Memories of Billy Mills: Dramatic 10,000 Meter Champion of the Tokyo Games

Billy Mills Crossing the finish line, from the boo,
Billy Mills Crossing the finish line, from the boo, “Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News” Agency

At every Olympics, there are people who stand out brighter than others. In 1964, everybody had a Billy Mills story. The legendary Native American champion of the 10,000 meter race, Mills was not expected to medal in Tokyo, and thus appeared to come out of nowhere to win one of the most dramatic races in Tokyo.

Silver medalist  3-meter springboard diver, Frank Gorman, remembers sitting in the Olympic Village common area watching the Olympic Games on TV. “He was a guy I didn’t know until I got to Tokyo. In between our work outs we would sit and watch the games on the local TV, just the two of us. I understood that he was training hard, and that nobody thought he had a prayer, nobody was putting any money on him. But he told me he was excited about being there, and that he had been working his whole life at being the best.”

Gold medalist 400-meer runner, Ulis Williams, watched Mills in the stadium. “Towards the end, I think the last 200 meters, we see him picking up speed. We couldn’t believe it, and we’re shouting ‘Look at him go!’ He tried to go around a guy, and they were moving to block him, but he burst through the center with his arms up. We absolutely couldn’t believe it.”

Billy Mills (middle) and Ron Clarke (right) in 10000 meter run, from the book,
Billy Mills and Ron Clarke in 10000 meter run, from the book, “The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16”

For gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto, he remembers watching the 10,000 meter race on a black and white TV in a common room. “I remember it’s the final lap. A bunch of us, 30 of us, we were just yelling our heads off! And he wins the thing. What a dramatic finish! Mills comes out of nowhere and wins!”

Peter Snell remembers agreeing with his teammates that Australian Ron Clarke was a definite favorite to win, and had no expectations for any American, let alone Billy Mills to be in the running. As he wrote in his biography, No Bugles, No Drums, “This is no personal reflection on the tremendous performance of the winner Billy Mills. It’s just that Americans are traditional masters of the short track events and we other nations are naturally not too keen to see that mastery extended to the longer races.”

Snell, the incredible middle-distance runner from New Zealand, who won gold in both the 800 and1500 meters races in Tokyo wrote that “the 10,000 lives in my memory as one of the most exciting races of the Games. It was amazing the way fortunes fluctuated in the last 300 yards after 24-odd grueling laps in which the pace was always inside the Games record.”

Ollan Cassell, who won gold in the 4X400 men’s relay, said he is friends with Mills. He said he remembered going on a train to the western part of Tokyo called Tachikawa where there was an American base. Mills was a lieutenant in the marines and Cassell was a lieutenant in the army. And they were talking about their victories in Tokyo. Cassell asked Mills about his medal, as most people asked the Olympic Committee to keep it secure in their safe. As they stood on the station platform waiting for the train, Billy’s wife pulled out his gold medal.”

Billy Mills on the Podium, from the book
Billy Mills on the Podium, from the book “Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency”