Changed the Game: Wyomia Tyus made Olympic history in 1968 and no one cared

Liz Roscher
·5 min read

"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

WHM
WHM

What's it like to make history and have everyone forget about it immediately? Wyomia Tyus knows.

At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Tyus became the first person in history — man or woman — to win two consecutive gold medals in the 100-meter dash. It would take 20 years for anyone to match that feat (Carl Lewis defended his 100m gold in 1988), and nearly 50 years for anyone to best it (Usain Bolt won his third straight 100m gold in 2016).

Tyus, a Black woman and the daughter of sharecroppers, also protested during the 1968 Olympics. Instead of wearing the team-issued white shorts, she wore black shorts for all of her events to support the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

But now, over 50 years later, Tyus has largely been forgotten. Her protest has been overshadowed by John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists on the podium. And when Lewis won his second straight gold in the 100m in 1988, he was celebrated as the first athlete to do that — 20 years after Tyus had actually done it.

Wyomia Tyus, of Griffin, Ga., displays the three Olympic gold medals and one silver medal she plans to pack away with her track shoes in favor of
Wyomia Tyus displays three Olympic gold medals and one silver medal. Tyus set Olympic and world records for the women's 100 meters in Mexico City with a time of 11.0 seconds. (AP Photo)

Tyus was forgotten

It's easy to see why Tyus was forgotten. She's a Black woman who experienced athletic success at a time when both Black people and women were struggling for recognition and equality.

But also, there was no path forward for her in 1968. There was no ubiquitous media machine to trumpet her landmark accomplishment on TV and the internet. No live post-race interview with an American flag draped around her shoulders. No Twitter to pass around quotes and videos. There were no sponsorships from Nike or Body Armor.

There was simply no way for her to sustain or build on her success as a track athlete. After her triumph at the 1968 Olympics, Tyus left that level of competitive track and field behind. She got married, had a child and became a teacher and housewife.

Tyus: No one cared about female athletes in 1968

Despite the world forgetting about her landmark accomplishments, Tyus knows exactly where she belongs.

“I know one thing,’’ Tyus told the Washington Post. “If they speak of the 100, they also have to speak of me and what I did because I was the first.”

She may have been the first, but Tyus recalls how little anyone, including the press, cared about women's sports at the time.

“Nobody really cared about the women,” Tyus told the Post. “People now say, ‘Wow, you won back-to-back 100 meters.’ But nobody was thinking that back then. The press never talked to me about it.”

The press also didn't care about her support of Carlos and Smith. Tyus won gold as part of the 4x100m relay in 1968, and after the race, she and her teammates told the press that they were dedicating their medals to them.

"After winning [the 4x100-meter gold medal], my fellow [relay runners] and I went into the pressroom, and they asked us what we thought about what Tommie and Carlos had done," Tyus told ESPN. She said to the press, "I'm dedicating my medals to them. I believe in what they did."

Tyus doesn't recall her statement being printed anywhere, and she believes it's because she was a Black woman. In her memoir "Tigerbelle," Tyus delivered a withering indictment of her treatment at the Olympics and the false perception of the Games.

"It was ... because I was not only Black but a woman. Because you'll notice that no one — except Howard Cosell — was trying to notice me or give me a flag when I had done something no one else in the world had ever done — before Tommie and Carlos even ran their race and before I dedicated my medal to them. It was bigger than that. At the time, they were not about to bathe a Black woman in glory. It would give us too much power, wouldn't it? [...] I would never see them hanging a flag on me. Because one thing the Olympics is not about is giving power to the powerless."

Changed The Game: Female athletes who paved the way.
Changed The Game: Female athletes who paved the way.

Tyus hopes her accomplishments are remembered

While Tyus is still hoping that her accomplishments will be recognized for what they are, at 75 years old she's made peace with how things happened. She was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1985, and her hometown opened the 164-acre Wyomia Tyus Olympic Park in 1999.

While she may not get the outsized recognition of some athletes, she knows that she did important things. In 2018, Tyus told ESPN how she'd like to be remembered:

"I'd like for the world to know, it's not how fast I ran, or how many medals I won. I want to think they'd remember me as a woman who had given all that she can offer and wanted to make life a lot easier for other women and the women to come."

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