Wyomia Tyus

Wyomia Tyus’ Olympic protest resonates 52 years later

Wyomia Tyus
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Wyomia Tyus slipped on a pair of black shorts for the Olympic 100m final in Mexico City in 1968, her own quiet way of protesting racial injustice.

When she finished in world-record time (11 seconds flat), Tyus became the first athlete – male or female – to win back-to-back 100m gold medals.

The Mexico City Games are most remembered for the black-gloved fists raised by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who were kicked out of those Olympics for their podium gesture. Tyus’ symbolic act (and later dedication of her 4x100m gold medal to Smith and Carlos) also resonates 52 years later as athletes make their voices heard.

In late June, a group of U.S. athletes penned a letter to the International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee calling for the abolition of Olympic Charter Rule 50, which prohibits protests during the Games at Olympic venues and the Athletes’ Village. Carlos co-signed the letter.

The IOC Athletes’ Commission has been consulting with athletes around the world to explore how Olympians can express themselves at the Games while keeping the Olympic Charter in mind. Proposal(s) to the IOC Executive Board are slated for late 2020 and early 2021.

Earlier this month, U.S. sprinter Noah Lyles raised a black-gloved fist before a 200m at a Diamond League meet in Monaco, again bringing to mind Olympians from 1968. On Wednesday, athletes across basketball, baseball, soccer and tennis chose not to compete, calling attention to racial injustice three days after the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

As athletes continue to push for their right to protest, Tyus, who turns 75 this week, said in a telephone interview, “[It’s about] coming to the table and getting a better understanding of where athletes are today. … It used to be, you know, and it still is … athletes should be athletes, not doing anything else. We’re also human. We also have feelings. We also have rights. We also should be able to express those rights.”

Born in 1945, Tyus grew up on a dairy farm in Griffin, Georgia, during the Jim Crow era.

She was recruited to join the Tigerbelles track team at Tennessee State by coach Ed Temple, whom she still refers to as “Mr. Temple.” Temple led an enormously successful program, sending 40 Tigerbelles to the Olympics and offering the women he coached the chance to get a college education.

He guided Wilma Rudolph at the 1960 Rome Olympics, where she became the first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Games in track and field. In all, Temple’s Tigerbelles earned 23 Olympic medals.

Being a Tigerbelle, Tyus said, allowed her to obtain two educations: one in college and one traveling the world as an athlete.

“He would always say to us that track will open the door; education would keep the door open,” Tyus, who turns 75 on Saturday, said in a recent telephone interview. “He made us believe in ourselves and believe that we could make a difference.”

He also warned that Olympic success would not change systemic racism at home. Nor fix the lack of opportunities available to women at the time.

“He used to tell us a lot of times, ‘It doesn’t matter how many gold medals [you win] or how many times you go to the Olympics. When you come back home, you’re still going to be Black, and you’re still going to be a woman,'” Tyus said.

Tyus made her first Olympic team in 1964 at age 19. Temple was careful not to set expectations, telling Tyus her time would come in 1968. Her teammate and best friend, Edith McGuire, was the early pick for 100m gold. Instead, it was Tyus who crossed the line first, edging McGuire by two tenths of a second.

“[Edith] ran and grabbed me and said, ‘Tyus, you won,’” Tyus said. “‘I did?’ That was never in my brain that I would win the gold medal in ’64.”

Four years later, Tyus hadn’t had her strongest season in the pre-Olympic year and felt written off because of her age (though she was only 23). But she knew she was prepared and entered the Games believing that repeat gold was within reach. Temple reminded her that no athlete won the 100m at consecutive Olympics.

“He says, ‘Now, you probably won’t get no press for it, ’cause you’re a woman,’” Tyus recalled.

The 1968 Games took place amid growing unrest of continued racial injustice both in the United States and abroad.

Tyus spoke with other athletes in the village about protesting in support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which was created to draw attention to inequality and injustice worldwide. She said the athletes did not agree on a single form of protest, “so it was left up to each person to do it.”

