Edith McGuire and Wyomia Tyus in 100-meter finals_1964 Tokyo Olympics_The Olympic Century
Edith McGuire and Wyomia Tyus in 100-meter finals, from the book, 1964 Tokyo Olympics – The Olympic Century

“I want foxes, not oxes,” is how Ed Temple would tell his athletes to watch their weight.

Temple was the coach of the Tennessee State University women’s track and field team – aka The Tigerbelles, and he was upset that 19-year-old Wyomia Tyus, who traveled to Tokyo in October 1964 on the US Olympic team, spent too much time at the dining halls of the Olympic Village. Tyus gained 5 pounds right away.

“That’s just too big,” complained Temple to Tyus. “You’ve never been this big, and here it is, the most important race of your life…you need to push away those potatoes, you need to push away the rice, and you need to push away from that bread.”

That’s how Tyus explained her predicament in her autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis. She was not as concerned as her coach. Temple had wanted her to add pounds to be stronger anyway, she thought. After all, he had done all he could to keep Tyus’ expectations realistic.

When Tyus made the US squad as the third fastest American woman in the 100-meters at the US Olympic Trials, Temple told her, “Tyus, we really don’t expect much from you. Your year is ’68.” Tyus explained that Temple wanted his inexperienced athletes to gradually get used to high-pressure competition, like handling the press and the moment of the big race.

Tigerbelle Wyomia Tyus Story Cover

So Tyus wasn’t expecting to win the 100-meters – that honor was supposed to go to Edith McGuire, the fastest Tigerbelle at the time and heir apparent to fellow Tigerbelle, Wilma Rudolph, who famously blazed to three sprinting gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

And yet, Tyus, the quiet woman from Griffin, Georgia, was sensing an opportunity. Temple ran his Tigerbelles through rigorous practices, and because Tyus was running in both the individual 100-meter and 100-meter relay competitions, she took on an extra practice load. In trying to suss out the right combinations for the relay, Temple would work on a variety of combinations, with Tyus often on the receiving end of the baton.

He tried several people, and they were always passing to me, so I was always running. I guess that was his way of getting me to run off the weight. Instead, it just made me really strong—good and strong. When it came down to qualifying for the final in the 100, I was running well in every heat; in fact, I was winning each heat, and easily—easily meaning that I wasn’t struggling or really trying hard to win. Even Mr. Temple had to say, “Tyus, you look so good.”

Temple was beginning to wonder if Tyus could medal. Tyus’s confidence was growing in leaps and bounds in these practices, and she began to believe she could take gold. In fact, she won her three heats prior to the final handily. When she lined up in lane 6 against the 7 other fastest women in the world, looking at the immaculately managed cinder track, wary of her teammates McGuire and Marilyn White to her right, and the two speedy Poles, Halina Górecka and Ewa Klobukowska on her far left, she was ready. She just needed to hold off her best friend, McGuire.

When the gun went off, I just remember running, not thinking, until I was at the 80-meter mark, and then asking myself: Where’s Edith? Because Edith was always catching me at 80 meters. Where is she? I wondered. I can’t hear her. I can’t see her. But it don’t mean anything because she’ll be here.

McGuire was there. But with a perfectly timed upper-body lean, Tyus hit the tape 0.2 seconds ahead of her teammate. At 11.4 seconds, Wyomia Tyus was the fastest woman in the world, and the world record holder in the 100-meter sprint.

Free and easy won the race. Tyus told me she was in great shape and had little to lose, as opposed to the weight of the world on her teammate McGuire.

They expected her to win three gold medals like Wilma. She had the pressure on her. I had none. After all, I had never beaten her. I got third in the Olympic trials. Edith and Marilyn White, they were running so well. But I think I won because I was running so relaxed and care free.

