Track legend Wyomia Tyus protested at the '68 Olympics and hardly anyone noticed
Fifty years ago, Wyomia Tyus became the first athlete -- man or woman -- in Olympic history to win gold medals in consecutive 100-meter events, a feat that took two decades to overcome. (The second woman to do so was Gail Devers at the 1992 Barcelona Games.) At the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, Tyus, a then-19-year-old track and field student-athlete at Tennessee State University, won her first gold medal in the 100-meter dash. Four years later, at the 1968 Mexico City Games, Tyus defended her title. In protest, Tyus opted for black shorts instead of wearing her uniform shorts -- white with red and blue trim -- to support the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organization that stood in opposition to racial segregation.
"I wore black shorts from day one rather than the white pair that was issued to us."
This fall, Tyus, now 73, and co-author Elizabeth Terzakis released the memoir, "Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story" to not only encapsulate Tyus' journey to record-setting Olympic champion and activist, but also the influence of her Tennessee State University Tigerbelle track team and coach Ed Temple.
For Tyus, writing "Tigerbelle" was an overdue means of preserving the legacy of Coach Temple, a man she respected as a father figure after her beloved father passed away when she was 15 due to thyroid illness, just one year after her family lost everything in a house fire.
"I wanted Coach Temple's story to be told and what he had done for the Tigerbelles and the [more than] 40 women he put on different Olympic teams," she said.
A young Tyus and her three older brothers were raised on a dairy farm in Griffin, Georgia, located about 40 miles south of Atlanta. Her mother, Marie, worked at a dry cleaners, and her father, Willie, was a sharecropper on the farm where they lived. Together, Tyus' parents toiled tirelessly to protect the baby girl of the family and her siblings from the social and political tumult of the civil rights movement raging outside their home.
During weekly walks on their farm, Willie Tyus enriched his children with ideas of freedom and hope. She remembers her father telling his children, "This is all out there for you. This beauty. This freedom is how life is supposed to be -- beautiful, calm and serene."
The father's optimistic vision for both gender and racial equality was partially realized for his children during their early years, when they joined the young neighboring white boys in recreational fun -- baseball, basketball, it didn't matter. Everything was fair game.
Tyus, a self-proclaimed tomboy who didn't want to play with dolls as a child, preferred to defy gender stereotypes and participate in competitive sports. She jumped at the chance to show up her big brothers and friends in any activity. Win or lose, she was a fighter. "They could knock me down 20 times, and I'd be back up fighting. 'Could you just stay down?' they would say. But I never would."
They could knock me down 20 times, and I'd be back up fighting.Wyomia Tyus
The house fire and the subsequent loss of her father in 1960 took a toll on a teenaged Wyomia.
"To have two devastating things happen right there, back-to-back, made me break," Tyus said. She became a recluse and lost her will to speak, mostly relying on monosyllabic communication.
"I couldn't recover from it," Tyus said. "I went to one-word answers and not communicating very much."
She estimates her depression lasted at least 10 years, up until the time she participated in her second Olympic Games.
Despite the trauma, her competitive edge remained stronger than ever. That, interlocked with Temple plucking her from Griffin and inviting her to attend his track camp at Tennessee State University, ultimately saved her life.
With Temple as her coach, she won three Olympic gold medals ('64 100-meter, '68 100-meter, '68 4x100-meter) and one silver ('64 4x100-meter).
Temple, like Tyus' father, believed that women shouldn't be assumed to have a disadvantage in sports because of their gender. Coach Temple, who counted three-time Olympic gold medalist and world-record-holding Wilma Rudolph as a protégé, was undauntedly committed to empowering black women athletes during a pivotal period in American history -- during the civil rights, women's rights and anti-war movements.
Collectively, the movements sparked a level of raised consciousness among the American people. Those people included members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organization founded ahead of the '68 Games by San Jose State University's sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards and Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos for athletes to protest against human rights injustices. Tyus was a member but was as shocked as the rest of the world when, at the Mexico Games, Smith and Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute during the national anthem on the medal stand after their respective 200-meter gold and bronze finishes.
However, Smith and Carlos weren't the only athletes to use the Games' stage to make a statement. Tyus' black shorts were a silent protest of her own.
"After winning [the 4x100-meter gold medal], my fellow [relay runners] and I went into the pressroom, and they asked us what we thought about what Tommie and Carlos had done," Tyus said. She verbally supported her Team USA comrades and publicly told the press, "I'm dedicating my medals to them. I believe in what they did."
To Tyus' knowledge, however, her statement of solidarity was never printed anywhere.
"Because I was a woman. Who cared?"
Not only was Tyus' protest nearly unacknowledged, but Smith's and Carlos' demonstration also overshadowed her Olympic record-setting consecutive 100-meter gold medal feats. To this day -- half a century after she "earned her place in the pantheon of American sports sheroes and heroes," as praised by Billie Jean King -- most track and field fans are hardly familiar with her legacy.
Ask Tyus to rationalize her hidden figure status, and she bluntly summarizes, "At the time that I was competing, there were two main obstacles to my becoming an athlete: being black and being female. Black women and black girls, in general, got no encouragement from the community, let alone the wider society."
Tyus' 1964 Olympics and Tigerbelle teammate Edith McGuire, 74, agrees with her best friend of more than 50 years. She recalls that mainstream media outlets like Sports Illustrated chose to feature the all-white Bouffant Belles, a Texas track team celebrated more for its classic American style, on the cover of its April 1964 issue in advance of the Olympic Games. "Not one of them [Bouffant Belles] made the Olympic team," McGuire recalls. Also adding, "Hopefully it won't always be that way."
Retired three-time WNBA champion Swin Cash agrees with McGuire's sentiments.
"That's how history goes," Cash said, speaking about many black female hidden figures that exist within sports, entertainment, politics, or many other industries and communities. "We as a culture have to take it to another level of not only learning our history but also preserving our history -- things get whitewashed a lot."
In particular, Cash believes it comes down to the lack of respect for professional women's sports leagues and organizations.
"Being a male gives you more value," said Cash.
But what about when you have two strikes against you? Black and female? Or, in Tyus' case, you decide to find peace in being hidden in plain sight -- until now, that is.
"People weren't ready for my story," she said.
"It's about a movement too," Tyus said. "I think in all movements, there are going to be people who are not in the limelight."
But remaining in the fight is what matters most to Tyus, and that's what she encourages of today's athletes. "Keep the pressure on. They can't just give up the fight."
As for how she'd like to be remembered for her contributions to history, she said, "I'd like for the world to know, it's not how fast I ran, or how many medals I won. I want to think they'd remember me as a woman who had given all that she can offer and wanted to make life a lot easier for other women and the women to come."