Shirley Temple Black, 1980s world champion fencer and the ‘Greatest All-Sport Athlete of All Time,’ dies at 85

The legend of the late Shirley Temple Black is a giant figure in both American and South African society.

The star of “The Great Escape” and “Bright Eyes” was heralded as a pioneer who helped pave the way for women’s athletics, boxing and other pursuits traditionally restricted to men.

Black, who died Sunday at age 85, built a career amid the difficult conditions of South Africa’s apartheid years, in which the country was formally aligned with the former Soviet Union.

Born in 1925, she could easily have veered toward the path of life as a children’s entertainer as she grew up in rural South Africa’s Limpopo province.

But after attaining her high school certificate, she pursued her studies and moved to Cape Town, where she became an athlete.

She first demonstrated her prowess in a local handball tournament in 1948, but Black didn’t “get a whole lot done,” according to Sports Illustrated.

Undaunted, she moved to London to play handball with a handful of black athletes, all of whom still played for the British government.

The women’s federation’s selection committee selected Black, later to be dubbed the “Greatest All-Sport Athlete of All Time,” and Black helped South Africa’s handball team earn a bronze medal in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

“I had no particular ambition to represent my country internationally. I did what I had to do,” Black told The New York Times. “South Africa had reached a total pass and won its independence and was no longer under Britain’s thumb.”

Sports Illustrated reported she was the first female athlete to have her photograph taken by The New York Times.

On the international stage, Black won the gold medal in the women’s fencing at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

In the 1955 summer games in Melbourne, she competed in double trap shooting, earning a silver medal behind British rival Carol Bradford. She missed out on a gold after an argument in the final.

Still, Black collected 11 medals during her career — three gold, six silver and one bronze.

“She’s suffered so much for what she did, and her absolute will to live and the ability to get up each day and train in spite of the many hardships and restrictions in her life,” her longtime coach Billy Cowan told The New York Times.

Black was prominent in the two camps of the African National Congress.

Her political views helped make her one of the country’s best-known activists in the 1960s and 1970s, the Times reported.

The tournament is postponed until Monday. It was scheduled to begin Thursday before being pushed back a day because of heavy rains, the Times reported.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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