who had won a gold medal in the 80-meter hurdles at the Pan American Games that year and held the American women's outdoor record in the 70-meter hurdles. Rosie Bonds was the national outdoor hurdles champion in 1963, a feat she repeated the following year, setting a new American record in the 80-meter hurdles of 10.8, equaling the time of Irina Press at the Rome Olympics in 1960.

Despite a meteoric rise, Bonds soon stumbled. She was chosen as a member of the U.S. team at the 1963 European meet held in several cities, including Moscow, Warsaw, and Braunschweig, Germany. This competition was held at the height of the Cold War when athletes represented not only themselves but the political system which had trained them. Tension was high in Moscow because of the pressure and disagreements over discipline between athletes and coaches. The Americans lost ten out of ten events, and Bonds was disqualified for false starts in two races. From Moscow, the team went on to Warsaw where things got worse. Again, Bonds made two false starts and was disqualified. When the coaches replaced her with Tammie Davis in a race held in Braunschweig, Germany, it was a great humiliation. The European tour did little for Bonds' reputation; in American track circles, she and her teammates were considered undisciplined.

Determined to regain her position, in 1964 Bonds won the national outdoor hurdles championships in Hanford, California, where she set a new American record. In August, she was at the Olympic trials. Five minutes before her race someone stole her track shoes, and Bonds was forced to run in borrowed shoes. Nevertheless, she ran her race in 10.8 seconds, equaling her previous record and coming in ahead of Cherrie Sherrard of Oakland, California, and Leaseneth O'Neal of Hawaii. Bonds had qualified for the Tokyo Olympics.

Bonds' track career was never easy. Lacking the money to train, she struggled to survive. In the weeks before the Olympics, her attention was split between training and figuring out how to buy clothes for the trip to Tokyo and pay rent while she was away. Bonds finally got a job at a building-trades union three weeks before she left for Tokyo. Once at the Games, she ran the 80-meter hurdles in 10.6 seconds, faster than any other American woman had ever run, but out of the six finalists she ran last.

Bonds made the U.S. team traveling to Europe in 1965 and was determined to show the Russians and the Poles she was a contender. In Moscow, once again she had the fastest time of any American. She ran the 80-meter hurdles in 10.9 seconds, but Soviet Irina Press ran the same race in 10.5 seconds. Bonds finished the race in third place. Coaches of the 1965 U.S. track team were still disgruntled over the 1963 losses; they blamed their members for being undisciplined and still viewed Bonds as a contributor to the fiasco. The night before the team was to leave Moscow for Warsaw, Bonds was not in her room at bed check. Deciding to implement some discipline, the coaches sent her home and Bonds dropped from sight.

Wrote Michael D. Davis: "Rosie was a prime example of an American woman athlete of great natural ability completely isolated from the opportunity to train adequately. … If she had kept training, she would probably have been the United States best chance for a gold medal at Mexico City." In the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, no American woman medaled in the hurdle. No American woman had won the gold medal since Babe Didrickson Zaharias in the 1932 Amsterdam Olympics.

sources:

Davis, Michael D. Black American Women in Olympic Track and Field. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1992.

Karin Loewen Haag , Athens, Georgia

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