In celebration of Black History Month, USATF Alumni Association is saluting several legendary African-American Olympians with feature stories. This week focuses on Wyomia Tyus.
Nearly 50 years ago at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, Wyomia Tyus did something no one else had ever done before. At just 23-years-old, the Georgia native became the first to win consecutive gold medals in the 100m, a stat no one would repeat until Carl Lewis in 1988.
“I felt that it was ingrained in my body,” she said of winning that day. “I know we all say that and it doesn’t always [work out] but, it did.”
Tyus grew to trust her instincts after years of training under Tigerbelles Coach Ed Temple. The legendary coach discovered her at a meet when she was 15 and invited her to attend his summer camp at Tennessee State University. As she fondly recalled, “Meeting him was a lifesaver.”
Born August 29, 1945 in Griffin, Georgia, Tyus was raised on a dairy farm with her three brothers. Their parents stressed to them from an early age the importance of hard work, self-respect and empathy.
“As a child growing up in the Jim Crow south I remember my parents telling me, ‘You have to be educated,” she recalled. “That doesn’t mean you have to go to college but you must read, talk to different people, be prepared for the world…’”
Tyus’s father passed away when she was 14, leading her to view Temple as a coach, mentor and father figure. The sprinter earned a scholarship to TSU in 1963 and officially began training as one of the Tigerbelles. “[Coach Temple] saw potential in all the women who ran for him,” she said. “We became like a family.”
She made the 1964 Olympic team at age 19 and won her first gold in the women’s 100m (11.4), narrowly beating best friend and rival Edith McGuire, and silver in the 4x100m relay (43.9).
Perhaps not surprisingly, Tyus’s victories only made her hungry for more. Between the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games, she won the 200m at the 1967 Pan-American Games, broke world records in both the 100y and 100m, and won eight national AAU titles. Keeping her parents’ and Coach Temple’s lessons at heart, she finished her education and graduated from TSU with a degree in recreation.
“[Coach Temple] used to say that it’s great that you’re an athlete but, you can’t just be an athlete. You have to have something else to talk about and know the world in which you live.”
It was that focus that Tyus brought with her to the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. She championed once again in the 100m, setting a new world record in 11.08 and becoming the first athlete ever to win consecutives titles in the event. Shortly after, teammates John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists on the men’s 200m podium in protest of racial discrimination back home. The commanding black power salute rattled the International Olympic Committee. Both athletes were expelled after the IOC threatened to dismiss the entire U.S. team if the USOC didn’t comply.
Amidst the controversy, the women’s 4x100m team clinched gold and set a new world record in 42.88, making Tyus a four-time Olympic medalist. Determined to be “more than an athlete,” she felt compelled to dedicate her medal to Carlos and Smith.
“I just wanted them to know I supported them and was all for what they had done,” she said. “It was for human rights, and not only for what was happening to us as blacks, but also for a lot of other minorities all over the world.”
Upon returning to the U.S., Tyus moved to California and competed in the International Track Association. She won nearly every event over two years before retiring. She also worked for ABC as a television commentator at the 1976 Olympic Games, coached high school track and spent 18 years in outdoor education for Los Angeles Unified School District.
In addition to all these accomplishments, Tyus was part of initial discussions leading to the Women’s Sports Foundation establishment in 1974. She said, “We were just sitting there [at the Women’s Superstars] talking about how unfair it was for women to not get the same amount of press or the respect we deserved,” she said. “We knew we had to do something.”
Founded by Billie Jean King, the Women’s Sports Foundation continues to promote leadership opportunities for women by supporting access to sports. Tyus was a member of the first advisory board in 1976.
Now at age 71 and living in Los Angeles, the grandmother of five has come full circle on her place in the world. Along with family, her passion remains “helping people to understand that we are all human. In order to make this planet work we have to see the other side; give a person a chance; be more open, more giving.”
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