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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.

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When you see a champion, there is almost always a role model.

For Olympic champions like Florence Griffith Joyner, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Evelyn Ashford, the role model is Wilma Rudolph, the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic Games. Crowned the fastest women in the world at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Rudolph easily won the gold in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, and anchored the American 4×100 team to victory.

Due to her modest grace and her apparent beauty, as well as a life story of overcoming difficult odds to become the best in the world, Rudolph was in the early 1960s the most famous female athlete in the United States, if not the world.

And while she is well known for helping to integrate her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee when she insisted on the relaxation of segregation laws during her Clarksville Welcome Home celebrations, she has perhaps had a more lasting impact on the success of women, particularly black women, in sport.

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At the banquet in her honor during “Wilma Rudolph Day” on October 4, 1960, she made this statement: “In every effort I have been motivated by one thing: to do justice to those who believe in me and to use my physical talents to the glory of God and the honor of womanhood.” David Maraniss, in his book Rome 1960, pointed out that phrase as a symbol of Rudolph’s true lasting influence.

…it was the last phrase of her banquet speech – the honor of womanhood – that resonated deepest and longest. She was by no means the first great woman Olympian, but a unique combination of personal and cultural forces – her style and attractiveness, her candor and pride in who she was and where she was from, the leg braces of her childhood, the fact that she flashed onto the scene so brilliantly at the first commercially televised Olympics, her international esteem – made her a powerful symbol of the rise of women in sports. If there were a Mount Rushmore of women athletes, her profile would be one of the four chiseled faces. “For every woman athlete who came after, she was the person who opened the door,” Ed Temple said later. “Wilma opened that door, and for all women, not just in track and field. She had that smile. She had that charisma.”

Maureen M. Smith wrote the book, Wilma Rudolph: A Biography, and proclaimed, “Wilma Rudolph’s story is more than the races she won and world records she established. It is the story of a young woman who overcame tremendous obstacles that should have kept her from ever experiencing athletic success, and yet she is the epitome of triumph.”

Here was a woman that women, particularly black women, could look up to with pride, and set as the bar for achievement. When Rudolph passed away in November, 1994, here’s what Joyner-Kersee had to say about her idol.

She was someone I could always talk to. She was very inspirational. She was always in my corner. If I had a problem, I could pick up the phone and call her at home. It was like talking to your sister or your mother, someone you knew for a lifetime. I always thought of her as being the greatest, and not only athletically. You respected her as a woman.

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Jackie Joyner-Kersee with medals

None other than 1960 Olympics teammate and USA team captain, Rafer Johnson, wrote in his autobiography, The Best That I Can Be, that Rudolph’s contribution cannot be overlooked.

One of the most important changes has been the advancement of female athletes. In my day, the public suffered under the assumption that women could not compete in the same sports as men, or had to be protected if they did. I remember women’s basketball, for instance, when each team had an offensive and defensive unit so the players did not have to run full court. Most of the male athletes I knew had great respect for their female counterparts; we were not surprised to see the strides women have made since Wilma Rudolph dazzled the world in Rome.

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Wilma Rudolph and Richard Nixon in Nashville_1960

It’s an oft-told tale of Black Americans triumphing overseas – soldiers, athletes and musicians – only to come back home to a world of discrimination and second-class citizenship.

Wilma Rudolph broke the mold.

In the Rome Olympics in 1960, Rudolph won gold in the women’s 100 and 200-meter races, as well as the 4×100 relay, and arguably became the most popular athlete in the world due to her beauty and charm. (That’s saying a lot since Cassius Clay was also on the scene.)

Nearly a month after the end of the Rome Olympics, it was announced by officials of her hometown, Clarksville, Tennessee, that October 4 would be “Wilma Rudolph Day”, and that according to ESPN, Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington, was going to lead the celebration. Tennessee at the time was a segregated state, a place where authorities or owners could require the separation of races in the activities of daily life, like drinking from a water fountain, riding a bus, or eating at a restaurant. And Governor Ellington was a man elected on his support of continued racial segregation.

Rudolph understood the leverage she had at that moment, and said she would accept only if all activities related to Wilma Rudolph Day were racially integrated. It was an offer that no matter where you stood on the political and racial divide, you could not refuse. Rudolph was not to be denied, and so that day was the first time in Tennessee that blacks and whites would be allowed to mix socially.

I found this letter to the editor in the Milwaukee Journal from October 22, 1960, where one Virginia Williams of Wisconsin wrote in praise of Rudolph as the finest of role models for black Americans.

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JFK and Wilma in the Oval Office

Wilma Rudolph, the Negro girl from Clarksville, Tenn., who won three gold medals at the Olympics for her running, also won praise for her good looks and charming ways. This unassuming Negro girl, coming from a large family of average income, brought honor to her race and her country. She brought credit to her country as an ambassador of good will.

