The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Olympian Wyomia Tyus sprinted to gold and spoke out in Mexico City. America forgot her.

Wyomia Tyus, third from right, crosses the finish line of the women's 100-meter final during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. (Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)
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It still stings.

In the summer of 1988, Wyomia Tyus was watching the Seoul Olympics on television when she heard the network announcer declare that Carl Lewis had just become the first person to win the 100 meters at consecutive Games.

“All my friends were calling me, asking, ‘How could he say that?’ ” Tyus recalled.

No wonder. The first runner to accomplish that feat was not Lewis but Tyus, the American sprinter who unexpectedly won gold at the 1964 Tokyo Games and then successfully defended her title four years later in Mexico City.

“I know one thing,’’ Tyus, who turned 75 last month, said recently in a phone interview. “If they speak of the 100, they also have to speak of me and what I did because I was the first.”

A sharecropper’s daughter, Tyus grew up on a dairy farm in rural Georgia during the Jim Crow era. She overcame family tragedy as a teenager and went on to win four Olympic medals, including the two 100-meter golds. She also set or equaled the 100-meter world record four times.

And yet, more than 50 years later, Tyus’s place as the first back-to-back 100 champion in Olympic history is often overlooked.

“I have put that in the back of my mind,” she said. “I have no control of this.”

Tyus was a member of the Tigerbelles, the group of African American female runners coached by the legendary Ed Temple at Tennessee State University. From 1950 to 1994, Temple coached 40 Black female Olympians who won 23 medals, including 13 gold. Temple’s proteges included Wilma Rudolph, who won three sprint golds at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

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But Tyus competed in an era when female athletes, particularly Black female athletes, received scant media attention.

“Nobody really cared about the women,” she said. “People now say, ‘Wow, you won back-to-back 100 meters.’ But nobody was thinking that back then. The press never talked to me about it.”

Even when Tyus was preparing to defend her 100-meter title in Mexico City, few paid much notice to the possibility of her becoming the first to win track’s marquee event twice in a row. Nor did her role in athlete protests at the Mexico City Games attract much attention. Before U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos carried out their raised-fist salute on the medal podium, Tyus made her own statement by wearing black shorts during her races rather than the official white team shorts.

“I was wearing the shorts long before Tommie and Carlos did their victory stand protest,” she said. “But women were not heard or spoken to, and Black women definitely were not. People said, ‘What’s she doing?’ ”

During a news conference after the U.S. women’s team victory in the relay, Tyus dedicated her gold medal to Smith and Carlos, who had been sent home. Her comments were not reported at the time.

“There are going to be people in history who are going to be talked about, but it takes all of us to make it work,” she said. “When the numbers are larger, you can get a lot more done. I didn’t do my protest to get credit for it. I did it because it was the right thing to do for human beings. It was the right thing to do for people of color. It was the right thing to do for women.”

The early years

Tyus was raised on a tenant dairy farm in Griffin, Ga., alongside three older brothers. Tyus’s father, Willie, was a sharecropper who worked the farm, which was owned by a White family. As the only Black family in the area, the Tyus children played with the White boys from the neighborhood, but the White girls were not allowed to play with Black kids.

“Growing up in the South, we were being told, ‘You’re not welcome here — coloreds here, Whites there,” Tyus said. “My father used to say, ‘If people don’t want to be bothered with you, then you shouldn’t be bothered with them.’ ”

Tyus was highly competitive. Her father encouraged her to compete and insisted that his sons let her play.

“I always wanted to beat them,” Tyus said. “I always wanted to be the one that could ride my bike the fastest or climb the highest in the tree. That was just part of me.”

Her childhood was shattered by two events: The family’s house burned down when she was 14, and her father died a year later from an illness. “I went into a shell,” she said.

For years, Tyus spoke mainly in one-word answers. But her competitive streak did not wane. In school, she started out playing basketball but eventually turned to track and field.

Temple spotted Tyus at a state track meet and convinced Tyus’s mother, Marie, to let the 15-year-old attend his summer camp at Tennessee State. Her school raised the money for the train fare to Nashville, and Tyus made the journey on her own.

Temple became not only a coach but a father figure to the quiet teenager, who went on to attend Tennessee State on a scholarship and, like all of Temple’s Tigerbelle athletes, graduate with a college degree.

“Mr. Temple had the same values and goals that my mom and dad had for me,” Tyus said. “He was giving Black women an opportunity to get an education, which was unheard of at the time.”

Tokyo triumph

Tyus was 18 when she qualified for the 1964 Olympic team. Temple, who was coach of the U.S. women’s track team, told Tyus that Tokyo would be a good learning experience. Her real opportunity, he said, would come at the 1968 Mexico City Games.

“He made me believe that ’68 would be my year,” she said. “He said, ‘Tyus, we’re looking four years down the line.’ ”

But once the track competition started, Tyus grew more confident in her chances. She won all of her 100-meter heats, setting an Olympic record and equaling Rudolph’s world record of 11.2 seconds in the second round and running 11.3 in the semifinals. Yet Tyus was still not the favorite going into the final. Her Tigerbelle teammate and best friend, Edith McGuire, was still the one to beat.

Tyus was loosening up in the warmup area before the final when Temple approached her.

“You look really good in your races,” she recalled him saying. “I just don’t want you to get a big head. Just go out there and do your best. You might be able to win a medal.”

After getting off to a slow start, Tyus made up ground and was surprised to find herself in the lead, ahead of McGuire.

