American track and field athlete
She became a world champion barely out of high school. She broke records in almost all the track events in which she competed. She was the first person, man or woman, to win consecutive Olympic gold medals for the 100-meter race. Yet, despite three Olympic gold medals and one silver medal, her accomplishments seemed to slip by with barely a commentary from the world around her. Whether it was racism, sexism, or the political climate, Wyomia Tyus stood up to the challenges of her time and proved herself a world-class athlete.
Tyus was born in Griffin, Georgia, on August 29, 1945. She was the youngest child of Willie and Marie Tyus. She was also the only girl. With three older brothers to keep up with, Tyus learned early how to hold her own. Her father insisted that Wyomia not be left out by her brothers, no matter what they played. She had an early education in backyard football and basketball and other neighborhood games, playing equally with the boys.
She also had an early education in the inequities caused by racism and sexism. Tyus had to spend an hour on the bus to school each day because the school she could walk to was for white children only. In spite of these difficulties she believed in herself and in working hard to achieve her goals. Tyus explained to Lyn Votava of Ethnic NewsWatch, "Now in my day, this wasn't something women were encouraged to do." Through the love and encouragement of her father and her coach, Tyus was able to focus on her athletic abilities, letting them guide her to a better place.
In high school, she was originally drawn to basketball. In 1960, she was invited to a summer clinic at Tennessee State University (TSU) by the track coach Ed Temple. Tyus discovered her own talent for running through Temple's clinic and became serious about track. That same year, her father died, leaving her without his guidance. Temple would take on an important role in Tyus's life, stepping in where her father once stood.
While still in high school Tyus competed in the Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) Girls' National Championships. She won first place in the 50-yard, 75-yard, and the 100-yard races. She ended up attending TSU in Nashville, Tennessee, based upon Temple's invitation and the fact that it was one of the only universities that offered women athletic scholarships. The women's scholarships were unlike those given to men. While men could focus exclusively on their sports, women were required to work two hours a day for their scholarships.
In college, Tyus continued to win races. Her win at the National AAU women's outdoor meet in the 100-meter race earned her a spot on the 1964 Olympic track team. Her TSU teammate Edith McGuire was also on the Olympic team that year. The games were played in Tokyo, and McGuire was favored to win. Tyus sped past McGuire in the final heat to win the gold medal. She was proud of her accomplishment, but that pride was tempered by the certain knowledge that she was expected to be a woman first. She explained to Votava, "Coach Temple always told us that we could break world records and win gold medals, but we probably still wouldn't be recognized because we were women and we were Black."
Those words became truer in 1968 during the Olympic games held in Mexico City, Mexico. Tyus, who had been encouraged by her family to quit before then, was again competing for the United States track team. She was determined to defend her 100-meter race championship despite suggestions that at twenty-three she was too old to be competing. She was also troubled by her choice to compete as a representative of the United States during a time of extreme racial turmoil. Many black athletes from the U.S. had boycotted the games. Tyus chose to go, but protested silently by always wearing black during awards ceremonies.
At the games, Tyus set the world record with her time in the 100-meter race at 11.08 seconds and secured a record-breaking gold medal in the same race. She also contributed to the 4×100-meter relay team that won the gold medal. Her time in the 100-meter race would not be topped by another American athlete until 1984. In addition, she became the first person to defend the 100-meter race title in successive Olympics. That record would not be broken until Carl Lewis won his second Olympic gold for the race in 1988.
In the climate of protest that existed during the 1968 Olympics, Tyus's accomplishments passed by unnoticed. Wanting to register protest against the expulsion of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, U.S. track runners who had raised their arms in a Black Power salute during an awards ceremony, Tyus gave her medals to Smith and Carlos. Years later she described her admiration to People, "What I did … was win a track event. What they did lasted a lifetime, and life is bigger than sport." Tyus continued competing on the amateur circuit until 1973 when she started competing professionally. In 1974, she set the world indoor track record for the 70-meter race at 8.3 seconds.
|1945||Born August 29 in Griffin, Georgia|
|1960||Attend Coach Ed Tempel's summer track program at Tennessee State University; father dies|
|1963||Graduates from high school|
|1964||Competes in the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan|
|1967||Graduates from Tennessee State University|
|1968||Competes in the Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico|
|1974||Co-founds Women's Sports Foundation|
|1984||Participates in opening ceremonies at Olympic Games in Los Angeles, California|
|1997||Spokesperson for Active and Ageless exercise program|
|2000||Leads United States Olympic Committee's Project Gold 2000|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1964||First place in Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) 100-meter race; gold medal in 100-meter race and silver medal in 4×100-meter relay at Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan|
|1965||First place in AAU 100-yard and 60-yard race; set world record for 60-yard race|
|1966||First place in AAU 100-yard, 220-yard, and 60-yard races; sets world record for 60-yard race|
|1967||Gold medal for 200-meter dash at Pan American Games|
|1968||Gold medals for 100-meter race and 4×100-meter relay at Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico; sets world record for 100-meter race at 11.08 seconds|
|1969||Governor of Georgia names January 25, 1969 Wyomia Tyus Day|
|1974||Set world indoor record for 70-meter race|
|1980||Inducted into National Track and Field Hall of Fame|
|1981||Inducted into International Women's Sports Hall of Fame|
|1984||Inducted into "Avenue of Athletes" by Echo Park Chamber of Commerce, Los Angeles, California|
|1985||Inducted into United States Olympic Hall of Fame|
|2001||Voted one of Georgia's top athletes by Georgia Sports Hall of Fame|
A Coach's Influence
A consistent presence in Tyus's life from high school through college and for the 1964 Olympics was Ed Temple. Tyus told Mary Reese Boykin of the Los Angeles Times, "Coach Ed Temple came into my life after my father died. A man of integrity, Coach Temple had many sayings to encourage us during the rough times." He expected a lot from his team. He taught Tyus the value of an education and expected her and each of his athletes to graduate from college. He also knew that the public did not readily accept women athletes and encouraged Tyus and her teammates to always be "ladies first." Speaking almost twenty years after Tyus's Olympic win, Temple said to Bert Rosenthal of the Associated Press, commenting on the women he coached, "The most famous one was Wilma [Rudolph] .… But maybe the best was Tyus."
