They met in London at the 2012 Olympics – old friends, old rivals. Mohammed Gammoudi from Tunisia and Billy Mills of the United States had raced against each other in an epic 10,000-meter race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, in which Mills came from behind to win in stirring fashion. American Olympians in particular remember that moment, whether they watched it live or on television, as if it were yesterday.
Gammoudi asked Mills if he remembered what he told him in Belgium. The two faced off in a 10,000 meter race in Belgium in which Gammoudi won. Gammoudi gave his old friend advice after the race – “more speed”. In other words, Mills told me he needed to “maintain a very fast pace, being right on the edge, just before tightening up. Maintaining a maximum pace, but still being able to sprint. I would practice running as fast as I could go without losing composure.”
When Mills and Gammoudi met in Tokyo in October, 1964, they embraced as old friends even though they had met only three times. Mills said they respected each other, and hoped that both of them would ultimately celebrate on the victory stand. But so too thought Ron Clarke, their biggest rival in this competition, and the 10,000 meter world record holder.
At that time, Clarke is world famous, and expected to win. Nobody knows Billy Mills.
But with only two laps to go, Mills is still on Ron Clarke’s shoulder. Hypoglycemic, blood sugar nearly depleted, Mills feels he’s tiring. Then, Clarke looks back, and Mills takes that as a sign – “My God, he’s worried! If I could just stay with him, I have a chance. I have a chance.”
In the final lap, somehow, the Australian Clarke is boxed in front by a runner who’s been lapped, and Mills to his right. “I have Ron boxed in perfectly,” Mills explained of one of the most dramatic moments of the XVIII Olympiad. “He nudged me a little. I nudged him back. He then put his hand under my elbow and pushed me out. I thought I was going to fall. I went out and stumbled. I closed back on his shoulder. Gammoudi from Tunisia then broke between us.”
Gammoudi told Mills in London that he thought Mills was done – “my friend is off balance, and out of the race, but I must focus on Ron, the world record holder.” Gammoudi told Mills he believed it was the Tunisian’s moment to strike, when he elbowed his way through Clarke and Mills.
Mills said that coming around the final bend, in his low blood-sugar state, he could hear nothing but the throbbing of his heart, and feel nothing but a tingling sensation along his forearm, his vision coming and going, but someone pushing himself to give it “one more try.”
A couple of months before the Olympics, Mills is training in the United States, and he notes in his diary sometime in August that “I’m in great shape, must believe, believe I can run with the best in the world now, and I can beat them at Tokyo.” Mills believed that he could win it if he could imagine it. “The subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between reality or imagination,” Mills has said. “You focus for four years, dozens of times a day, visualizing, re-living the moment the way you want it to be. And then you win. And for one fleeting moment, you know you’re the best in the world.”
So there is Mills, in third, with thirty yards to go, thinking, “One more try, one more try.” And then “I can win, I can win, I can win.” And finally, “I won, I won, I won, I won.” And yet Mills is still in third place with 80 yards to go. Sprinting outside in the middle lanes, using precious energy to swing outside but also taking advantage of firmer ground on the rain-soaked cinder tracks, Mills lifts his legs and pumps his arms in an amazing sprint, the incredible finish described in gleeful shrieks by the American announcers: “Look at Mills! Look at Mills! Coming on! Mills is coming on! Oooh hoo hoo! What a tremendous accomplishment! Bill Mills wins the 10,000 meters in a tremendous upset!”
Mills crosses the finish line as the first and only American to win the 10,000 meter race at the Olympics. A Japanese official comes up to him and says, “Who are you?” Mills is struck with fear, thinking he had not run enough laps to complete the race. Reassured that he had indeed won, his friend from Tunisia came up to congratulate Mills.
Gammoudi smiled, and said to his friend, “too much speed.”