Friday, January 18, 2019

Books: "Tigerbelle," The Story Of An Olympic Pioneer

Wyomia Tyus (c.) on the podium after winning Olympic Gold.

Tigerbele: The Wyomia Tyus Story
By Wyomia Tyus & Elizabeth Terzakis; foreword by Joy Reid; An Edge Of Sports book curated by Dave Zirin
Akashic Books, Brooklyn, NY; 288 pages; hardcover, $27.95; trade paperback, $15.95 

Wyomia Tyus won gold medals in the 100-meter sprint in two consecutive Olympics, 1964 and 1968, becoming the first person to ever earn that achievement, and it was not repeated for almost twenty years, and fifty years to be exceeded.

Tigerbelle is Tyus' memoir, chronicling her journey from childhood in Griffin, Georgia, through her Olympic triumphs to her post-competition struggles to make a way for herself and other female athletes.

Tyus attended Tennesee State University in Nashville and ran under the tutelage of visionary coach Ed Temple as a member of the Tigerbelles until she graduated in 1968.
A four-time Olympic medalist and the holder of multiple world records, Tyus was a supporter of the Olympic Project for Human Rights during the 1968 Olympics, doing her part to promote justice for oppressed people around the world.
As a founding member of the Women's Sports Foundation, she continues to advocate for women's equality in sports to this day.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King said, "Wyomia Tyus has earned her place in the pantheon of American sports sheroes and heroes."

Elizabeth Terzakis, who teaches English and creative writing at a community college in Northern California who co-authored Tigerbelle, writes, "The arc of Tyus's life - from her childhood as the daughter of a tenant dairy farmer in Griffin, Georgia, to her retirement as a naturalist in Los Angeles, California - would be worth following even if she had never medaled at the Olympics. Yet, as is the case with so many Black women of her day, her story has gone untold, her achievements unsung. One explanation for this is the fact that her ascent to Olympic glory occurred at a time when the editors of Sports Illustrated were less interested in covering the Black female athletes who would actually represent the United States in the Olympic Games than they were in promoting a white Texas coach nicknamed 'Flamin' Mamie' and her all-white Bouffant Belles. The cover of SI's April 20, 1964, issue features three heavily made-up and precipitously coiffed white women with the patronizing caption: 'Texas Girls Aim for Tokyo.'
"A breathtaking testament to the interlocking powers of racism and sexism, the article effortlessly erases the accomplishments of Black female athletes  while simultaneously mocking the aspirations of white female athletes. Meanwhile, the story of Wyomia Tyus and her teammate Edith McGuire - who had been born in the same state, experienced similar family tragedies, and went to the same university - went unrepported. McGuire was favored to take the gold in the 100 in 1964, making Tyus's eventual win a stunning upset and their uninterrupted friendship of considerable human interest - but where's the story in that?"

Tyus said of her book, "As a young girl growing up in Griffin, Georgia, I always wondered why was it that boys had more freedom and were encouraged to be the best they could be at whatever they wanted to be while girls were taught how to be good wives, mothers, caregivers, and that was that.
"If girls did play sports, they were told not to sweat. But I wanted to sweat. I wanted to be the fastest runner on the field and the best player on the team. And there were people in my community, at my school, and even in my family who felt their kind of behavior was not ladylike, that muscles were not pretty for women.
"Fortunately, my parents and brothers didn't feel that way. They never tried to stop me from being the best I could be, on or off the track. They made sure I knew that they supported me and that I could do or be anything I wanted - with hard work and determination, of course. This is the message that I want to pass on. I want every girl, every woman, every child to know what I express to my children and they to their children: Everything is possible!
"The Tennessee State Tigerbelles are living proof. As Black pioneers in women's sports, they have never gotten the accolades and kudos they so deserve. But they still excel, on and off the track. I hope the people who read this book can learn and draw inspiration from my story - no matter their color or gender. Because in this game of life, you, me, and everybody else - all of us - have a right to an equal playing field. But to get it, we must stay in the fight."

Dave Zirin made it part of his Edge Of Sports book series, and he wrote that 1968 "means remembering John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists on the podium at that year's Mexico City Olympics. It was a time when Muhammad Ali, arguably the world's greatest athlete, sat stripped of his title for refusing to fight in the war in Vietnam, saying, 'I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong.'
"Yet often written out of this history is the role of Black women. That's why it's important to remember the remarkable legacy of Wyomia Tyus.
"A resident of Georgia, Tyus was the first person in history, male or female, to win track and field's glamour event - the 100-meter dash - in consecutive Olympics. She did so first in 1964 at the Tokyo Games and then in Mexico City in 1968. Tyus then demonstrated uncommon valor by dedicating her win in the women's 4x100m sprint relay to Carlos and Smith.
"She took this chance and dared to offer solidarity, even though the movement of Carlos and Smith, the Olympic Project for Human Rights, made no effort to organize female athletes. Decades later, she said, 'It appalled me that the men simply took us for granted. They assumed we had no minds of our own and that we'd do whatever we were told.'
"Tyus is part of another hidden history as well. She attended the historically Black college Tennessee State University, where she was one of the celebrated Tigerbelles, a program that won thirty-four national championships in forty-four years. The school's legendary coach Ed Temple, in this time before Title IX, trained forty black female Olympians, who won a combines twenty-three Olympic medals, thirteen of them gold.
"I met Wyomia Tyus several years ago, interviewing her in front of a crowd of people who barely knew who she was. By the end of the event, the people in that audience were aware that they were in the presence of greatness. It wasn't just the medals. It's a story of navigating the Jim Crow South as a Black woman. This is someone who grew up in Georgia, in an area where her family couldn't vote and where, now, a beautiful, publicly funded recreation center bears her name.
"Afterward, I asked Wyomia why she never wrote a book, given the importance of this history. I introduced her to author Elizabeth Terzakis, and herein we have the remarkable results.
"The resurgent movements for women's rights and movies like Hidden Figures, about the key role played by African American women in the space program, provide fresh opportunities to re-center narratives around the Black women whose stories have faded from memory. We must not let these opportunities go to waste."

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