Beyond the Fist: Activism at the Games
Archival Recording: The Olympic flame has made its way to the stadium in Tokyo–
Archival Recording: Ladies and gentlemen, the Olympic flame is now entering into the stadium–
Trymaine Lee: Every four years, the world’s greatest athletes come together to compete to showcase feats of speed and strength and endurance. There’s pageantry, and goodwill, and lots and lots of flag-waving. The whole thing can be dizzying, yet beautiful.
Archival Recording: Ladies and gentlemen, (APPLAUSE) the United States of America.
Archival Recording: USA! USA–
Lee: But sometimes, this huge global Olympic stage with all its pomp and nationalism becomes something much more, like when the U.S. Women’s soccer team took a knee before their match earlier this week.
Archival Recording: The United States will take a knee before kickoff. The Australians, the Matildas, gathered around the center circle in solidarity.
Lee: For decades, Olympic athletes, and Black American athletes in particular, have used the bright lights of the Games to draw attention to social and racial issues, even though the rules in the Olympic Charter prohibit any kind of political expression.
Archival Recording: John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Negro runners who won medals in the 200-meter race, today were ordered by the United States Olympic Committee to leave Mexico. Earlier, they were suspended for raising black-gloved fists while The Star-Spangled Banner was being played at an awards ceremony.
Lee: The iconic image of sprinters, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, shoeless with their black-gloved fists raised high on the winner’s podium during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, has become an enduring symbol of the emergence of the Black athlete.
Archival Recording: I don’t like bein’ discriminated against. Me, all Black people same as me, I still stand for Blackness. I still stand for me. People think I’m anti-American. I’m not anti-American. I’m anti-racism.
Lee: The image is remembered as a catalyst for power, pride, and protest. Their names are etched in history, as much for their stance as their prowess on the track. But they weren’t the only ones kickin’ butt and challenging racism and white supremacy back in 1968.
There’s a whole generation of activist/athletes, who in big and small ways, challenged the status quo on the world’s biggest stage. But who’s remembered, who’s put onto posters and into history books is often a product of some of the very same forces they were fighting against, racism and patriarchy.
Wyomia Tyus: Nobody care about what women said and what we thought. That’s how I felt about that.
Lee: I’m Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America. The 2021 Olympic Games are underway in Tokyo. And today, we bring you the story of Wyomia Tyus, one of the greatest Olympians you’ve probably never heard of, whose quiet protest speaks volumes and continues to echo today.
The spirit of activism showed up at the 2021 Games even before the Opening Ceremony this year. Earlier this summer, American hammer thrower, Gwen Berry, got heat for turning away from the flag after she won third place during the Olympic trials.
Archival Recording: Berry has been getting the pile-on from conservative media for turning her back. Listen to how Berry responded this week on the Black News Channel.
Gwen Berry (recording): I never said that I hated the country. Never said that. All I said was, I respect my people enough to not stand or acknowledge somethin’ that disrespects them. I love my people point-blank, period.
Lee: Berry credited Wyomia Tyus as her inspiration. She told The New York Times, “I feel there is a direct connection between us.”
Tyus: My name is Wyomia Tyus. I was born and raised in Griffin, Georgia.
Lee: Miss Tyus is 75 years old. And back in the ’60s, she was a sprinter. Not just any sprinter, but the best in the world. She’d taken gold in 1964. And in 1968, she showed up to the Mexico City Olympics ready to win again. As the other runners solemnly warmed up at the starting blocks for the 100-meter finals, Miss Tyus used the biggest song of the year to gettin’ her groove. Talk to me about this Tighten Up I’ve been hearin’ about.
Tyus: Oh, wow. Yeah. Well, I was just feeling so comfortable. And not that my competitors weren’t good. I just think that, you know, I’d gettin’ that finals of 100 meters. Before the finals, I’m gonna do this dance called The Tighten Up. And The Tighten Up is a dance.
Archival Recording: (SINGS) Tighten it up. (LAUGH) Yeah.
