Winning the moniker as the world’s fastest man or the world’s fastest woman is an awesome achievement. Cementing that title in Olympic competition is an even more incredulous feat. Doing it in consecutive Summer Games can turn and flip a good career into a track Hall of Fame one. It can also turn into a cash-cow opportunity for those who are victorious in this arena with endorsement fanfare.
It is a fascinating paradigm.
The biggest noise coming from the London these days is how Jamaican sprinters Usain Bolt and Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce smoked their competition in the 100 meters to claim back-to-back wins in track and field’s most prestigious even in two straight Olympics. Fraser-Pryce have quietly gone about her business and achieved the unthinkable, first in 20008 and now this year, even surpassing Jamaica’s premier female sprinter-Veronica Campbell-Brown.
On the other hand, her fellow countryman, the ever-entertaining Bolt, has turned the repeat 100 wins into a coronation of his still growing legend in the sport. The Jamaicans have made it look so easy and so routine. Historically, however, it has not been as seamless as Bolt and Fraser-Pryce have made it look.
A grand total of just five athletes in the history of the Olympics have been able to pull off this accomplishment. Fraser-Pryce and Bolt are the latest with their 2012 sweep. Converted U.S. hurdler Gail Devers turned the trick at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics.
Before the UCLA alum became the cover girl for track and field with her back-to-back triumphs, Carl Lewis, arguably considered the greatest Olympian of all-time, made it look easy himself when he ran roughshod over his international peers at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics.
That’s pretty good company. But the one person lost in the allure of all this greatness and the one athlete that seem to be the less least spoken about is Wyomia Tyus, the one person who did it long before the drones of sports television, ESPN and social media have made it into a commercialized item. Tyus was the one who set the standard.
She raised the bar in track and field greatness when she duplicated her surprising 1964 Tokyo Olympics win in the 100 meters with a re-affirming victory in the glorious short sprint in Mexico City four years later. The exciting thing about competition is that those who are favored to win don’t always end up doing so.
Sometimes pressure to perform at the highest level can even get the best of the most elite of athletes, leaving room for another top-notch competitor to slip in and steal their thunder. That’s what happened at the 1964 Olympics when Tyus unexpectedly streaked by Tennessee State University teammate Edith McGuire to win the gold in the 100 meters.
Tyus’ win not only stunned the favorite McGuire, it shocked just about everyone else. Coming into the Summer Games, the media had dubbed McGuire as the next coming of Wilma Rudolph, who became an instant Olympic icon with her three gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
McGuire, nicknamed “Top Cat,” had the looks, the charismatic personality and speed to emulate the statuesque Rudolph. But the pressure leading up to the 100-meter finals became so overwhelming for McGuire that she ran like it in the fianls, allowing the talented Tyus to overtake her to claim the spot.
Tyus knew the spotlight was on McGuire. She also understood the intense pressure her friend was under.
“She had a tremendous amount of pressure on her,” Tyus said in a 2009 interview. “I think in one of the races she barely made it to the finals. When we got to the finals, Mr. (Ed) Temple tried talking to her, she just ran away from him. That whole pressure thing… I don’t remember ever talking to anybody. I always felt that when I went into a race, I was prepared. I was ready to do my best.”
In an interview conducted in 2005, McGuire admitted she succumbed to the pressure.
“I think there was some pressure on me,” McGuire said. “When I think about it I know that it was. When I got to the Olympic Village, everywhere I went people were asking me ‘Do you think you’re going to do it? I couldn’t even go shopping or anything without the cameras in my face. It got to me. I ran the first round and I got first. I ran the second round and I got first, but I could tell that I was tight. In the semifinals, I got third place. I had two hours between the finals and I had to do a little soul searching for myself.”
Though Tyus was able to sneak up and outshine McGuire and the rest of the field in 1964, she didn’t have that luxury in 1968. This time around Tyus was the one who was being hunted by other runners. It was now her turn to face the media’s storm, the same media that hounded McGuire around the Olympic Village in Tokyo four years earlier.
But Tyus was ready. She ignored the hype that said she was too old compete in the sport. Tyus’ second gold medal in 100 meters is even more remarkable considering she did against the backdrop of American soldiers being engaged in the Vietnam War, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy, bitter racial turmoil and the dual disposition of disgruntled black athletes representing their country at the Olympics in 1968.
“The press thought I would not win because I was too old,” Tyus said. “I had had a bad year the year before. I wasn’t running like everybody else. I wasn’t running bad, but everyone was running 11.1, 11.2 (seconds), and I was still running my 11.3s, 11.4. But I was there. I wasn’t winning any all my races, which I never did anyway. The press, if it was left up to them in ’68, I should have retired before I went to the (Olympic) Games.”