Wyomia Tyus: the original athlete activist hiding in plain sight | Athletics

Only six folks in the world have gained the 100m sprint in back-to-back Olympic Video games. The primary was Wyomia Tyus in 1964 and 1968. Subsequent was Carl Lewis, then Gail Devers, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Usain Bolt (who gained thrice in a row), and Elaine Thompson-Herah. To many individuals, the title Wyomia Tyus is much less acquainted than the others.

Tyus was not solely the first Olympian to win back-to-back gold in its status occasion – she additionally made historical past in different methods. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico Metropolis, when Tyus crossed the line first in the 100 meters, she set a world document of 11.08 seconds. And when she ran, she was carrying darkish shorts as an alternative of the team-issued white shorts, a gesture to point out her assist for human rights.

“I used to be not doing it for any kind of glory or something,” Tyus says. “It was only for me as an individual, as a human being, and my emotions and what I considered what was happening in the world, and the way ladies – Black ladies particularly – have been handled.” Tyus grew up in Griffin, Georgia, in the Jim Crow South and have become one among the Tigerbelles, a observe and subject powerhouse coached by Ed Temple at Tennessee State College.

In Mexico Metropolis, two days after Tyus’s win in the 100 meters, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists on the podium in what grew to become an iconic picture. They have been swiftly escorted out of the Olympic Village and despatched residence for his or her protest.


Tyus additionally gained gold in the 4×100 meter relay, and he or she devoted her win to Carlos and Smith. Nobody actually picked up on Tyus’s personal demonstration, and he or she didn’t speak about why she wore the darkish blue (virtually black) shorts. “They didn’t care about what I did, as a result of I used to be a lady and I used to be Black,” she says.

Main as much as the 1968 Olympics, the Olympic Venture for Human Rights mentioned methods athletes would possibly reveal. However Tyus says she and the Tigerbelles weren’t included in the plans or requested in the event that they have been on board. “Nobody got here to us. The entire motion began, and it was extra like, ‘Nicely, that is what we are saying, and the ladies are going to comply with,’” she says. “I don’t know if these phrases have been spoken, however these are the phrases I felt.”

So Tyus selected her personal to put on her darkish shorts. “I grew up with coloured loos, coloured water fountains, all these sorts of issues. It’s not like I didn’t understand how unfair issues have been taking place to Black folks, and particularly ladies,” she says.

Martha Watson, a four-time Olympian between 1964 and 1976, was one among Tyus’s Tigerbelle teammates. She remembers different members of the 1968 US staff speaking about plans to reveal in the event that they made it to the medals stand. “We knew what was happening,” Watson says. “I imply, we lived it. I grew up in California, and I went to highschool in Tennessee. I may buy groceries, however I couldn’t attempt garments on in Tennessee. That was a impolite awakening for me.”

Individuals who comply with observe and subject know the names of Tommie Smith and John Carlos – in addition to Lewis, Devers, Fraser-Pryce, Bolt, and Thompson-Herah. When Lewis gained back-to-back gold in the 100 meters in 1984 and 1988, Tyus remembers folks celebrating him for being the first, overlooking her achievement twenty years earlier.

Why did society skip over her? Possibly folks simply weren’t taking note of ladies’s observe in the ‘60s. However that’s not the solely cause, Tyus says. “Are they going to provide a Black girl that form of energy, to be the first one to do that, ever – in the historical past of the Olympic Video games?” she says. “I imply, I am going there with that.”

At the time, ladies – particularly Black ladies – have been anticipated to “simply sit again and be quiet, and don’t say very a lot,” says Tyus’s Tigerbelle teammate and 1964 Olympian Edith McGuire, who got here in second to Tyus in the 100 meters. She additionally gained gold in the 200 meters and silver in the 4×100 relay with Tyus.

At the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, McGuire remembers that the coach of the US males’s staff wasn’t going to let the ladies use the beginning blocks designated for the US sprinters. Temple was teaching the ladies’s staff, and he needed to combat for them to have the ability to use the blocks, she says.

Tyus and McGuire have been each from Georgia. After the Olympics, they have been honored with a parade by Atlanta, however it solely went by the Black neighborhoods. Regardless of being Olympic champions, each have been slighted for being Black, for being ladies, or each.

“To me, Wyomia has nonetheless not gotten the due that she ought to have for successful back-to-back 100 meters in the ‘64 and ‘68 Olympics,” McGuire says. “If she was a person or a white girl, then I feel it might have been completely completely different.”

Even in the historical past of ladies’s observe, amongst different Black ladies, Tyus appears to get neglected. “When folks consider feminine athletes in observe and subject, Wilma Rudolph is the solely particular person they bear in mind, or FloJo [Florence Griffith Joyner]. There’s a giant void in between,” Watson says. She says a part of the cause could also be that “Tyus was by no means actually flamboyant–she simply went on the market and did what she needed to do.”

“I’m nonetheless shocked that she has to blow her personal horn,” Watson says. “Skeeter [Rudolph] didn’t have to try this. FloJo didn’t have to try this.”

Wyomia Tyus
Wyomia Tyus runs in the 4x100m relay at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. {Photograph}: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Tyus grew up on a dairy farm, taking part in all types of sports activities together with her three older brothers, regardless that ladies weren’t actually supposed to try this. For ladies, “It was a ‘You possibly can go outdoors and play, however don’t sweat’ form of factor,” she says. “I needed to be nearly as good as my brothers, if not higher.… So as to play with them and the different boys in the neighborhood, I needed to be good. I had to have the ability to maintain my very own.”

