Being a black athlete in America in the 1960s was a challenge. Being a black woman athlete was often an insurmountable barrier.
“Black women were less than second-class citizens, and they had to work – they had to work hard,” she wrote in her excellent autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis.
There were not a lot of options for women in sports at that time, and the options we did have were especially restricted because they were for girls. When I started playing basketball, girls couldn’t run up and down the court – you had to play half-court: three guards on one side, three forwards on the others, and you could only dribble three times before you had to pass or you’d be called for traveling.
But if anybody made do with limited opportunity, it was Wyomia Tyus. She grew up in Griffin, Georgia, in a house with no plumbing and unsteady access to electricity, that, on her tenth birthday, burned to the ground, leaving the family of six with nothing but memories. And yet her family persevered, and Tyus continued to grow up in a supportive household, as she told me.
By growing up in a small town, my parents worked very hard, they always said that it is not always going to be this way, you will have opportunities, that you don’t see this when you are young. I didn’t mind being poor. I didn’t think about it. I thought I had as much as everyone else. Thanks to my parents, I felt free. I felt I could do whatever I wanted to do. They taught us that we could that we just had to work hard. You can’t quit. You just have to work it.
Tyus learned from her brothers how to compete, and never to give in, as she wrote in Tigerbelle.
They could knock me down twenty times, and I’d be back up fighting. ‘Could you just stay down?’ they would always say. But I never would. My attitude was: You’re going to know you’ve been in this war. I might get the worst of it, but you’re going to know that you’ve been in a way. They taught me all of that.
Being brought up in a nurturing home was important. Natural athletic ability was critical. But Tyus was lucky that one of the few people in the country who could help grow her career was in town one day – legendary track coach, Ed Temple of Tennessee State University.
“I was lucky,” she told me. “I don’t take that lightly. I always think about how Mr. Temple saw me run and thought that I had the potential to come to Tennessee State and run and maybe go to the Olympics. He was going to other meets in Mississippi and Alabama. That’s how he would choose the girls. And I wasn’t winning when he saw me. I was doing ok, but he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
Tyus would go on to star in one of the few institutions in America that developed women track and field athletes in the 1960s. Generally speaking, however, women, and especially black women, were constantly ignored and belittled.
At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the coach of the US men’s track team decided that the women were not really part of the US Olympic squad as he refused to allow the entire shipment of sprinter’s starting blocks to be used by the women sprinters, as explained in Tigerbelle. “What are you talking about?” Mr. Temple said to him. “I thought we were the American team – that we were all the American team.”
The women’s track team were just about resigned to using the starting blocks available to the Japan team when American sprinter, Bob Hayes, spoke up. “What kind of craziness is this? You can use my blocks any time you want.” The male athletes then began sharing the equipment, trumping the sexist attitude of the coach.
Tyus and teammate, Edith McGuire, went on to finish gold and silver in Tokyo. And Tyus came home to a parade in her hometown. But, while everyone in the universe knew that Bob Hayes was the star of stars at the Tokyo Olympiad, little did the rest of the United States know or care about the fastest woman in the world.
As the Americans began their preparations for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the track and field women were again dismissed as an afterthought. As she wrote in Tigerbelle, it was necessary to train in a high altitude venue to match conditions in Mexico City. Lake Tahoe, California was perfect and scenic. But only the men were invited to train there. The women of the track and field team were shipped to Los Alamos, New Mexico.
When we got off the bus, we all looked around and said, “Wow, there’s nothing here.” Because there was nothing in that town—nothing but all the nuclear weapons development facilities. As time went on, we began to understand why it was so isolated. There was a long-distance runner who would just go off and run, and one day she headed into an area that she shouldn’t have been in. That’s when the coaches called us together and told us, “You should not be running anywhere but where you’re told.”
Instead of focusing on peak performance, the women were wondering “what am I breathing in?”
Tyus went on to win the gold medal in the women’s individual 100-meter sprint as well as the women’s 100-meter relay. But her accomplishments were drowned out by the feats of a very strong American men’s squad in Mexico City, and also more generally by an American press that could not see the value in, or perhaps, could not overcome the fear of promoting the accomplishments of black women.
At the time, they were not about to bathe a Black woman in glory. It would give us too much power, wouldn’t it? Because it would have been a moment, if you think about it: “She won back-to-back gold medals; nobody in the world has ever done that. Let’s paint the US all over her—let’s drape her in a flag!” You would think. But no. I would never see them hanging a flag on me. Because one thing the Olympics is not about is giving power to the powerless.
Her coach Temple wrote tellingly in his book, Only The Pure in Heart Survive, that Tyus’ incredible feat of back to backs would likely be forgotten. He wrote the following in 1980, eight years before Carl Lewis became the first man to be crowned fastest in the world two Olympiads in a row.
If a man ever achieves this, everyone will probably say he’s the first – until they look back over the records and discover that Wyomia Tyus did it long before any of them. Maybe by then she’ll get the recognition she really deserves.
And yet, Tyus understands that the unsupported minority need to leverage what they get. And she understands that history is on her side.
If you make history, there’s no way they cannot put you in it. It may not be the way I want, but every time they talk about the 100 meters, they have to mention my name. Maybe softly. Maybe just once. But they have to.
In 1999, over 30 years after her historic back-to-back 100-meter Olympic gold medal, the name of Wyomia Tyus was shouted out loudly and proudly, with the opening of the Wyomia Tyus Olympic Park, a 164-acre swath of greenery with picnic areas, ball parks and soccer fields, not far from where Tyus grew up in Griffin, Georgia.
Surrounded by friends and family, Tyus was overwhelmed by the recognition. “I was speechless, to tell you the truth. I was shocked and pleased and didn’t know that people cared so much. It was great.”