Wyomia Tyus: Still fighting for recognition as the first back-to-back Olympic 100m champion

Quick: Name the first athlete to win the 100m at consecutive Olympic Games.

Carl Lewis? Wrong.

Usain Bolt? Nope.

The first person – man or woman – to accomplish the feat was Wyomia Tyus, the US sprinter who unexpectedly won gold at the 1964 Tokyo Games and successfully defended her title four years later in Mexico City.

And yet, more than half a century later, Tyus’s place in Olympic history as the first back-to-back 100m champion is often overlooked.

“I guarantee you, you can ask people and they would not say me,” Tyus said in a telephone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “They’re going to say either Carl Lewis or Usain Bolt. But you think about what I did. It took some 20 years before someone else even tied the record and close to 50 years before they broke it.”

The first to equal Tyus’s achievement was Lewis, who won the 100m at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games and was elevated from second place to first in Seoul in 1988 after Ben Johnson was stripped of gold for using steroids.

Even then, Tyus remembers being slighted.

Watching the Seoul Games on television, she was stunned to hear the announcer declare that Lewis had just become the first person to claim consecutive Olympic 100m golds.

“All my friends were calling me, asking, ‘How could he say that?’” Tyus recalled.

Since her breakthrough, two other women have also won consecutive 100m titles: Gail Devers in 1992 and 1996 and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in 2008 and 2012.

Bolt later became the first person to achieve the triple, winning the 100m in 2008, 2012 and 2016.

“I know one thing,” said Tyus, now 75. “If they speak of the 100m, they also have to speak of me and what I did, because I was the first.”

Wyomia Tyus wins the 100m at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City (© AFP / Getty Images)

Tyus’s story is one of perseverance, resilience and grit: A sharecropper’s daughter, she grew up on a dairy farm in a white neighbourhood in rural Georgia during the Jim Crow era. She overcame family tragedy as a teenager and went on to win four Olympic medals – the two 100m golds as well as gold and silver medals in the 4x100m relay. She also set or equalled the 100m world record four times.

Tyus was a member of the Tigerbelles, the group of African-American female runners coached by the legendary Ed Temple at Tennessee State University. From 1950 to 1994, Temple coached 40 black female Olympians who won 23 medals, including 13 gold. Temple’s proteges included the great Wilma Rudolph, who won three sprint golds at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Even when Tyus was preparing to defend her 100m title in Mexico City, few paid much notice to the possibility of her becoming the first person to win track’s marquee event twice in a row.

“Nobody except me and Mr Temple thought I would be the first person ever to go and do that,” she said. “The press was only asking, ‘Do you think you can get back to the Olympics?’ I thought, ‘Yeah, I can get back there. That’s not my goal. My goal is to win it.’”

Tyus’s role in athlete protests at the Mexico City Games also went largely unnoticed at the time. Well before US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos carried out their raised-fist salute on the medal podium, Tyus made her own personal statement by wearing black shorts – rather than the official white team shorts – during her races.

“I was wearing the shorts long before Tommie and Carlos did their victory stand protest,” she said. “But women were not heard or spoken to and black women definitely were not. People said, ‘What’s she doing?’”