Tyus wore black shorts instead of her uniform pair throughout the Games, including in the 100m and 4x100m finals. She did not share her plans with anyone else.

“[It was] my way of protesting,” she said. “There was no need to talk about it.”

Simply showing up and running her best mattered, too.

“Knowing what it feels like to be discriminated against, growing up in the South, growing up during the Jim Crow era, being a Black woman, being told that muscles are ugly … to me, that was part of my protest,” she said. “This is to show people all the things [they] say are not true.”

Tyus doesn’t remember much coverage of her repeat gold and world record at the time. She does recall hearing an announcer say that Carl Lewis was the first to go back-to-back in the 100m when he did so in 1984 and 1988.

But recognition was not the reason Tyus ran.

“I didn’t do this for anybody else,” she said. “I did this for me. Whether I get the credit or not. But I do know one thing: if they ever have to look in the record books, my name would be there first.”

Tyus remained active in sports after retiring from sprinting.

She worked as a commentator for ABC at the 1976 Montreal Games, helped carry the Olympic flag at the Opening Ceremony of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and took the Olympic torch through Griffin, Georgia, before the 1996 Atlanta Games. She is a founding member of the Women’s Sports Foundation, which empowers girls and women through sports.

Away from the track, Tyus worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District and as a naturalist in outdoor education.

She co-wrote “Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story,” published in 2018. These days, Tyus is staying in and staying safe and talking to her five grandchildren on Zoom. She also speaks to McGuire, still her best friend, almost every day.

The deaths of Black Americans, including George Floyd, and the protests and racial reckoning that followed, brought her back to the ’60s, she said, emphasizing the need for as many voices as possible to condemn systemic injustice.

“The more people you get to speak up and stand up for it and say this is not right,’” she said. “I can never say enough. You’re definitely stronger in numbers.”

MORE: Smith, Carlos weigh in on potential athlete demonstrations at Tokyo Olympics

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Wyomia Tyus remembers 1968 Olympics in ‘Tigerbelle’ excerpt

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Wyomia Tyus may not be first person associated with the 1964 or 1968 Olympics, but she was one of the standout athletes of the decade.

Tyus, who grew up in the segregated south on a Georgia dairy farm, became the first man or woman to repeat as Olympic 100m champion. She tied Wilma Rudolph‘s world record at the 1964 Tokyo Games and lowered both the 100m and 4x100m marks at the 1968 Mexico City Games.

Carl LewisGail Devers, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Usain Bolt later joined Tyus in the multiple Olympic 100m titles club, but Tyus, a standout of Ed Temple‘s Tennessee State Tigerbelles track teams, will always be the first.

Tyus, now 73, remembered her victories at the 1968 Olympics and her contribution to the human-rights cause in the following excerpt of “Tigerbelle: Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story,” copyright 2018 by Wyomia Tyus and Elizabeth Terzakis, used with permission of Edge of Sports and Akashic Books (akashicbooks.com).

“Tigerbelle” was published this week and is available for purchase here.

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When the gun went off, I was out. The best start I’ve ever had, ever in my whole career, was in that Olympics in ’68. The first thing I remember thinking was, I got a good start! I got a good start! I’m out! I’m out front! I’m out front of Barbara! And then I was like: I know she’s coming. And I knew that Poland’s Szewińska — who was Kirszenstein in the ’64 Olympics; she had gotten married — was also in the race. And I thought: She’s going to be coming. But she’s just as old as I am, and I’m faster. All this was going through my head, yet I was running strong, and I never looked back. I didn’t hear Margaret or Barbara or Szewińska — I didn’t hear any of them. Even so, I wasn’t really listening for them. If I was listening for anyone, it was Raelene Boyle, but I had psyched her out, so she was not going to beat me.

Now I was thinking, Stay relaxed, lift your knees, stay relaxed, lift your knees. Don’t forget to lean at the finish line! And then it was over. Just like that.

As soon as I crossed the line, it poured. I mean, poured— like the sky almost fell out. And I thought, Well, thank you. Because it waited for me.

