Published on Runnersworld.com October 14, 2014
by Roger Robinson
Today is the 50th anniversary of Billy Mills’ win in the 1964 Olympic 10,000-meter in Tokyo. As you enjoy one of the most famous running videos, here are six things you probably didn’t know about Mills and the race.
1. His origins: Was there any sign that Billy Mills might achieve something in life?
He was raised in poverty on the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Reservation in South Dakoka, surrounded by alcoholism and depression. His parents separated, his mother remarried his uncle, but died when Mills was 9. His father died four years later. Soon after the mother's death, his father sat with the despondent boy one day and told him he could rise from having broken wings, “and one day you will fly like an eagle.” As Mills tells it now, once he discovered his running talent as a teenager, he always believed that “the Olympics would be my day to fly.”
In later interviews he has been consistent about that belief, calling it “self-hypnosis,” and saying, “I put in my journal that I must believe I can run with the best in the world and beat them in Tokyo.”
On the athletes' bus to the stadium he sat next to an Eastern European long jumper, who asked, “Who's going to win your 10,000 race: Clarke, Halberg or Bolotnikov?” “I will,” the unknown American told her. That ended the conversation.
2. His improvement: How did he suddenly get so good?
He was good enough at the Haskell Institute (now Haskell Indian Nations University) to get a sports scholarship to Kansas University, where he was a three-time All-American in cross country and a good but not outstanding track runner. In 1963, he met the Australian Pat Clohessy, twice the NCAA 3-mile champion, who won the AAU 3-mile title that year. Clohessy (an Arthur Lydiard protegé, later Rob De Castella's coach) advised Mills to train more on the Aussie/New Zealand system, with more distance work in the mix, instead of the then American emphasis on fast track reps.
It's only a theory, but Mills's improvement dates from that exact time. In 1964, now in the Marines, he was second in the U.S. 10,000-meter trial, and revealed new endurance by placing second in the marathon trial on a hot July 26 in Culver City, California. Clohessy confesses he felt “a twinge of conscience” after Mills beat Clohessy's friend Ron Clarke for the Olympic title.
3. The conditions: Did he get lucky?
A key factor was the rain-soaked track. Tokyo was the last Olympics before the introduction of all-weather track surfaces, and heavy rain had made the cinders soft and uneven. That blunted the edge of pre-race favorite and world-record holder Clarke's habitual high-revs front running. Clarke on a firm surface pranced along upright and magisterial in authority. At world record pace he might well have dropped the whole field. But instead of a sustained fast pace, in Tokyo he used long surges, with slower laps between. Plenty of great runners fell back, but the unfancied Mills and Mahomed Gammoudi of Tunisia clung to Clarke all the way.
And when Mills began his wondrous outrageous knees-pumping 80-meter gallop to the tape, he was in an outside lane where the surface was less sodden and cut up. Luck or judgment? Clarke gave credit to Mills' astute choice of “making his bid on the outside lane, which was firmer.”
However you read it, the wet track was a factor.
4. How the race was run: Any other deciding factors?
They passed 5000 meters in 14:04.6, one second slower than Mills’ personal best. At the halfway he was leading.
“I decided to lead a lap, so I would know at least I'd led the Olympics, even if I couldn't finish,” he says.
The last laps were a shambles of lapped (some double-lapped) runners. Many did not move out as the leaders passed, perhaps because they were all elite runners, unaccustomed to getting lapped. In The Unforgiving Minute Clarke wrote, “This race was becoming like a dash for a train in a peak-hour crowd.” He describes how with 300 meters to go he found himself trapped in a bottleneck between Mills, “thumping along at my shoulder,” and a slow lapped runner dead ahead. Clarke had a nightmare flashback to “being hemmed in that way once before” in a 1962 championship 6-mile race, which he lost.
“I tapped [Mills] a couple of times, indicating that I wanted him to run wider...anything so long as I wasn't forced into the back of the lapped runner,” Clarke wrote. When Mills didn't respond, Clarke “crashed Billy with my right arm.”
Mills staggered out a lane, and veered back in alongside Clarke. Then came the extraordinary moment when Gammoudi put one hand on each of the two leaders, gave them a hearty shove apart, and scooted in between them into the lead. Mills went staggering out again, and as Clarke closed on Gammoudi round the bend, Mills seemed to be out of the race. With Clarke and Gammoudi scrambling for the gold around bunches of yet more lapped runners, Mills found a space inside one who had considerately moved aside, chose his route of advance with a Marine's eye, and stormed to the tape.
Later he told Clarke, “our skirmish won the gold medal for me,” because before the jostling he was about to launch his sprint, which would have been too early, and probably doomed him to get passed again.
Clarke paid a generous tribute: “There were no excuses. Billy deserved to win for his persistence, his opportunism and his sound tactical sense,” he wrote.
5. The context: How do we place Mills's victory historically?
He broke the Olympic record, despite the heavy track (28:24.4, bettering Pyotr Bolotnikov's 28:32.2 from 1960). He is the only American to win the 10,000-meter gold. An important and relevant precursor as 10,000-meter medalist was Louis Tewanima, also a Native American (Hopi), who took the silver medal in 1912. The only other high US placings are Max Truex (6th, 1960), Frank Shorter (5th, 1972), and Galen Rupp (2nd, 2012). Four days after Mills’ victory, Bob Schul joined him as the only other American long-distance track gold medalist, winning the 5000-meter final.
6. The aftermath: What has Mills done since 1964?
Mills (whose tribal name is Makata Taka Hela), now 76, placed 14th in the Tokyo Olympic marathon (2:22:55.4), and in 1965 set a world record for 6 miles in a dead-heat with Gerry Lindgren (27:11.6). He has spent most of his life as a speaker and advocate for Native American needs and rights. The 1983 movie Running Brave revived public awareness of his unlikely transformation. As a speaker, he tells a compelling rags-to-riches story as remarkable as Meb Keflezighi's. With charismatic passion and wit, he can transfix an audience with his plea for the need for Native Americans to rise out of the pit of poverty, addiction and domestic violence, and have their rights recognized.
In private, he talks with quiet sincerity about the follies as well as sufferings and rights of his people. You sense that he carries huge responsibilities as a leader and spokesperson, yet he has not allowed public eloquence to be an end in itself. Don't even get him started on the name of Washington, DC's football franchise.
In 2012, President Obama awarded Mills the Presidential Citizen's Medal for his work for the movement Running Strong for American Indian Youth. He is the only track gold medalist to receive that honor for his later life work.