Wyomia Tyus's reign as one of the world's fastest female runners may have had a different outcome if she'd come along twenty years later. She competed during a time when the public had difficulty accepting the athleticism of female athletes. She overcame the impediments of a college sports program that favored men. She even proved that twenty-three was not too old to compete successfully in world-class events.
There is no doubt that she set a high standard for herself and overcame many obstacles. That's not uncommon for Olympic-level athletes. What is exceptional about Tyus is that despite being overlooked by history and despite never having made any money from her track career, she made the most of what track had to offer. Most extraordinary of all she did it with a smile and with humble recognition of her own talents. She explained to Boykin, "I wasn't paid a dime for my track career. But participating in the Olympics gave me the opportunity to learn about different cultures; it made me a better person. I wouldn't trade the time I competed for anything." She is able to look back on her career and recognize the gifts of the people around her that helped her succeed. When she spoke to a group of high school students, Tyus told them, as reported by Ann Japenga of the Los Angeles Times, "You can be the best in the world and not be recognized.… A lot of it has to do with breaks. If a coach at Tennessee State hadn't given me a break at 14, I never would have been in the Olympic Games."
Address: Wyomia Tyus, 1102 Keniston Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90019. Phone: (323) 934-6559.
Where Is She Now?
Wyomia Tyus currently lives in Los Angeles with her second husband, Duane Tillman. She has two grown children: a daughter, Simone, and a son, Tyus. She made no money from her amateur track career through endorsements and other similar contracts that support today's world-class athletes. She did use the advantages of her Olympic status to continue in a positive direction for herself and for others. As history has caught up with the importance of her contributions to track, Tyus has proved the value of her experience through leadership roles in a number of important areas.
In 1974 Tyus, along with tennis star Billie Jean King and Olympic swimmer Donna de Varona and other female athletes, founded the nonprofit Women's Sports Foundation. The Foundation was created to help girls coming up in sports find guidance through education, advocacy, recognition, and opportunity. By 1994, the Women's Sports Foundation was handing out grants that totaled over $800,000 to programs that supported girls in sports and to individuals who needed funding to achieve their athletic goals.
Tyus has been a tireless speaker on behalf of female participation in sports as well as other areas of athletics and physical fitness. In 1982, she traveled to sixty cities on a tour that promoted women's athletics. In 1985, she participated in a clinic at Pepperdine University that enlightened high school students of all abilities to the variety of careers available in sports. In 1997, she was spokesperson for the Active and Ageless program that encouraged people over 50 to exercise. In 2000, she served in a leadership role on the United States Olympic Committee's (USOC) Project Gold 2000.
During most of this time, Tyus has been an outdoor education specialist for the Los Angeles Unified School District. It's a job that she finds very satisfying, one in which she considers the Angelus National Forest her office. She told People, "I get to hike every day and leave the smog behind."
SELECTED WRITINGS BY TYUS:
Inside Jogging for Women, Contemporary Books, 1978.
Johnson, Anne Janette. Great Women in Sports. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1996.
Boykin, Mary Reese. "Voices /A Forum for Community Issues; Community Interviews; Go for the Gold Throughout Life." Los Angeles Times (September 16, 2000): B9.
"A Child of Jim Crow, She Refused to Run Second to Anyone." People (July 15, 1996): 109.
Crouse, Karen. "Wyomia Tyus: Jones Minus Hype." Daily News (Los Angeles, CA) (July 13, 2000): S1.
"For Your Information." PR Newswire (June 6, 1984).
Japenga, Ann. "Workouts, Words on Right Track to Career in Sports." Los Angeles Times (June 28, 1985): p5.18
Lawrence, James. "Wyomia Tyus Speaks Up for Female Athletes." United Press International (August 28, 1982).
New York Times (February 24, 1974): S5.3.
Rosenthal, Bert. Associated Press (November 28, 1989).
"Three-time Olympic gold medal sprinter headlines USOC diversity project." Associated Press (March 24, 2000).
Votava, Lyn. "They Raced for Their Lives." Ethnic NewsWatch (March 31, 1994): 62.
"Wyomia Tyus." Women's Sports Foundation. http://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/cgi-bin/iowa/sports/ggg/ind.html?record=305 (January 6, 2003).
Sketch by Eve M. B. Hermann