Usually, as soon as you finish a race, the officials shoo you off the track so that the next race can start, but after the 100 in ’68, Howard Cosell, the sportscaster, was running a live feed, and he grabbed my arm. “Wyomia,” he said, “we want to talk to you about the 100 meters,” and then he turned to the camera and said, “We have right here Wyomia Tyus, who just won her second—” But at that point one of the officials started practically pushing me, trying to get me off the track, and Howard shouted, “Leave her alone!”

“She has to get off the track so the next event can start!” “Get your hands off of her! She’s talking to her country!”

Howard kept yelling at the officials until he finally got them away from me. At that point, I was shaking because it was cold, and I was soaking wet. “You’re cold?” he asked.

“A little bit,” I said.

He put his ABC coat around me, turned back to the camera, and said, “I just gave this fast young lady my jacket. She’s shivering!” That was his lead-in. He was just too funny: “She’s talking to her country — get away from her!” Go Howard! But he was a nice person, and I appreciated him giving me his jacket. When I got back from Mexico City, I bought a Paddington jacket — you know, for the bear, the little yellow one? — and I drew ABC on it. It was tiny, and I wanted to present it to him and say, “Look, here’s your jacket back — after the rain in Mexico City.” I never got to do it because the day I knew I was going to see him, I forgot it at home. It would have been a cute thing, but it didn’t happen.

While I was talking to Howard — and my country — the officials confirmed who had won by going over all the tapes, checking to see that nobody had run out of the lanes, that I really had crossed the line first, things like that. (I don’t think they were doing drug testing then; I don’t remember having to pee in a cup, so if they were doing testing, they weren’t testing the sprinters, or at least they didn’t test me.) A very short time later — I assume it was a short time, because it was still pouring — I was out on the victory stand.

The rain was soaking us, and I was wiping it away from my eyes, and everybody who looks at the video thinks I was crying, but I wasn’t; I’m not a crier, and I wasn’t crying. The main thing I was feeling was relief — because I had accomplished all my goals. I had my degree. I had won my medal. I am ready for the world! I told myself. I was also thinking about how much my mother and brothers had sacrificed for me to get there and how proud they must have been at that moment. Being up on that stand was just pleasant — I felt the way you feel when everything falls into place, and your life is where you want it to be, and you know you’re at the beginning of a new life—a new phase of your life. For me, at that moment, it meant no more running. I wasn’t thinking of ever running again, after that. I was done. Then they played the national anthem, and I was good to go. I could have gone home that day.

In my mind, that would have been the perfect ending for my second Olympics — with me achieving the second of my two goals and becoming the first person to win back-to-back gold medals in the 100. But as it turned out, there were still some things I had to do—both on the track and off.

For one thing, I still had to run the relay and the 200, but those races were just not the same as the 100. That 200? I wasn’t even thinking about it. Didn’t care about it. That race was just something Mr. Temple wanted me to do. The relay meant more to me, but it was not the most important thing I had left to do, not by a long shot.

I was in the spectator area for athletes when Tommie Smith and John Carlos and Peter Norman, the Australian runner who got the silver in the men’s 200, came out to get their medals. There was a rail between us and the track, and you could look down the chute where the athletes come out. There were a lot of us there, and we were all yelling our support.

When I saw Tommie and Carlos come out, the first thing that ran through my head was: They don’t have no shoes on. I watched them walk onto the medal stand, and when “The Star-Spangled Banner” started to play, I watched them raise their fists. Oh my! I thought. The crowd was just quiet at first. Nothing. No sound. Then people started talking, a buzz rose up, people near me whispering, “Did you see what they did? Did you see what they did?”

“Yes, I did,” I said, but I was also trying to see if there was anybody up above us trying to do anything else—anything retaliatory. Because while some people were cheering, some people were booing. They were angry. You could see it in their faces. And I kept thinking, I just want to be out of here. Because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought: That was so powerful and It’s going to strike so many people the wrong way and I hope nobody hurts them. That was one of my first thoughts: I hope no one hurts them. I wanted to get out of the stadium before something happened. There were too many people there, and we were in front and kind of below everybody, and there were just a few of us Black athletes. And I thought, There are probably some Black people booing too. It was a scary moment.