County Judge William Hudson spoke in Clarksville at an integrated banquet give for Wilma. With tears in his eyes he said: “If I can overcome my emotions, I’ll make you a speech. Wilma has competed with the world and brought home three medals. If you want to get good music out of a piano, you have to play both white and black keys.”

And in order for America to maintain her leadership in the world, she has to tap all of her resources, utilize all of them. Negroes need America and America needs them.

As one can imagine, race relations in America has improved, but it has been a bumpy road. A few years later, Sports Illustrated caught up with Rudolph on the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and see how domestic life was treating her. While she was busy being a mom, she was also out on the occasional protest.

It was different in May of 1963, when Wilma took part in two demonstrations at Shoney’s, which is considered one of Clarkesville’s finest restaurants although it does not have much more to offer than hamburgers. She was turned away, together with the other Negroes. “I cannot believe it!: she said to a reporter. “Remember the reception they gave me in 1960?” A few months later Clarksville was integrated.  (Sports Illustrated, September 7, 1964)

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Left-right: Wilma Rudolph, Lucinda Williams, Barbara Jones and Martha Hudson at the Rome Olympics

She was by then the Queen of Rome at the 1960 Summer Olympics. American sprinter, Wilma Rudolph, had already won gold in the women’s 100- and 200-meter sprints. But her teammates from the famed Tennessee State Tigerbelles had been left out of the medal count. The 4×100 was their chance to join Rudolph in Olympic glory. And Rudolph, as described in David Maraniss’ fantastic book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, promised to help them get the gold on one condition:

In the warm-up room before the race, the Tigerbelles huddled and prayed together. “Just get me that stick,” Rudolph, who would run the anchor leg, said at the end. “Just get me that stick, and we’re going to get on that stand. We’re going to win that gold medal!” her teammates could barely contain themselves; no jealousy now, just fire burning inside.

Maraniss went on to tell the story how her teammate, Lucinda Williams, in the third leg was going so fast heading into the exchange with the anchor, Rudolph, that they needed two attempts to get Rudolph the baton, at one point Rudolph needing to stop to grab it. In the fumbled exchange, Maraniss wrote that the team lost about a meter to the competition in that moment. But like a locomotive, Rudolph reached the leaders at about 60 meters, and then blew past them to win gold for the team.

Not only did the Tigerbelles share a momentous team victory, Rudolph’s star in Rome and the world went super nova, the first ever American to win three track gold medals in a single Games. When President Kennedy heard that Rudolph was in Washington DC a few months after her return from Rome, he invited Rudolph to the White House and spent so much time talking with her in the Oval Office that he kept his next appointment cooling his heels for thirty minutes.

But as a child, Rudolph, was not the radiant and confident person she was to become. She was born prematurely in 1940, and due to polio, had to deal with a left leg and foot that twisted unnaturally and made it difficult for her to walk. Doctors had her wear braces and special shoes, and she had to be carried from room to room by family members. As one could imagine, to be seen as so different from your family and friends must be so terribly hard on a child. Maraniss wrote:

As Wilma later described her early childhood, she was depressed and lonely at first, especially when she had to watch her brothers and sisters run off to school while she stayed home, burdened with the dead weight of the heavy braces. She felt rejected, she said, and would close her eyes “and just drift into a sinking feeling, going down, down, down.” Soon her loneliness turned to anger. She hated the fact that her peers always teased her. She didn’t like any of her supposed friends. She wondered whether living just meant being sick all the time, and told herself it had to be more than that, and she started fighting back, determined to beat the illness.

Maraniss went on to describe how Rudolph’s condition gradually improved to the point that she was able to secretly remove her braces so she could run around outside with her siblings. And then her parents did something wonderful, presenting Rudolph with a gift so ordinary and yet so life affirming that it transformed the shy, despondent girl into one filled with promise, bursting with energy.

Then one day her father, who did the shopping in the family, came home with regular shoes for Wilma, marking a dramatic change in her life. As Yvonne remembered the scene: “They were no longer the high-top shoes that she had to have with the braces. And my mother took her in to a room all by herself; she didn’t even let us know she had these shoes. And they put them on her, and she came out of the room, and she was beaming all over. It was like she was a whole new little girl. And after that it was like she knew she was not different, and it gave her more confidence at that point.”

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After that, you couldn’t stop Rudolph from running. A blur on the basketball courts, she picked up the nickname “Skeeter” because she flitted about so quickly like a mosquito. Her head coach at Tennessee State, Ed Temple, marveled at this determined young woman, but also wasn’t sure if she had everything needed to be a champion. Just prior to the 100-meter finals, Temple hid in the tunnels of the Stadio Olimpico, barely able to see Skeeter in lane 3. Rudolph, a notorious slow starter, fell behind. But he also knew that Rudolph, like today’s sprinting God, Usain Bolt, finished like a locomotive.