Standing on the medal stand, Tyus felt a burst of euphoria, the protective bands of caution and reserve loosened, at least on the inside. Here’s how she described in her book:

I was excited. And for me to say I was excited means I was excited. Once I was on that victory stand, I started thinking, I’ve got to do this four years from now. Instead of standing there feeling everything and enjoying my win, I was thinking: I’ve got to try to be here in four years – I’ve got to come back here and do this again. That’s what went through my mind. Not, Yay! I won it! I did it! I won a gold medal! That was not even going through my head. It was: four years? Oh my.

ralph-boston-rome
Ralph Boston in Rome.

Ralph Boston was a sprightly kid who loved football. And as a high school track star in Laurel, Mississippi, Boston got scholarship offers to play football. But as he explained in this interview, his mother knew best. “I actually became a long jumper by accident. I wanted to play football. My mother didn’t like that. Back in those days, mom prevailed. So I went to college to run.”

That turned out to be a golden decision. Offered a track scholarship, Boston enrolled at Tennessee A&I, now known as Tennessee State University, famous for the women’s track team lovingly called the Tigerbelles. The Tigerbelles sent 7 athletes to the 1960 Rome Olympics, yielding an incredible 6 gold medals among them.

Ralph Boston’s trading card.

Boston was no slouch either, having set a world record in the long jump only weeks before the start of the Rome Olympiad. In fact, he broke Jesse Owen‘s mark, one that stood for 25 years. Boston was definitely a favorite to break Owen’s Olympic record from the 1936 Berlin Games, and take gold home as well. And yet, it was Boston’s first Olympics, and he was intimidated.

It was probably the scariest day of my life – 1960 in Rome, September 2nd. I’d never seen that many people before in my life. The stadium had something like 85,000.

His teammate Bo Roberson, and Soviet jumper, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan were also gunning for gold, but they knew they had to best Boston to get it.

Boston’s first leap in the broad jump finals was decent at 7.82 meters (25’ 8”), but Ter-Ovanesyan,the Soviet favorite, was better at 7.90 (25’ 11”). Boston fouled on his second leap while his teammate set the Olympic record with a leap of 8.03 meters (26”4 ¼”). That must have gotten Boston’s motor running. As David Maraniss described in his book, Rome 1960, Boston made sure not to foul again.

Returning to the infield, he took his position at the end of the runway, 100 feet from the takeoff point. He had already fixed his spots precisely with the steel tape measure. One deep breath, relax, four loping strides – free and loose to unlimber his body – and then he was at full speed, trying to clear his head of all but a few key thoughts. First the starting mark. He had to spring into the air as close as possible behind it,but not go over into the narrow putty forestrip and get disqualified. Speeding down the runway for this final jump in Rome, he felt something slightly amiss and had to adjust his stride just before takeoff. Once airborne, he tried to concentrate on bringing his feet back within 10 or 12 inches of each other for the landing. Not perfect.

As Boston recalled in this interview, he didn’t think much of the jump.

When I landed, I thought it was a terrible jump.   out of the pit as I normally do but I thought it was a terrible jump.When I saw the distance (26 feet 7 3/4 inches or 8.12 meters) I was very happy with that. I won. I won!

Actually, he hadn’t won yet. He had indeed re-set the Olympic record, but there was still three more rounds to go. Boston fouled on his fifth leap and landed under 8 meters in his final leap, and was still in the lead, but he had to wait three others to take their final turn. The last to go was Roberson, who despite his heavily taped left leg with the balky hamstring, was a real threat to Boston’s dreams of gold.

Roberson accelerated, hit his spot and launched high into the air. Upon his teammate’s splash into the sand, Boston could not tell if he had won or not.  When the electronic scoreboard in Stadio Olimpico flashed the results, Boston saw that Roberson grabbed silver and Ter-Ovanesyan won bronze. Boston, somewhat surprised, somewhat relieved, had won Olympic gold.

Even more surprised was his mother, whose fateful decision to steer her son from football to track yielded results beyond her expectations.

“I didn’t have any idea that my baby’s jumping around would ever amount to anything,”said Eulalia Boston in Laurel to a UPI reporter. “This is the proudest day of my life.”

“Now that it’s all over, I think I’ll get me a glass of milk and lay down for a while.”

Ralph Boston and his winning leap in Rome, from his collection