She made history and stood for what she believed in!
Wyomia Tyus was just 14 years old when she lost her childhood home in Griffin, Georgia to a house fire, her father dying shortly after, Sky News reports. These two events changed the course of Tyus’ life, recalling feeling like her “world was just gone.” She credits her mother Marie with motivating her to get into sports.
“[She said I] needed to do something because [my] dad would not want [me] walking around, moping around,” Tyus remembered.
That’s when she started playing basketball and running track, the latter catapulting her into a new life. Tyus recalled a chance encounter with famed Tennessee State coach Ed Temple at a track meet in Georgia in 1961. Temple coached Tennessee State to more than 30 national titles throughout his career, coaching 40 Black women Olympians from 1950 to 1994, who earned a combined 23 medals, 13 of them being gold. Temple eventually contacted Tyus, telling her he thought “she was a talented runner and could help her improve.” He then traveled to her hometown to convince her to spend a month at a track camp.
That visit sent Tyus on a cross-country train ride from Griffin, funded in large part by donations from the community who raised $23 to send her to Tennessee, $6 of them coming from the school’s ice cream fund. Tyus thinks back on how odd a young teen girl traveling on a solo trip that far would be now, but back then it was normal and Temple kept his promise.
“I think back about this all the time, how he [Temple] convinced parents and moms and dads to let their child, their daughter come to Tennessee State not knowing nothing about it, not being able to visit, not being able to go. My mom sent me on a train by myself! And never thinking anything about it,” said Tyus. “[A family friend told me,] ‘ You go on that train and you sit there and you sit with dignity!’ And that’s what I did. They didn’t have to worry about it, I was not going to talk to anybody. So I sat there with my dignity and my little lunch box that they fixed,” recalled Tyus.
Temple met her at that train station with Olympic gold medalist Wilma Rudolph, Tyus having no clue who she was at the time. The two spoke and she went about her way, embarking on a rigorous program led by Temple that would prove both arduous and worthwhile. By the age of 19 in 1964, she was appearing in her first Olympic games.
At the time, Temple told Tyus to just use it as a learning experience, with her best chance of winning a medal being the next Olympic games. But Tyus overperformed going into the 100m final, matching the 11.2 second world record previously set by Rudolph. Notably impressed, Temple changed his tone, letting Tyus know that she could win. As she prepared to race against her best friend Edith McGuire, Tyus just wanted to do well, knowing that she had never beaten her friend. She did exceptionally well, clocking in at 11.4 seconds and winning the race just 0.2 seconds faster than McGuire, who was the first to congratulate her. At the age of 19, she won her first Olympic medal in the 100m.
That first win set off a chain reaction, Tyus going on to win silver in the 4x100m relay, earning two Olympic medals just three years after leaving home to pursue her dreams. By the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, she was ready to make history.
“The press was saying I was too old at 23,” said Tyus.
Still, she didn’t let that defeat her mentally, going in confident that she could win again, this time even bigger.
“I thought no one could beat me. That was just in my head that no one could beat me. I had been here before, I know what it looks like. I went in very free-minded. I did not feel like my competition is going to beat me. So I went into the Games going: ‘I can do this, I will do it,’ and that’s it,” Tyus stated.
She remembered going into the race relaxed, telling herself to lift her knees and lean in at the finish line. She started out doing a popular dance move that was out at the time and she was aware that Mexico City was probably her last Olympics, wanting to go out with a bang. In the 200m she finished sixth. But in the relay she took home gold again. Then she clenched the victory in the 100m again with a time of 11.08 seconds, making history as the first athlete, male or female, to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 100m. That same year, she graduated from Tennessee State University.
“I know one thing and I still do say it. They can’t talk about history unless they speak my name. I was the first to do it,” Tyus previously told reporters about the historic achievement.
While the history books have credited Carl Lewis, it's important to note that Tyus accomplished it two decades before Lewis. Furthermore, it would be nearly a century before any other athlete broke her record. And if her achievements weren’t enough for some, let us remember that undergirding Tyus’ victory at the 1968 Olympic games was her active protest, one that also gets overlooked in the larger narrative.
Many people remember John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s protest at that same game. Barefoot both in Black socks representative of Black poverty, Smith donning a Black scarf for pride and Carlos adorned in a beaded necklace in honor of those who had been lynched, both men took the podium and raised their fists with Black gloves as a resounding moment of Black solidarity with those fighting against racial injustice. A moving moment and one that Tyus said was quite emotional and scary, the men made history.
“It was their protest. It was what they felt they should do. And when they did it people thought it was horrible. They felt they were the worst people in the world. They need to be kicked out of the country. And now here we are over 50 years later, they’re celebrating it and it’s the right thing to do,” said Tyus.
