Feature20 Oct 2020

Wyomia Tyus: Still fighting for recognition as the first back-to-back Olympic 100m champion


Wyomia Tyus on the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City (© AFP / Getty Images)

Quick: Name the first athlete to win the 100m at consecutive Olympic Games.

Carl Lewis? Wrong.

Usain Bolt? Nope.

The first person – man or woman – to accomplish the feat was Wyomia Tyus, the US sprinter who unexpectedly won gold at the 1964 Tokyo Games and successfully defended her title four years later in Mexico City.

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

“I guarantee you, you can ask people and they would not say me,” Tyus said in a telephone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “They’re going to say either Carl Lewis or Usain Bolt. But you think about what I did. It took some 20 years before someone else even tied the record and close to 50 years before they broke it.”

The first to equal Tyus’s achievement was Lewis, who won the 100m at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games and was elevated from second place to first in Seoul in 1988 after Ben Johnson was stripped of gold for using steroids.

Even then, Tyus remembers being slighted.

Watching the Seoul Games on television, she was stunned to hear the announcer declare that Lewis had just become the first person to claim consecutive Olympic 100m golds.

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

Since her breakthrough, two other women have also won consecutive 100m titles: Gail Devers in 1992 and 1996 and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in 2008 and 2012.

Bolt later became the first person to achieve the triple, winning the 100m in 2008, 2012 and 2016.

“I know one thing,” said Tyus, now 75. “If they speak of the 100m, they also have to speak of me and what I did, because I was the first.”

Wyomia Tyus Wyomia Tyus wins the 100m at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City (© AFP / Getty Images)

Tyus’s story is one of perseverance, resilience and grit: A sharecropper’s daughter, she grew up on a dairy farm in a white neighbourhood in rural Georgia during the Jim Crow era. She overcame family tragedy as a teenager and went on to win four Olympic medals – the two 100m golds as well as gold and silver medals in the 4x100m relay. She also set or equalled the 100m world record four times.

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 the great Wilma Rudolph, who won three sprint golds at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Even when Tyus was preparing to defend her 100m title in Mexico City, few paid much notice to the possibility of her becoming the first person to win track’s marquee event twice in a row.

“Nobody except me and Mr Temple thought I would be the first person ever to go and do that,” she said. “The press was only asking, ‘Do you think you can get back to the Olympics?’ I thought, ‘Yeah, I can get back there. That’s not my goal. My goal is to win it.’”

Tyus’s role in athlete protests at the Mexico City Games also went largely unnoticed at the time. Well before US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos carried out their raised-fist salute on the medal podium, Tyus made her own personal statement by wearing black shorts – rather than the official white team shorts – during her races.

“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?’”

Growing up in Georgia

Tyus was raised on a tenant dairy farm in Griffin, Georgia, the only girl in a family with 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 neighbourhood, but the white girls were not allowed to play with black kids.

Tyus loved sports and competing against her brothers.

“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. I just had the desire to be the best.”

Tyus’s 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.

“It was really traumatic for me,” she said. “I went into a shell.”

In what proved to be a life-changing moment, Temple spotted Tyus at a state track meet and invited her to attend his summer camp at Tennessee State. Temple met with Tyus’s mother, Marie, and convinced her to let the 15-year-old go. Her school raised the money for the train fare to Nashville.

Tyus took the train by herself, the start of a journey that shaped the rest of her life. 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.”

Triumph in Tokyo

Tyus was 18 when she qualified for the 1964 Olympic team, finishing third in the 100m at the US Trials. Temple, who was coach of the US women’s track team, told her 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’.”

All the pressure was on her Tigerbelle teammate and best friend, Edith McGuire, who was expected to emulate Rudolph’s triple gold medal performance (100m, 200m and 4x100m relay) from the previous Games.

Once the track competition started, Tyus grew more confident in her own chances.

She won all of her 100m heats, setting an Olympic record and equalling Rudolph’s world record of 11.2 in the second round, and running 11.3 in the semifinals. Yet Tyus was not the favourite going into the final on 16 October 1964. McGuire was still the one to beat.

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

“Tyus, I need to talk to you,” she recalled him saying. “I just wanted to say you look really good in your races. 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.”

Wyomia Tyus Wyomia Tyus wins the 100m at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo (© Getty Images)

Ewa Klobukowska of Poland got off to a fast start in lane one, but 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 before. She knew not to turn her head to look for her.

“At about 80 metres, 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 metres 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 said: “I thought she had won. She said, ‘Tyus, you won it. You won it.”’

Tyus had won in 11.4. McGuire took silver in 11.6 and Klobukowska the bronze in the same time.

McGuire went on to win gold in the 200m, an event Tyus didn’t enter. They were both members of the US team that won silver in the 4x100m relay behind Poland.

Wyomia Tyus Wyomia Tyus on the podium at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo (© AFP / Getty Images)

Mexico City medals

By the time Mexico City came around, Tyus was 23. The media were saying she was too old.

Tyus again won all of her heats, but there would be stiff competition from Barbara Ferrrell and Irena Szewinska, who had both tied the world record of 11.1 seconds in their heats.

“I convinced myself that everyone else in the race should be afraid of me,” Tyus said. “I just believed there was no one there that could beat me. I felt the medal was mine.”

Before the final on 15 October 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 in lane three and dominated the race, crossing the line in 11 seconds flat, a world record. Ferrell and Szewinska took second and third, respectively, in 11.1.

Wyomia Tyus Wyomia Tyus wins the 100m at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City (© AFP / Getty Images)

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

Standing atop the podium, with rain pouring down, Tyus felt relief.

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

Well, not quite done: on 20 October 1968 – 52 years ago to the day – she anchored the US 4x100m relay team to victory in a world record of 42.88 for her third career Olympic gold and fourth medal overall.

Post Olympics

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. Her memoir – ‘Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story’, co-authored with Elizabeth Terzakis – was published in 2018.

In 1999, Tyus returned to Griffin, Georgia, for the opening of the Wyomia Tyus Olympic Park – 164 acres featuring sports fields, a lake for fishing, picnic areas and nature trails.

More than 30 years after she had made Olympic history, her hometown was finally recognising 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. I never looked for anything like that.

“I was so happy that my Mom and my coach were still alive and got to see that,” she added. “To me, for my hometown to even say, ‘Look we didn’t do much for you when you won those medals in ’64 and ’68, but this is something’. I was shocked and proud of that.”

Stephen Wilson for World Athletics

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