Tyus: I mean, Archie Bell & the Drells had that record out durin’ that time, so I was doin’ that so I could be very relaxed in the 100-meters. I was always laugh and tell my kids I brought rock and roll to the Olympics. (LAUGHTER)
Lee: At 22 years old, Wyomia Tyus became the first person to win back-to-back gold in the 100-meter race. And the story of how she got there to Mexico City, defending her 100-meter Olympic Gold starts in Georgia with a girl who always knew she was fast and strong.
Tyus: I was born on a dairy farm, so I had three older brothers. And the best things I remember about the farm is my father and my brother, my brother that I’m next to, we would go walking on Sundays or Saturdays and walkin’ through the woods. And it was a time where my dad kind of taught us a little bit about what nature’s all about and who we were as people.
Lee: And so, growin’ up on a dairy farm in that wide open space, I’d have to imagine there’s a lotta space to run around and to play and just be free. And I wonder like, when you first got the inklin’ that you might be an athlete, or a runner in particular.
Tyus: I just always enjoyed bein’ involved in sports. With three older brothers, I mean, that was it. We were always tryin’ to figure out who can ride the bicycle the fastest, who could climb the tree the fastest. And I always wanted to be that. I was always competitive. I always wanted to be the best of everything.
I wanted to play with my brothers and be on their teams and things like that. I really did have to be that. The boys in the neighborhood didn’t want me to play with them. ‘Cause it was at that time, girls were not supposed to do things like that, and girls weren’t supposed to behave as boys. And you’re supposed to play with dolls and learn how to cook.
Those things were not important to me. And my dad would always say to my mom, “Let her play,” and tell my brothers to, “Let her play because she’s just as good as you guys, if not better.” And running came much later. When I went into junior high and high school, I start running.
Lee: As Miss Tyus got older, running became a sanctuary during hard times.
Tyus: Our house burned down. And my dad passed away the next year. So I was really depressed. And I was having trouble just talking to people. My mom kept saying to me, “Well, you know, you gotta get past this ’cause you have a life to live. And your dad was not like this. And he would like to see you grow. That’s what he really wanted for you to do, go and get an education.” So I start running in the track team at junior high. And I could beat most of the girls there. And I got a opportunity to meet Mr. Temple at the age of 15.
Lee: Mr. Temple was Ed Temple, a former track star and legendary head coach for the women’s track team at Tennessee State University, an HBCU in Nashville. They were known as the Tigerbelles. Mr. Temple invited her to join a summer track program as a high schooler. And she’d eventually attend the university. But running with the Tigerbelles wasn’t as easy as she thought it’d be.
Tyus: That first summer there, I was gettin’ beat every day. So it was, like, by the other athletes that were comin’ from different parts, they were just so much better than I. But I just didn’t like it. But then I got to the point where, I need to do this because I’m not fast at all. They are much faster.
And I called my mom and told her I wanted to come home. And she says, “You can’t come home. You have to stay. You said you wanted to go, and so you have to stay. But you don’t have to go back next summer.” And I didn’t like that too much. And so it motivated me to say, okay, I can work this out. I can get done. Let’s hurry this up. Let’s do my best. Let me get outta here.
Well, I got better because of the training. By ’64, the Games, the Olympic Games in Tokyo was coming around, I never thought I was gonna make the Olympic team. I go to the Olympic trials, and I take third in the 100-meters. And they only take three people in each race. So I barely made the Olympic team in ’64.
Lee: All right, so let’s back up a little bit. You say you trained and got better.
Tyus: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
Lee: That’s kind of an understatement. (LAUGH) You end up going to the Olympics. You go to the Olympics. That’s not just, “Yeah, you know, I got a little better. I got a little better, and here I am.” But how old were you that first Olympics?
Tyus: I made the team when I was 18. And I turned 19 before I got to the Olympics, so I was 19.
Lee: Give me a sense of what that was like. You’re this young woman. You’re finding your way. You’re fast. You’re part of this tradition and this HBCU. And here you are at the Olympics. What was that experience like, not just on the track. I wanna hear about that, too, but also just being in the Olympic Village.