While Tyus and fellow runner Ralph Boston both focused on getting to safety after Carlos and Smith’s protest, due to the violence brewing in the stadium. It’s important to note that the moment didn’t exist in a vacuum, Tyus running two days before the now famous moment, taking part in a protest of her own.
As she remembers, racial tensions were high and while many Black athletes knew they needed to do something, there was no consensus on what to do and nobody was boycotting. However the Olympic Games were being broadcast live for the first time ever and as a result, many turned to figuring out various ways to protest on the world stage as a way of raising awareness.
“We all went, but nobody knew what they wanted to do. And it was left up to you what you wanted to do,” she recalled.
So when Tyus geared up for her races, instead of wearing the official white US team shorts like the rest of her teammates, she opted instead for dark shoes, a subtle yet glaring protest.
“I just knew I had my dark shorts and this will be my way of standing with people [who] were saying what is happening in the world is unfair. I was brought up with this. I was brought up with Jim Crow so that was my reason for wearing it,” said Tyus.
She felt it was a duty to be just as loud in her protest as she was in her sport. She knew there was little they could do to stop her on such a huge stage so she went forward with it but unlike Carlos and Smith, Tyus received no fanfare, regarding her protest or her historic win.
“It’s like they never saw a Black woman. They weren’t recognizing me anyway. They weren’t recognizing what I would have to say or what I would have to protest. They couldn’t care less about what women did - especially Black women - what they really did in the Olympic Games. You would think somebody winning back-to-back 100m, that would be a big thing,” Tyus explained.
Today, lots of people care as Tyus’ contributions are being remembered and her blue shorts from 1968 are now the property of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, her protest cemented in the history books and hidden no more. In September 2018, Tyus made a voyage back to that stadium in Mexico City where she made history, joined by Carlos and Arizona State University professor Kenneth Shropshire as a part of the Global Sport Institute project.
Tyus said she got chills as she and Carlos reflected on their five-decade-old accomplishments, Tyus bringing her daughter to the stadium for the first time in an effort to amplify the importance of Black women and their accomplishments.
“The histories are there. They’re written, they’re documented, but they have not been elevated to the level that they deserve because of that moment and because of what happened in that significance…We come back to this notion of whose voice matters, whose image matters? What we saw in that moment was this confluence of this notion of intersectionality and the power of representation…And so as much as [Tyus] served as an advocate, as much as she supported the Olympic Project for Human rights (OPHR) and in her efforts of wearing the black shorts, it was a voice when we think about the mediated images of who do we want to hear from, who was representing us, Black women are often pushed to the margin, pushed to those supportive roles and our men become sort of the focal point of that,” explained Akilah Carter-Francique, executive director for the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change at San Jose State University.
Despite her story of activism and achievement being lost in the national narrative, Tyus’ accomplishments were not lost within the sports community. Outside of her Olympic wins, she won eight Amateur Athletic Union titles in total and in 1976, she was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. In 1980, she was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. She also received the honor of carrying the Olympic Flag during the opening ceremony at the 1984 Summer Olympics and was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1985. Her hometown of Griffin, Georgia renamed a park in her honor and in 2018 she released a memoir about her life.
“He came into my life, I had just lost my father, so he has truly, truly been a father figure to me. He has given a lot to me and made me who I am today. I am proud to be who I am today, and the only reason I’m that way is because of him. He sacrificed a lot, not just for me, but for all the Tigerbelles, all of us,” said Tyus.
While she acknowledges that sports has come a long way in terms of inclusivity for Black athletes, she also realizes there’s even further to go. When reporters last caught up with Tyus, she was shining a light on the lost sporting records for many Black athletes.
“When the schools got integrated, all our records - all the record of all the Black athletes in all the Black schools at all the Black meets, all our times and trophies and accomplishments - they just threw them out the back door…When they integrated the schools, they cleaned the slate - started over, like we were never there,” said Tyus.
But they were something that Tyus intends to keep reminding people of. She’s been recovering all of her old records with the help of staff at Georgia Tech, something she’s grateful for. She’s also hoping that the International Olympic Committee will once and for all change their policy on protesting, still banning the act from competition or medal ceremonies at the opening and closing of the games. Now age 77, Tyus regularly speaks about her own achievements as well as the future of sports for Black athletes. She regularly worked with Billy Jean King’s Women’s Sports Foundations to give access and opportunities for women and girls interested in sports and is hoping her story can inspire a next generation of athletes.
King previously said that Tyus “earned her place in the pantheon of American sports sheroes and heroes.”
OPHR founder Dr. Harry Edwards echoed those sentiments, calling Tyus “the greatest female sprinter of her era and one of the most accomplished Olympians of any era.”
Thank you for your sacrifice and contributions Ms. Tyus! Because of you, we can!
Cover Photo: Meet Wyomia Tyus, a pioneering Olympic champion whose story was almost forgotten/Photo Courtesy of Associated Press