Howard Cosell (L) speaks with Wyomia Tyus (R) at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 in Mexico City.
Wyomia Tyus felt like dancing before the start of the 100-meter final at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968.
As she waited to get into the blocks, Tyus flexed her leg muscles and swung her arms. The dance was called the “Tighten Up” from the popular song by Archie Bell and the Drells, but what it did was relax her.
“A few months after the Olympics, one of my competitors, Raelene Boyle of Australia, was in America. She said, ‘Wyomia, I saw you doing that dance. That really psyched me out.’”
“That’s what it was supposed to do,” Tyus said 50 years later with a laugh. “I did my job!”
Tyus became the first athlete – male or female – to repeat as Olympic 100-meter champion. Only 19 when she was the upset winner at the Tokyo Games over her best friend Edith McGuire, Tyus was a seasoned 23 years old in Mexico City.
“Once I made the team no one could have told me I was not going to win,” she said during “A Conversation with Wyomia Tyus” in Atlanta recently as part of the Sports, Society, and Technology Program at Georgia Tech.
“When we lined up at the starting line, I didn’t look over and say who’s getting second, but I knew I was getting first.”
As both of her U.S. teammates jumped the gun on successive starts, Tyus kept her cool.
She won with a time of 11 seconds flat, a new world record. Teammate Barbara Ferrell was second, Irena Szewinska of Poland came in third and the psyched-out Boyle placed fourth.
Half a century after that historic victory, Tyus is promoting her book, “Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story” across the country. She is gratified by the outpouring of support for her and for the feat that is now getting the recognition it has long deserved.
“I’m still fighting out there,” she said, “not just for human rights, but also for women’s rights and to end sexism and racism.”
The year 1968 was packed with political turmoil and strife. The civil rights, women’s rights and anti-war movements were on the front burner in the United States. At the same time, global change was heating up around the world including Mexico City, where students and civilians were gunned down in a protest 10 days before the Opening Ceremony.
The 1968 Olympic Games are famous for the “Black Power” political demonstration by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the victory stand after the 200-meter, but it is less well-known that other athletes, including Tyus, were also part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
Taking A Stand
Wyomia Tyus (first place) competes at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 on Oct. 10, 1968 in Mexico City.
She wore black shorts throughout the Games “to symbolize I was for the human rights project,” Tyus said. “That was my protest. I just think we all have to take a stand somewhere. People always say, ‘That was the wrong place to do it.’ Is there ever a right place where rights are concerned?”
Tyus was also asserting her voice, telling the men involved with the project that everyone needed to be included.
She said that female athletes were not consulted when the movement started at San Jose State. “It was just the men talking among themselves, saying ‘The women will do whatever we say’ type of thing.”
Tyus said reporters would call Ed Temple, the Tigerbelles coach at Tennessee State University who was also the coach for the U.S. women’s team. “They’d say, ‘What are your girls going to do?’ He said, ‘You have to talk with them. I don’t speak for them and I’m not going to go get them out of class. If you want to talk to them, you need to come to Nashville,’ but that didn’t happen.”
She said discussion of black athletes boycotting the Games “kind of fizzled out because everybody said we put all this time in.”
Tyus did not know what Smith, who won the 200-meter gold medal, and Carlos, who won the bronze, had planned on the podium.
She was in the stands and stood up to cheer when they came out for their awards.
“I looked down and they don’t have their shoes on,” she said. “I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ When they put their fists up when the national anthem was playing, the whole stadium got quiet.”
Peter Norman of Australia, the silver medalist, stood in solidarity with them, wearing a button that said, “Olympic Project for Human Rights."
“It was just complete quiet,” Tyus said. “And after that, you could hear people talking and whispering and then peoples’ voices getting louder. You heard boos. My concern was, ‘That’s very powerful what they have done right there and I hope no one hurts them.’ Then I started thinking of my safety. Anybody in the stadium could have done anything. ‘I need to get out of here, we all need to get out of here.’”
Later, Tyus dedicated her gold medal from the 4x100-meter to the protest by Smith and Carlos, who had been kicked out of the Olympic Village.
Comparisons To TodayWyomia Tyus competes at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 on Oct. 15, 1968 in Mexico City.
She said there are “definite similarities” to Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback.
“They think he just took a knee,” Tyus said. “This whole protest is about Black Lives Matter, what’s happening to young black men or people of color.”
And sexism is still an issue, too, she said. Tyus supports fellow Olympic gold medalist Serena Williams, who lost the US Open amid controversial decisions to dock her a point, and then a game, by the chair umpire.
Tyus said she watches a lot of tennis and “you see the men doing much worse things than her. And they don’t get a game taken from them, they don’t get a point taken from them. A lot of them don’t get fined. To me, what Serena was doing was standing up for her rights.”
Tyus learned to stand up for herself while growing up in a white neighborhood in Griffin, Georgia, during the Jim Crow era.
Her father was a sharecropper on a dairy farm and she had three older brothers.
“We didn’t have to work the farm,” Tyus said. “Our father would say, ‘I have done enough work in picking cotton, those kinds of things, but you’ll never have to do that. You should get your education.’”
She said her father had few words, but a lot of wisdom. Her mother was also wise and had a penchant for finding things out. “We would call her ‘The Griffin Daily News,’” Tyus said. “She would have you laughing all the time. There was nothing she did not say. If it came up in her head, it came out of her mouth.”
White girls in the neighborhood were not allowed to play with the Tyus kids because of their skin color, but they could play with the white boys.
“My dad used to say to my brothers, ‘Let her play. She’s just as good as you if not better,’” Tyus said. “I think that a lot of times I was better.”