Tyus: Oh, that was the most wonderful thing I could think of. The Olympic Village, for me that was the key for me. I think I grew a lot. And I got to understand not just me, but it’s about so many other different cultures. Just to see so many people from different countries, and speakin’ all different languages, and wearin’ the different attire, that it was just amazing to me. And it was just such a growth period. It helped me in the sense that I was still one of those people not speaking very much and saying very many words. But it really opened me up in more ways than one.
Lee: And you also took home some hardware that first Olympics. (LAUGH) Talk to us about the 100-meter final race.
Tyus: I was just happy to be at the Olympic Games. ‘Cause my best friend who was Edith McGuire was picked to be in the 100-meters, and she was also in the 200-meters.
Lee: Miss Tyus was surrounded by familiar races at the ’64 Games in Tokyo, a bunch of her teammates, including her best friend Edith, and Mr. Temple.
Tyus: Mr. Temple was the coach of the Olympic team, for women’s Olympic team in 1964. So, we were warming up for the finals at our hydrate. And he came by. And he said, “Tyus, I wanna talk to you.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “I don’t have much to say. But you look good out there. If you keep that up, you might win a medal.
“But I’m not looking for you to do that. All I want you to do is just go out there and have fun and enjoy yourself.” I said, “Okay, then. Thank you, Mr. Temple.” And after he left, I said to myself, I’m thinking now, say, “Oh, I could win this 100. I won all my trials.” Then I start thinking, “Oh, I’m gonna get a big head,” ’cause that’s all he would say. Athletes get the big head, and they think they can do more.
And we went into the 100-meters and the finals. And the gun went off, I got a pretty good start. And I was out there. And I realized I was out there. And about 60 or 70 meters, I kept wondering, “Where is Edith?” ‘Cause she usually is catching me and passing me by then.
But she was not there, and I kept goin’, “Where is Edith?” I wouldn’t look from anything. All I kept sayin’ to myself in my head, “Stay relaxed. Stay relaxed. Lift your knees. Don’t forget to lean at the tape.” All the things that Mr. Temple had taught me.
And at 80 meters, I could hear her coming. I could hear Edith. (LAUGH) And I would say, I tease her now. I said, “Oh, you know, I could really smell you comin’. I could hear you. I heard (LAUGH) your footsteps.” And the next thing I know, the race is over. And she’s running up to me, saying, “Tyus, Tyus, you won.” I said, “I did?”
Tyus: I didn’t even realize it because I was so concentrated on the fact that she could beat me.
Archival Recording: (GUNSHOT) Wyomia Tyus of the U.S. set an Olympic mark in the semifinals of the 100-meter dash. And now in the finals, she runs her rivals into the ground to reach the tape in 11 and 4/10 seconds. She upsets her teammate, Edith McGuire, by two yards as she flies across. (CHEERS) Yes, the American Eagle flies high in Tokyo.
Tyus: I was just very, very shocked. And I was just enjoying that for the moment. And I remember going on the victory stand. And they were standing up there. And then I was thinkin’, “Oh, my gosh. I got four more years. I have to go to ’68.” So it was more like, okay, this is short-lived, (LAUGH) you know. But I was still very happy. And I always enjoyed that. I mean, your first win is something. It was very good for me.
Lee: So at this time, we’re talkin’ about the early 1960s, or late 1950s/early 1960s. Was there an air of protest around? Were you aware of some of the pushes in communities all across this country for equal rights?
Tyus: My awareness came from my parents and my grandparents. We were the only Black family in that neighborhood. And we went to an all-Black school, of course. We had to, we took a bus. A bus came to pick us up. Took us an hour to go to school ’cause we were the first people to be picked up on the route to school. So we had to go pick up everybody and then go to school. And there was a white school right, you know, in walking distance.
But my parents always made us aware of who we were and where we were living at the time, especially in a white neighborhood and how things were, and how they say white people felt about us. They made us crystal-clear about what happened to Emmett Till. So my parents kept us aware of, we had to really take care of ouselves. We had to stick together. We had to always be aware of our surroundings and knowing that you’re not gonna be welcome everywhere.
Lee: College reinforced those messages. In the spring of 1967, Stokely Carmichael, then the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, came to Tennessee State.