When she was a young person, her home burned down, and her father died not lengthy after. Tyus had been near her father, and after his loss of life, she withdrew and didn’t discuss a lot. That’s when she turned to working observe. “I used to be brokenhearted and depressed, and I used to be not doing something. My mother stored saying, ‘You recognize, your dad wouldn’t need this. He want to see you do one thing together with your life,’” she says. “It was extra one thing to do, and in addition get my mother off my again.”

One summer season, Temple invited her to a observe camp at Tennessee State. Earlier than then, she hadn’t realized she was superb at observe, as a result of one other lady at her highschool at all times beat her, she says. “That summer season, the camp just about modified my life,” she says. “It modified the approach I checked out myself. I assumed possibly I may go to varsity – as a result of my mother couldn’t ship me to varsity.” The alternatives out there to Black ladies have been just about restricted to turning into a instructor or a nurse, she remembers.

Tennessee State gave Tyus a scholarship – a path Temple created for a lot of ladies who wouldn’t have been in a position to afford school, Tyus says. Temple’s staff constantly developed Olympic champions, together with Wilma Rudolph. Greater than 40 Tigerbelles competed at the Olympics from the ‘50s to the ‘80s, they usually gained 23 medals. “The entire relay staff in 1960 was from Tennessee State,” Tyus factors out.

Watson says of the Tigerbelles: “I feel it’s in all probability one among the most particular issues that’s occurred with ladies in sports activities, and Black ladies additionally.”

Tyus wrote a memoir known as Tigerbelle, in half to have a good time what Temple had accomplished for girls who in any other case couldn’t have gone to varsity. “To persuade an HBCU to do that for Black ladies – he by no means actually acquired the credit score for it. All the issues he’s accomplished – he gave all of us possibilities,” Tyus says.

The Tigerbelles have been like a sisterhood that has endured by the a long time, McGuire says. She and Tyus additionally developed a detailed friendship with Temple up till his loss of life in 2016. “He known as Wyomia and I the gold mud twins,” McGuire says. At any time when she and Tyus went again to Tennessee State, they’d go to Temple. “We might sit in his front room and discuss like three little outdated biddies.”

Though Tyus’s quiet demonstration in 1968 and historic Olympic wins by no means garnered a lot public consideration, she nonetheless paved the approach for in the present day’s athlete activists to reveal in opposition to injustices.

It’s not that ladies weren’t talking out in earlier a long time, Tyus says. “No one was placing the mic in entrance of their face to allow them to discuss,” she says. “However now, ladies have a platform, and persons are seeing them completely otherwise. I feel Title IX has so much to do with that, too.”

Lately, many athletes – significantly Black ladies – have used their platform to advocate for change. Tyus factors to the WNBA. “They have been out entrance earlier than anyone. … They needed to succeed in the plenty of individuals to say, ‘Hey, look, that is what’s taking place, we have to make a change.’”

In observe and subject, Gwen Berry and Raven Saunders have advocated for human rights, together with racial justice. Berry echoed Carlos and Smith’s protest when she raised her fist on the podium at the 2019 Pan American Video games. She was reprimanded and placed on probation by the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which has since modified its guidelines. However the Worldwide Olympic Committee nonetheless prohibits athletes from elevating a fist on the podium.

In some methods, in the present day’s athletes are advocating for the similar points Tyus did in 1968. “The modifications are taking place, however they is probably not taking place quick sufficient,” Tyus says.

“My dad used to say, ‘You at all times have to remain in the combat,’” Tyus says. “I’ve tried to keep up that. And I feel that every one the ladies, from Gwen Berry on – they’re standing for issues that may make this a greater world in which to reside for everyone, not only for one group of individuals.”

And that combat can take completely different types, as Tyus has proven, McGuire says. “You don’t at all times should be boisterous,” she says. “Nobody ought to say, ‘Nicely, you didn’t get on the market and lift your fist.’ Possibly that’s not my approach. My approach can be completely different. Everyone ought to do no matter they wish to do in their very own approach.”

After the Olympics, Tyus was a part of a bunch of ladies, together with Billie Jean King, who helped set up the Ladies’s Sports activities Basis. They linked whereas talking on the “banquet circuit” about their experiences in sports activities, Tyus remembers. “Ladies would come as much as you and say, ‘I simply want somebody had inspired me in this, that, and the different. And I want to have my daughters actually be acknowledged and be in a sport,’” she says.

Supporting that effort was essential to Tyus. “Ladies shouldn’t should combat for it like this. Ladies must be inspired to be in sports activities. And that was not taking place,” she says.

Tyus spent 18 years as a naturalist for the Los Angeles Unified College District, working with youngsters at a weeklong camp, educating them about the pure sciences and taking good care of the planet. She watched a few of them who’d by no means spent a lot time outdoor earlier than expertise what it was prefer to be out in nature. You could possibly see them develop in the week they have been there, she says. And it took her again to her childhood, when she frolicked climbing by the woods together with her dad and brothers.

“I do know that she’s touched some folks. They could not change into an Olympic athlete, however they’ll be an Olympic particular person” who exemplifies the Olympic creed that the journey is extra essential than successful, Watson says. “She’s my instance of that.”

“She and Wilma, in my eyes, are the biggest, indubitably,” Watson says. “I’ve recognized Tyus for over 50 years, and I’ve educated together with her. I do know that no matter they did on that observe got here from them. That they had no enhancing issues to make them run quicker. All of it got here from blood, sweat, and tears on that observe, and dedication. … And regardless that she’s not on the Wheaties field, she’s a real champion, her coronary heart and her soul.”

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