According to Maraniss, Temple had to be told that Rudolph had won easily in a blazing 11 second, what would have been a world record if not for the wind. His reaction? “You’re joking.” I’m sure it was a remark born out of ambivalence, that moment when one thinks one has a champion, but is not really sure, until proof is presented on a shining platter. That moment, when Rudolph crossed the tape to become the fastest women in the world, marked that rite of passage for champions, when all doubt is erased, expectations and achievements merge, and all is right in the world.

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Ed Temple with, from left, Carla Mims, Edith McGuire, Vivian Brown and Wyomia Tyus at the women’s Olympic track and field tryouts on Randalls Island in New York City in 1964. Credit Ernie Sisto/The New York Times

Ed Temple was a black man who became a track coach for a women’s team in Tennessee, who overcame, along with the women on his teams, a severe lack of resources as well as significant racial prejudice in the deep south, to become one of the most historically impactful coaches in American track.

In a career of over 40 years at Tennessee State University, Temple coached 40 Olympians who garnered 13 gold, 6 silver and 4 bronze medals, including the belle of the 1960 Rome Games, Wilma Rudolph, and her successor at the 1964 Tokyo Games, Wyomia Tyus. At the 1960 games, the four members of the American women’s 4X100 team that blazed to gold were all members of Temple’s Tennessee State University team, affectionately known as the Tigerbelles. On September 22, 2016, Temple passed away at the age of 89.

To be black and female in the southern states in America was a challenge in a good part of the 20th century. Black athletes, whose competitions would take them all over the country, had to deal with long hours in cars hoping to find a place that would serve them food or put them up for the night, thanks to legally or socially enforced segregation along racial lines. David Maraniss, who wrote about Temple in his book, Rome 1960, said this in a Nashville newspaper interview in 2008:

We’re talking about the Jim Crow era, a period when the Tigerbelles . . . traveled through the deep South and endured harsh conditions to appear at meets. You look at what he accomplished and the obstacles he faced, and it’s simply one of the great triumphs in sports and history.

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Cassius Clay and Ed Temple both appeared at the 1960 Rome Olympics

Temple believed that for a black woman to persevere and win in America at that time, they had to be disciplined and smart. Temple’s standards were high, so training on the team was painful. The Tigerbelles were locked into practices three times a day, starting at 5 in the morning, resuming at 9:30 am, and then again at 2pm, often times in the searing heat of summer. Tyus, who was crowned fastest woman in the world by winning the 100-meters in both Tokyo in 1964 and in Mexico City in 1968 said that Temple practices were “just brutal. I just thought, ‘this man has got to be crazy.’” The Tigerbelles wrote and sang a song that reflected their feelings towards Temple and his practices: “It’s So Hard to be a Tigerbelle”.

And yet, the Tigerbelles won. But simply winning wasn’t enough for Temple. He was not only their coach. He was their father and mentor, one who showed a bit of tough love and expected them to keep up with their studies. Tyus was interviewed in the book, Tales of Gold: An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games Told by America’s Gold Medal Winners, and she wrote about Temple was a father to her.

Coach Temple was an advisor as well as a coach. My father died when I was only 15, so he became a father figure as well. He was very strict, and he was very tough. He used to say, “If we’re going to run, let’s run. If we’re going to be spectators, then let’s get up in the stands where we belong.” He also insisted that we train the European way, which to him meant “No play; just hard work.” When I look back on it, I sometimes wonder how I made it, but I also know that he was very good for us as women. He was always there to lend a helping hand, but if you needed to be reprimanded, he was also very good at that. And academics always came first with him. We had to have a C average to compete, but he always pushed us to do much better than that. His whole philosophy was that we were not going to be athletes all our live, so we had to take advantage of this opportunity to get a college education. We did, and he was always so proud of the fact that of the 40 of us who competed in the Olympics, 38 have college degrees.

Temple insisted that his Tigerbelles be smart, not only intellectually, but also fashionably. There was a school of thought at that time that blacks who wanted to succeed had to hold themselves up to a higher standard of behavior and appearance in order to simply get accepted in broader swathes of society. According to Maraniss in his book Rome 1960, Temple made sure his women looked good.

As the caravan approached its destination, an order would come from the front: “Get your stuff together.” This mean rollers off, lipstick on, everything brushed and straightened. The sprinters were a free-spirited group; some chafed at Coach Temple’s rules of behavior but grudgingly obliged. “I want foxes, not oxes,” he told them. The Tigerbelles had perfected the art of emerging from the least flattering conditions looking as fresh as a gospel choir, for which they were often mistaken.