Tyus: And the atmosphere was just amazing. And then after he’s finished speaking, they start rioting. Well, they say we were rioting. Walking in the middle of the streets and all this. And within 15 to 20 minutes, they had the National Guards on campus and had campus shut down. We could not leave campus. And they came onto campus with guns and tanks. And we were locked down for a week on campus.
Lee: How did that feel? I mean, you were a teenager. I was gonna say, that’s some exposure. Like, how’d it make you feel at that age?
Tyus: (SIGH) I don’t know how it made me feel. It was very, uncomfortable is not the good word for it, I would say. It made me more aware of how serious this issue is and how oppressed we were as people. And why would they call in the National Guard?
Lee: Yeah. So four years, and you end up makin’ it again. And here you are in ’68 at the Mexico City Games. I’d have to imagine the climate just felt much different. We were comin’ off of a slew of assassinations, and violence, and protests. And things are shifting socially in America and around the world. Talk to us about just that feeling of 1968 and arriving in Mexico City, beyond the track, but, like, all the other things swirlin’ around.
Tyus: The things that were going on, it was not just in America. And I had gotten a little bit more (LAUGH) educated in knowing that there were a lot more things happenin’ all over the world. You know, unjustices were happening to people, and what people were saying, and what we need to do as the world in order to make a life much better for everyone.
It was talk of boycotting the Olympic Games. And people would always ask, “Are you gonna boycott? Are you gonna do that?” Yeah, Mr. Temple would always tell us, “You need to know what you wanna say. You don’t let people tell you what to say. You need to always know what you’re sayin’. You need to be confident in yourself.”
And then, when we went to Mexico City we had meetings set. And the Olympic Village is there. What are we gonna do? Now that we’re here, what can we do as athletes? And it was not just the Black athletes because it was more about human rights. The whole project was for The Human Rights Project.
So, we were tryin’ to decide. And nobody could really decide. And so it got to the point: Well, you can do what you wanna do. And, you know, we’re like, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do.” And I just decided that my way of showing my support is that I would wear my black shorts.
Lee: The uniform for the women’s track team came with white shorts. But like a lot of other athletes in 1968, Miss Tyus wanted to make a statement. So instead of wearing the official Team USA outfit, she decided to wear a pair of black shorts. This was her protest.
Tyus: I ran in my black shorts to show my support for what was going on in the world, and to support that I support human rights, and that we need to take a look at ourselves as people a lot more and more deeply because we all have those rights.
Lee: By the end of that race, Miss Tyus would make history as the first person of any gender, of any race to win gold in back-to-back Olympics for the 100-meters. But her athleticism and her activism would be overlooked.
Tyus: Nobody care about women said and what we thought. That’s how I felt about that.
Lee: When we come back, more on Wyomia Tyus’s protest and the activist/athletes that the history books left out.
Tyus: That was the first time anybody had ever won back-to-back 100-meters. And the press never even talked about that with me.
Lee: During the 1968 Mexico City Games, Wyomia Tyus made history. And she used the world stage to send a message. But the whole thing didn’t get much play.
Tyus: Mr. Temple had always prepared us as women and as Black women that they’re not gonna care what you do. You can win 100 gold medals, but then nobody’s gonna really appreciate the facts. So for me, it didn’t matter ’cause I wasn’t doin’ it for them. I was doin’ it for me.
I was doin’ it for a cause that I believe in. I mean, I started out growing up on a dairy farm. And I started out with people telling me, “Well, you can’t do this because you’re a girl.” Or, “You should be doin’ this because you’re a girl.” You know, so between sexism and racism, I always had that from day one. And so, I knew that it was not to do it for someone else. It was always to do it for me and what I believe in. And I’ve always believed in the human rights for all.
Lee: Miss Tyus was also overshadowed by one of the biggest events in sports history, the moment that John Carlos and Tommie Smith took to the podium and raised their fists in the air.
Tyus: I was in the stands, and I was watchin’ the race. And I saw ’em walk up onto the victory stand. ‘Cause I was at a area where they had the athletes. And when they came out the chute to go to the victory stand, I noticed the fact that they didn’t have on the shoes.