When they came off the stand, they walked right past us, and we were giving them back slaps and high fives and saying supportive things. After that, all hell broke loose — for them. Once we got back to the Olympic Village, there was a meeting of just about everybody, and everybody was saying that Tommie and Carlos were being sent home and that their medals would be taken away.

“Take their medals away?” I said. “How can they take their medals away? What are you talking about?”

“Yes, that’s what’s going to happen,” more than one athlete responded. “That’s what happens when you do things like that.” “Oh, please,” I said, “Tommie and Carlos are not going to give up their medals.”

Still, that was what most of the athletes believed: that their medals would be taken — because that was the propaganda that was put out, just that quick. And who would do it, other than the officials? The word all around was that the Olympic Committee was going to take their medals and put them out of the Village. And that’s what came across to America too, in the papers: that they got their medals taken and they’d been put out of the Olympic Village for disgracing America.

But I was thinking, They are not taking their medals. And as it turned out, I was right, but if you were to search it online right now, you would still find sources that say they were “stripped of their medals” or “forced to return” their awards. In reality, that never happened, but the propaganda continues.

Tommie and Carlos were not at that meeting because it was true that they were banned from the Village — but in any case, they weren’t going to go there because they figured the officials wanted to put them out of not only the Village but also the country. So they went to a hotel. Still, I don’t see how anyone from the Olympic Committee could have put them out of the country; it wasn’t their country. In my mind, these were all just the rumors that were spread to cause confusion among the other athletes and keep them from doing anything else.

Nevertheless, another meeting was called to talk about what other people were going to do in light of what happened to Tommie and Carlos. The outcome of that meeting was still: You can do whatever you want. What they have done, that said everything right there. And that’s when people started getting ideas: some of the men on the relay teams wore berets, and there were black socks and black shorts and black armbands and things like that, and Ralph Boston was barefoot when he went on the stand to get his medal. I don’t know how much of it came across on the television, but many athletes continued the protest despite all the threats to Tommie and Carlos, and I was one of them.

The next day, I ran the 4×100 relay. Even though I had achieved my goal of winning the 100 and felt satisfied, I had to think of my teammates — Barbara Ferrell, Margaret Bailes, and Mildred Netter. I knew we had the best team; the only thing we had to make sure of was that we didn’t make any mistakes, like dropping the baton or running out of the passing zone. Barbara had gotten second in the 100, and even though Margaret was only seventeen, she ran well in the 100, placing fifth, and had really been setting the world on fire in the run-up to the Games. The relay was probably most significant for Mildred: the 4×100 was her first race in the Olympics; she didn’t run anything else, so it was her only chance to get a medal.

Barbara ran the first leg; she had a good start and was out in front when she passed to Margaret, who ran really well and handed the lead over to Mildred. Mildred had a good race — such a beautiful curve! — but I misjudged her speed coming up and was a little slow taking off. None of us were used to passing to each other, and even though we had practiced, three of us had to train for the 100 and the 200, so we didn’t have that much time for the 4×100—unlike the Europeans, who kept their relay teams the same so they got to work together all year. Despite all that, Mildred and I still had a good pass, and with such a solid lead, the fact that she ran up on me didn’t matter. Mildred ran after me almost all the way through the curve, yelling, “Go, Tyus! Go, Tyus! Go!” So I did, and we not only won but set both an Olympic and a world record with a time of 42.8 seconds.

As part of my contribution to the protest for human rights, I had worn black running shorts for the relay, rather than the regular white running shorts that were issued to us—although I’m not sure anyone noticed. But after we won and had been given our medals, we went into the pressroom, and they asked us what we thought about what Tommie and Carlos had done. “What is there to think?” I said. “They made a statement.

We all know that we’re fighting for human rights. That’s what they stood for on the victory stand — human rights for everyone, everywhere. And to support that and to support them, I’m dedicating my medal to them. I believe in what they did.”

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