“I kept thinking, ‘Gosh, I’m out front here,’ ” Tyus said. “It was like, ‘Where is Edith?’ ”

Tyus had never beaten McGuire. She knew not to turn her head to look for her.

“At about 80 meters, I knew that is where she usually would catch and pass me,” Tyus said. “Where could she be? All of a sudden, I could hear her footsteps. At 90 meters she was right there on me. All I kept thinking was: ‘Keep lifting. Lift, lift, lift. Lean at the tape.’ And then it was over.”

Tyus broke the tape but wasn’t sure of the result. McGuire hurried over to embrace her.

“Tyus, you won it. You won it,” McGuire said as Tyus recalled it.

“I did that?” Tyus responded. “I don’t believe it.”

She had won the race, clocking in at 11.4 seconds. McGuire took silver in 11.6.

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As Tyus stood on the podium to receive her medal, her thoughts fast-forwarded to Mexico City and the reality of what it would take to defend her title: “I got four more years, four more years of this. I don’t know about that.”

Back in Atlanta, she and McGuire were greeted with a parade, but the route passed only through a Black neighborhood.

“Nothing really changed,” Tyus said.

On to Mexico City

A year before the Mexico City Games, Tyus suffered setbacks that disrupted her training, including a spider bite that became infected and a campfire accident that left her with leg burns.

When she finished fourth in the 100 at the 1967 Pan American trials, Temple told her she looked “terrible” and was in no form to make the team. She begged him to let her run the 200 at the trials. He did and she qualified for the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, where she won the 200 gold. Later that year, she beat Polish star Irena Szewinska in a 100-meter race to further boost her confidence.

But by the time Mexico City came around, Tyus was 23. Some in the media were saying she was too old.

The 1968 Games took place against a backdrop of political, racial and social upheaval. A group of athletes had formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights to protest racism and racial segregation. Talk of a boycott failed to materialize, and athletes decided to make their own choices on protests at the Games. Tyus wore her black shorts.

Later, she was watching from the athletes’ section in the stands when Smith and Carlos carried out their podium protest with heads bowed and black-gloved fists in the air. Tyus was alarmed by the reaction in the huge stadium, worried for her own safety.

“I hear the boos and the whistling and the jeers,” she said. “There was this whole eerie feeling. It was frightening, I can tell you.”

Before the final on Oct. 15, 1968, Tyus was loosening up behind the starting blocks. She casually broke into a little dance ironically called the “Tighten Up,’’ named after the hit song by Archie Bell & the Drells. Fans in the first few rows of stands played bongos as she danced.

“It was a psych thing, I guess,’’ she said, “but I was mainly doing it to relax myself and think: ‘Hey, I am so ready for this. Ready for this to be over and get my medal and be proud.’ ”

Tyus got off to a strong start and dominated the rest of the way, crossing the line in 11 seconds flat, a world record.

“It was just easy for me,” Tyus said. “It was easy running. That was my day.”

Standing atop the podium in the pouring rain, Tyus felt relief more than anything.

“Ah, it’s over,” she recalled thinking. “I don’t have to do this again. I’m done. I’ve accomplished my goal. And I’m ready, hopefully, to have a new life.”

Well, not quite done: She anchored the 4x100 relay team to victory in a world record 42.88 seconds for her third Olympic gold and fourth medal overall.

After the Games

Tyus moved to California and competed for several years on a professional track circuit. She worked as a teacher and coach and was a founding member of the Women’s Sports Foundation. In 2018, she published a memoir, “Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story,” co-authored with Elizabeth Terzakis.

One of Tyus’s proudest moments was returning to Griffin in 1999 for the opening of Wyomia Tyus Olympic Park — 164 acres featuring soccer and baseball fields, a lake for fishing, picnic areas and nature trails. More than 30 years after she had made Olympic history, her hometown was finally recognizing her.

“It means a lot more from my hometown to know that, as a Black person from Griffin, Georgia, they would do something like that,” Tyus said. “I never felt that they would.”

Tyus was inducted to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1985. She’s encouraged by the progress that has been made for women’s sports and athletes but believes there is still a long way to go.

“Yes, we have a lot more visibility,” she said. “Yes, we have a lot more sports that women can compete in, but that’s about it. It’s not equal. Will it happen in my lifetime? I hope so.”

In the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody, the police shooting of Jacob Blake and the subsequent protests of racial and social inequity, Tyus feels athletes must make their voices heard.

“The new athletes now should be at the forefront,” she said. “You have the spotlight and you have the cameras on you. You have to make the decision on how you want to protest.”

While athletes in the NBA and other leagues have been active in the Black Lives Matter movement, Olympic athletes are prohibited from protesting during the Games. The International Olympic Committee’s long-standing Rule 50 bans political demonstrations, including kneeling or other protests, on the medal podium. The IOC Athletes Commission is consulting with other athletes’ groups about possible modifications to the rule ahead of next year’s Tokyo Olympics. “I think they should get rid of the rule,” Tyus said.

Tyus speaks on the phone every day with her old teammate McGuire. She still wishes that Temple, who died in 2016 at 89, would get more credit for coaching so many champions and making sure they finished college.

In 1984, Tyus was among 11 athletes who carried the Olympic flag during the Opening Ceremonies of the Los Angeles Games. She has thought about reprising her role when the Games come back to Los Angeles in 2028.

“I can look forward to that,” Tyus said with a hearty laugh. “How old will I be then? I’ll start working out a little bit more. I’ll start setting my goals for that like I did for ‘68.”

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