And I was like, “Guys, what’s going on here?” Then when they went to the victory stand and they started playin’ the National Anthem, and they raised their fists, I’m not the only one. I was just there with eyes really, like, “Oh, my.” And (SIGH) then, the stadium got so quiet after that.
And then you start hearing people talking or people whistling, people booing, yeah. And then I started to think, “Wow, this is frightening because I don’t know what’s gonna happen here.” So it was a bit different of emotions going on even in the stadium with the people that were there. So what they did, I mean, I think no one else could have done anything to really stand out. Because what they did said it all. It spoke for everything.
Lee: Much of the press tried to get Miss Tyus and other Black athletes to condemn Carlos and Smith. But instead, Wyomia Tyus dedicated her medals to them because John Carlos and Tommie Smith and Wyomia Tyus were connected by the same cause, the fight for Black power.
Amira Rose Davis: There were numerous athletes who were saying, “This is not right. These are inequities that you’re trying to paper over in Kumbaya Olympic glory.
Lee: Dr. Amira Rose Davis is a professor of history and African American studies at Penn State University. And she co-hosts the feminist sports podcast, Burn It All Down. But she says to understand what made the 1968 Games so right for activism, we have to look even deeper into the past.
Davis: Actually, you can go back to the ’50s because there are some huge changes geopolitically speaking that happened. First, the Second World War, but then also the rise of the Cold War. And when we say the Cold War, we mean the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States in all things: refrigerators, space race, track and field, everything.
And so, what you have in that moment is athletics, global competition, whether it’s the Olympics, whether the Pan American Games or the Caribbean Games, they become huge features of everybody kinda jockeying for their position in the global world order in the ’50s and the ’60s.
But then, also using these Olympic Games, you have actual effort documented from the State to push Black athletes to the forefront to try to run all this politics through them, to capture their winds as winds for multiracial liberal democracy, use their kinda celebrity as proof-positive that things are good for Black people in the U.S.
By the time we get to the late ’60s, this is a generation motivated by the death of Emmett Till, much like our generation has been by Trayvon Martin. There’s a urgency that has been infused into these movements where people are starting to say, “Hey, we need to talk about police brutality. We need to talk about all of these systems that structurally are still trying to oppress us.”
And so, you have ’68 which globally is like a powder keg anyways from South Africa, to France, to everywhere. You have the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy. And there is a feeling like things collectively are falling apart.
In the lead-up to the Games, you have these Black college students who are also Olympians. We always forget how young they are. They’re going to this platform where they say, “We can’t go to the U.N. and talk about what life is like in L.A. or what our experience is like coming from Mississippi.
“But we know that we’ll have the eyes of the world on us for a short period of time in Mexico City. And we intend to use that to say something.” And that is the context that led to multiple athletes at the ’68 Games doing small protest in many ways to say, “We’re not just here to entertain you.”
Lee: What are some of the other acts of protest that we saw from Black athletes of ’68?
Davis: Some people like Lee Evans, you know, put their fists up on the medal stand. Some people wore black berets. The 4×4 men’s relay team wore black socks. Many people did some sort of gesture, either right after the race or on the medal stand, but then during the actual Anthem they just stood there.
The Cuban team, both men’s and women’s, who are all Afro-Cubanos, they all dedicated their (LAUGH) medals to Tommie and John, but also to Stokely Carmichael, right? They just were, like, saying, “Hey, we recognize the struggle that Black Americans are going through.”
And then non-Black athletes were also protesting. So, those were, like, the little things, a head turned down, a body turned away, a black beret, a black sock, that in many ways have kind of been lost to history because we hyper-focus on Tommie and John and made them symbols.
Lee: Was there a consensus, or was there a divide? What was happening, you know, with the Black athletes behind the scenes?
Davis: Yeah. There was some generational stuff, right? So Jesse Owens gets used by the U.S. Olympic Committee to come in and try to get (LAUGH) John and Tommie to apologize. Beforehand, you have, when there’s talk of boycotts, you absolutely have a split.