She was called a tomboy, but she didn’t care “because I loved what I was doing and I had a family that supported me. Growing up there taught me a lot of great lessons. It taught me not to give up.”
Their parents kept Tyus and her brother aware of situations they could possibly encounter “because they wanted us to be safe, wanted us to be productive and maybe change the world. My dad would say, it’s not always going to be this way and believe it or not, it’s not.’”
A Star Is Born
Wyomia Tyus (third from right) competes at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 on Oct. 15, 1968 in Mexico City.
Although Tyus was not the fastest female runner in her high school, she was discovered at age 15 by Temple at a state track meet.
“Still to this day I don’t know what he saw in me that made him think that I could come to Tennessee State and be one of the Tigerbelles,” she said.
Temple invited her to a summer camp at Tennessee State. He picked her up at the train station with “the tall lady” – Wilma Rudolph, who went on to win three gold medals at the Rome Olympic Games.
Tyus said that after years of people urging her to write a book, she finally decided to do it so she could dedicate it to Temple.
“I want the world to know what he has accomplished with the Tigerbelles,” she said. “He said, ‘Sports open the door for you, education keeps the door open.’”
Her father died when she was 15 and Temple was a father figure to her.
She also wrote the book as a tribute to the Tigerbelles, who taught her friendship and inspired her to do something with her life.
However, during that first training camp, Tyus just wanted to go home.
They practiced three times a day – 5 a.m., 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. – in the Tennessee heat and some of the other girls quit.
Tyus called her mom and said, “It’s too hard, I can’t do this. It’s much more than I thought.”
“My mother said very nicely, ‘Well, you made the decision to go. You don’t have to go next year, but you’ve got to stay there this time’ – which is the best thing in the world to happen to me, although at that time, it was the worst thing in the world.”
Practices got better. Tyus got more relaxed and she said she felt, “OK, I can do this.”
Four years later, she was in Tokyo for the Olympic Games. That was also an education.
“I was used to Southern foods – grits, collard greens, chicken, rabbit,” she said. “That was my first experience with sushi. It was like ‘OK, I don’t have to eat this.’’
Tyus, who was so quiet – like her father – that Temple used to joke that she only said four words, started to talk more.
“I look back at it as a growth period,” she said.
Before Her Time
Wyomia Tyus (nearest) competes at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 on Oct. 15, 1968 in Mexico City.
Tyus was only third at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, and Temple had her pegged as the Olympic champion in four years.
But Tyus was running so well in the early rounds at the Games that he told her, “You look like you might win a medal, so go get ‘em.’”
“He walked away,” Tyus said, “I went, ‘A medal? I could win, baby!’”
McGuire, her best friend, was the favorite. “The gun went off, I was gone,” Tyus said. “At about 80 meters, I kept going, ‘Where’s Edith?’ By 85, 90 meters, oh there she is. I can hear her breathing.”
Next thing she knew, it was over. McGuire hugged her. “She said, ‘You won!’ I said, ‘I did?’”
McGuire went on to win the 200 and they were part of the U.S. team that won silver in the 4x100-meter.
In 1968, Tyus had two goals – to graduate from college, which she did in August, and to defend her 100-meter title in October in Mexico City.
She said the media called her washed up and too old, which only made her more determined.
It rained in the semifinals, and Tyus was hoping it would stay dry for the final.
The three Americans were side by side. Ferrell, who had a great start, was Tyus’ top competition while 17-year-old Margaret Bailes was one of four athletes in the race who had tied the world record of 11.1.
“I kept thinking, ‘If I could get out with Barbara, I would be fine,’” Tyus said.
When Bailes false-started, “I said, ‘Well, I don’t have to worry about her,’” Tyus said. “She has to sit in the blocks. Then the second time, Barbara Ferrell jumped.”
She had to sit in the blocks, too, while Tyus got her best start ever.
“The rest is history,” she said. “I ran and never looked back.”
Now the world is looking back.
Dr. Damion Thomas, Curator of Sports at the Smithsonian Institute, said people are paying more attention to trailblazers like Tyus.
“Now that we see such change and transformation in women’s sports, it’s very important that we’re able to go back and look at this period that’s seen as a catalyst for the changes that exist today,” he said. “So many people don’t know that women couldn’t play collegiately or run collegiately at most of the universities in this country in the 1970s.”
Wyomia Tyus (top of the podium) stands on the podium after winning gold at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 on Oct. 15, 1968 in Mexico City.
Tyus, who ran pro track in its infancy and coached the sport at Beverly Hills High School, was a founding member of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
“Who would have thought about a black person being not only in gymnastics, but swimming,” she said, “and in the Winter Olympics. Women have become more sure of themselves and saying, ‘I am just as good and you should want to see what I can do, because I can put on a great show.’”
She is encouraged by fathers coaching their daughters, such as Randall Cunningham coaching his daughter Vashti to a world indoor title in the high jump and Michael Carter coaching his daughter Michelle to an Olympic gold medal in shot put.
“We didn’t see this before,” Tyus said. “Men coached their sons. For their daughters, they were never there. Now you see people more aware of what women can do, and also more encouraging women to do things.”
In the 1990s, she returned to Griffin for the dedication of a 168-acre park in her honor.
“I was totally floored by the fact my little small town would do that,” she said. “One of the officials said to me, ‘We didn’t really give you the recognition you need and I hope this will do that for you.
“And I can’t tell you how that made me feel because I never thought about they didn’t give me the recognition. I wasn’t doing it for recognition. I was doing it for me, doing it for women and for black women.”