Wyomia Tyus on medal stand 1968 Wyomia Tyus, fastest woman in the world, on medal stand 1968

These were not the Innocent Games of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. These were the Protest Games of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Hundreds died in anti-government demonstrations only 10 days before the start of the Games, while black American athletes, who had contemplated boycotting the 1968 Olympics, were locked in an ongoing debate about how to protest the plight of blacks in America.

Reigning 100-meter Olympic champion, Wyomia Tyus, a black woman from Griffin, Georgia, was in Mexico City to run, but could not ignore the rising tensions. The ’68 Olympics contrasted significantly with  the ’64 Olympics, when she was a quiet, inexperienced 19-year-old, not expected to medal, let alone break the world record and win gold as she did.

She was in Mexico City, with a chance at making history – to be the first person, man or woman, to repeat as Olympic champion in the 100-meter sprint. And yet, perhaps surprisingly, Tyus was calm and relaxed, as she was when she was crowned fastest woman in the world in Tokyo. Tyus told me she was confident.

The press was saying I was too old at 23 because I wasn’t running that well in ’67. I used that. I thought differently – these athletes should be afraid of me. The pressure – it’s on them.  I had the knowledge. I had the strength. Nobody else was going to beat me. I didn’t say that. But those were the thoughts in my head.

When Tyus lined up for the finals of the women’s 100 meters sprint, she was ready. And as three-time Olympic high jumper, Dwight Stones explains in an Olympic Channel video, Tyus had become an accomplished master of the psych out. And her way was to dance…to a hit of the time, The Tighten Up, by Archie Bell and the Drells.

She would just intimidate you out of any chance of beating her. She wasn’t really that. She was actually kind of shy. But on the track, she was an assassin. Everyone there is very nervous. Of course you’re nervous on some level. Good nervous? Maybe bad nervous? And Tyus was maybe nervous too. But the way she manifested it was, at the starting block she would start doing the Tighten Up. And what that did, it would loosen her up, and tighten up everyone else. That’s why she did it. It was just another technique that she thought of that they had never seen that would take everyone else out of their game.

Wyomia Tyus anchoring 4x100 in 1968 finals
Wyomia Tyus anchoring 4×100 relay in 1968 finals

As she wrote in her powerful autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story,co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis, Tyus didn’t just dance her way into the psyches of her competitors, she crawled her way in. She made sure she was the last person in place, delaying as long as she could before she was set. Her husband, would call it “cheating.”

It is true that we Tigerbelles took our time getting into the blocks. I’d always been taught that you stand in front of your blocks and you shake your legs out—you shake and shake. Take deep breaths. Touch your toes and make sure you’re still shaking while you do. Then you kick your legs out to put them in the blocks—you kick, kick, kick, and put that one in, and then you kick, kick, kick, and put the other one in. Then you sit there on your knees and you look down the track.

While Tyus went through her routine, her competitors stayed still, their fingertips on the track keeping their bodies steady as they waited impatiently for Tyus to stop moving.

On that cool, overcast day on October 15, 1968, the fat belly of  rain clouds looked ready to split, and Tyus was actually not as unruffled as she appeared to be. She didn’t want to run in the rain so she wanted to get moving. Unfortunately, her teammates were jumpy. First, Margaret Bailes left early. Then Tyus found herself 50 meters down the track before Barbara Ferrell was called for a false start.

When the pistol fired a third time and all sprinters were off cleanly, Tyus created little drama, leading nearly from start to finish. While she needed to lean to win gold over her teammate Edith McGuire at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, this time she hit the tape ahead of Ferrell with time to spare. With a time of 11.08 seconds, Tyus set a world record for her second Olympics in a row.

True, Usain Bolt was the fastest man in three straight Olympiads, 2008 to 2016. Carl Lewis was Olympic champion in two straight from 1984 to 1988, while Gail Devers delivered two straight sprinting golds for women in 1992 and 1996.

But the first person, man or woman, to be crowned the fastest in the world in back-to-back Olympiads was the woman from Griffin, Georgia, Wyomia Tyus.

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Yoshida and Icho
2012 Vogue Japan Woman of the Year: Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho

There are only two people, both male, who have won individual gold medals in a single event four Olympic Games in a row: Al Oerter in the discus throw from 1956~1968, and Carl Lewis in the long jump from 1984~1996.

At the Rio Olympics in August, we may bear witness to a historical achievement by a Japanese wrestler, not once, but twice.

Both Saori Yoshida (吉田 沙保里,) and Kaori Icho(伊調馨) have won consecutive gold medals in wrestling at the Olympic Summer Games in Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012). And they won their respective weight classes at the Japan national championships in June last year to get their tickets punched to Rio. In fact, they both won their 13th straight national championship.

Yoshida of Mie Prefecture and Icho of Aomori are quite simply the two most dominant wrestlers on the planet. They are both referred to as the “legends of the unbeaten streak” (不敗神話). Ito has won 172 straight times since May, 2003, and Yoshida has lost only twice in her career, most recently in May, 2012. But they are both perfect at Olympiads.

 

There was a brief time when both Yoshida and Icho competed in the same weight class, but fortunately, Icho moved up to the next heavier weight class, setting up this year, a historic opportunity.

For some reason, Yoshida has become more the face of Japanese wrestling, as the front person for the Japanese security company, Alsok. But they are both supported by Alsok, as you can see in the commercial below.

But come August, we will be hearing a lot about both of these two wrestling legends.

drug den clearance picture

I can’t get this image out of my mind. It seems so foreign to the spirit of athletic competition on the one hand, and yet it is as entwined in world-class competition as excellent coaches and dedicated training.

Doping.

The image I am referring to is a particular odious one, described in the book, The Dirtiest Race in History: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 Olympic 100m Final, by Richard Moore. The Second World Athletics Championships were held in Rome, Italy in August 1987, a year prior to the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul Korea. Ben Johnson has set a world record in the 100 meters with a time of 9.83 seconds, beating rival Carl Lewis who also had a personal best of 9.93 seconds.

Moore related a story told by Doug Clement, a former Olympic middle-distance runner who was a coach and a doctor for the Canadian Olympic Association, and was at those World Athletics Championships in Rome.

Stadio dei Marmi
The Stadio dei Marmi, Rome.

Next to the Olympic Stadium was one of Mussolini’s smaller excesses, the Stadio dei Marmi, the Stadium of the Marbles, filled with statues depicting athletes in classical poses, which during the championships was being used as a warm-up area. ‘Inside it was a catacomb-like area, lots of little rooms,’ recalls Clement. ‘They were dark and dingy, there were multiple caves. There were syringes everywhere. All over the floor. It was like a drug den.’

It was a drug den – and a metaphor for the sport. In the sunshine of the Stadio Olympico the triumphant championships were played out in front of 75,000 people; near by, in the shadows of the statues that adorned the Stadio dei Marmi, lay the dingy reality.”

A year later, Ben Johnson won the gold medal at the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988, only to have it stripped from him after testing positive for drugs in his system.

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