There are certainly Black athletes who said, “First of all, I’ve worked four years for this. I’m not gonna sacrifice my one, you know, opportunity to earn money or get stuff for my family.” There was other people who said, “Listen, the best thing we can do is go and let our success speak for itself.” And then there was athletes who said, “No, we need to do more than just let our success speak. We need to add a protest on that’s visible, or talk.” So there were tactical divides.
Lee: It’s not really surprising that there was this divide because as we all know, Black folks aren’t a monolith. During the same Games that Tommie Smith and John Carlos lifted their fists during the National Anthem, heavyweight boxer George Foreman won gold and lifted an American flag.
And there were consequences for athletes who violated what’s known as Rule 50 which bans political demonstrations in the Olympic Stadium. Not only were Tommie Smith and John Carlos sent home for violating that ban, they were marginalized from the Olympic Movement for decades before eventually being praised for their resistance. Wyomia Tyus took that risk, too. ‘
Davis: When Tyus goes to ’68, she ties her protest to her vantage point as a Black woman. And after the ’68 Games, she continues to do that when she is one of the founders of the Women’s in Sports Foundation when she was looking for opportunities, professional opportunities for Black women in sports when she’s saying that extension of human rights is about Black Americans.
It’s also about Black women who aren’t getting labor opportunities, who don’t have anything waiting for them, who need professional sporting opportunities, who need to be able to coach, who aren’t getting those same shoe deals. And so that’s what Tyus is continuing to speak up about.
Lee: Why do you think her protest was overlooked or overshadowed?
Davis: The reason why it’s overlooked is, I mean, one of those things that you have, again, centering Black women lets you see some of this, right? What we see is men going out of their way to make sure that other men are seen. Both Tommie and John spend a lotta time saying, “This is what Lee Evans did.” It’s ’cause Lee was a friend, and Lee was very active.
But I think that there was this feeling of needing to assert or speak for his masculinity. There’s a effort to amplify and read back into the narrative Black men who protested in other areas. And that was not extended to Tyus. That was not extended to Black women. You still see a way historically that we continue to read the women out of the picture. They were kind of footnotes. And I think that you’re dealing with both things when you’re talking about what we do with the story of Tyus.
Lee: This year, Amira is hoping to see moments of activism, big and small, from Black Americans.
Davis: There is absolutely a feeling in the air that we have something to say. Here’s our platform, as messy as it may be. And we’re not gonna, like, swallow our voice just because we got to the Olympic stage.
Lee: Ahead of the Summer Games, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee said they won’t punish athletes for protesting. And the International Olympic Committee relaxed Rule 50 just a bit, allowing for certain phrases on clothing like “freedom,” but not “Black Lives Matter.”
Davis: If you’re looking to pick a fight with a group of athletes who are already prime for protest, one of the things you can absolutely do to ensure that is say that you can’t wear Black Lives Matter statements, like, singling that out. Because why are you singling out the statement, Black Lives Matter, but we can wear a word that says “freedom?”
Lee: But Miss Tyus sees progress. And she sees Black women athletes as leading the way.
Tyus: Black women have always been there. They’ve always been doin’. Some have been silenced, some not been silent. What it is, they’ve always steadily been there. They’d always said, “We fight for the fight.” And what I always say, they’ve always stayed in the fight, no matter what happens.
And you have Gwen Berry, and we need that. And I’m just so happy that it’s led to finally getting the publicity that’s deserved. And people know that, hey, it doesn’t matter ’cause you’re a woman. It doesn’t matter because you’re Black. It matters what’s in your heart and, you know, what you’re here for, you know. ‘Cause times are changed. Time’s always gonna change. That’s what my dad used to say. It’s not always gonna be this way. It’s gonna change. And you need to be prepared for the change.
Lee: That was Olympian Wyomia Tyus and Dr. Amira Rose Davis. You can check out full coverage of the Games on NBC. And if you wanna get in touch, feel free to get at me on Twitter @trymainelee. That’s my full name, @trymainelee. Or write to us at email@example.com.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Bryson Barnes, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Shaka Tafari, and Aisha Turner. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. I’m Trymaine Lee. See you next Thursday.
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