Billy Mills winning
Billy MIlls winning the 10,000 meter competition at the Tokyo Olympics, from the personal collection of Billy Mills

Billy Mills was 8 when his mother died – bewildered, scared, and angry. His father told little Billy that he had to look beyond his fear and his anger, because those emotions could destroy him. Instead, his father said, “you have broken wings. You need a dream to fix broken wings. Find your dreams son. It is the pursuit of your dreams that will heal you. If you do this you may have wings of an eagle.”

Shortly after that, his father told his son about a book about the Olympics, and told him that “Olympians are chosen by the Gods.” And Mills told me that little Billy liked that thought because if he became an Olympian, if he was chosen by the Gods, “maybe I’d be able to see my mom again.”

Billy Mills is clearly a spiritual person. He knows his parents, both of whom passed away when he was young, are looking over him. He believes in his darkest times, they are there to guide him. When he was attending the University of Kansas, his first attempt to live outside the reservation, he struggled to fit in. Mills told me that at one point in his time at KU he was feeling desperate, in fact, feeling as if the best solution was to take his own life.

Billy Mills on the Podium_Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency
Mohammed Gammoudi, Billy Mills and Ron Clarke on the Podium_Tokyo Olympiad 1964, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency

“I was a junior in college, and on the verge of suicide,” he said. “I was about to jump. But I started hearing energy. Underneath my skin, I felt energy that sounded like a word. ‘Don’t.’ It sounded like my dad’s voice.” Mills was shaken out of his desperation by this surprise message from his father. He stepped down and decided that suicide was not the answer. He recalled what his father told him when his mother died – that the pursuit of a dream heals broken souls. And that’s when Mills wrote down his dream. “Gold medal. Olympic 10,000-meter run.”

Mills is running in the 10,000 meter race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He is in the top three, but he is low in energy, at this stage – a product of his low blood sugar condition. With 275 yards to go, he sees his chief competitors, the Australian Ron Clarke and the Tunisian Mohammed Gammoudi, about 10 yards ahead. Mills is in lane 4, and he’s passing stragglers in lane 1, but there’s another straggler in lane 5 – someone he remembers to this day.

Now I have to get by him. A thousands thoughts going through my head. Lift my knees. Lengthen my strides. Pump my arms. I’m doing that but I feel like I’m in slow motion. I move by the guy in lane 5. I glance at him and he glances at me. I see an eagle.

As he describes in this video interview, he believes the straggler could have been a German competitor. While there were two German competitors in the 10k race, their uniforms did not have an eagle insignia. Perhaps it was the lightheadedness that comes from expending every ounce of energy. Perhaps it was the low blood sugar. It does not matter. Mills saw an eagle, and that’s all he needed.

I make one final try coming out of the final curve. 85,000 people cheering, screaming, hearing nothing but my heart. I look as I go by the German and in the center of his singlet is an eagle. “Wings of an eagle!” back to my dad, when I’m small, 9, 10, 11 years of age. “Son you do these things, some day you’ll have wings of an eagle.” I may never be this close again. I’ve got to do it now. Wings of an eagle. And I felt the tape break across my chest.

Mills is the first and only American to win the 10K competition in the Olympics. His victory was a surprise to all, and was an inspiration to people around the world.

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Billy Mills at Haskell Institute
Billy Mills at Haskell Institute, from the collection of Billy Mills.

He was one of the biggest stars of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He was the first American to win the 10,000 meters race in the Olympics. And the world press, particularly the American press, celebrated this surprise victory by a Marine lieutenant of Native American Indian stock (Lakota) with blaring headlines of glory.

And yet, when it was time for Billy Mills and his wife Pat to return home to the United States, he couldn’t get transportation to the airport. The Mills were leaving Tokyo a day before the end of the Games so would not be joining the USOC-arranged transport to the airport. When gold medalist Mills asked the USOC to help him get to the airport, they said they wouldn’t do so.

These were the days when only amateurs could participate in the Olympics, and many American athletes had to be very careful financially. Mills had maybe $1.50 in his pocket at the time, he said, so when turned down by his own country, he had no choice but to turn to the Japanese organizers. Mills told me the Japanese were surprised the Americans would not take care of one of their biggest stars. They picked up his bags, put them in “the largest, widest limousine I had ever seen, with Japanese and Olympic flags up front with an American flag on the back. We take off with two motorcycles escorting us to the airport. We left Japan in style,” said Mills to me, with a smile formed of true fondness.

Prior to departing for the 1964 Olympics, Mills said he was looking forward to seeing Japan, how people outside America act and think. In America, he told me he never felt like he fit in, which started when he was growing up, as revealed in the book, Tales of Gold.

There were quite a few white people living on the reservation; probably 1,000 of the 8,000 people there were white. At that time not many Indians were going off to college, so most of the educators were white people. And the whites controlled the economic base of the reservation. They operated the stores and, of course, ran the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Also, there was always the anthropologist who was working on his or her doctorate degree. They would come and study us for a summer and then go back and have a book published. We always resented being studied like some kind of insect.

Mills was advised by his father to compete in sports because “if I competed with the white man – with the dominant society – in sports, I could have fun at the same time.” So Mills tried basketball, tried boxing, before finding joy in running. And yet he could not find joy integrating into white society, feeling pressured into believing there was a zero sum game between the dominant Christian church on the reservation and his Lakota beliefs, which he could never separate himself from.

 

Patricia and Billy Mills 2
Patricia and Billy Mills in Tokyo, from the collection of Billy MIlls

 

When Mills arrived in Japan for the 1964 Summer Games, Mills felt an affinity for the Japanese. He told me that he understood the Japanese to be a proud people forced out of seclusion by foreign powers in the 19th century, and had only recently come out of a post-war occupation by the Allied powers, primarily General Douglas MacArthur and the United States.

In Japan, I saw people who were so courteous and polite. I knew underneath there had to be this anger. I could relate to the pain. Almost a sacredness of the way they contained the pain, and the respect they showed. They were like the elders I knew, who controlled their pain, and still showed respect to others.

In the 1983 film, Running Brave, the actor Robbie Benson portrays Billy Mills as an intense and tightly wound young man, who hides his emotions behind ambiguous smiles and blank expressions, only to let them out in raw displays of frustration and anger, usually in private.

When, in this film, the track coach of Kansas University comes out to Mills’ high school to see him run, and learns that Mills is native American Indian, the university coach says to the high school coach, within earshot of Mills, “You know as well as I do what happens to these Indian boys. They are gifted runners but they can’t take orders. They have no discipline. They’re quitters! Sooner or later, they all end up back at the reservation pumping gas or dead drunk or on skid row. You know that.”

When Mills’ Kansas University track team is invited to go to a fraternity party, he goes to the party with the joy of a first-time experience, only to be told that Indians aren’t allowed in the fraternity. When he begins dating a Caucasian co-ed at Kansas, he eventually grows frustrated that the parents of his girlfriend, later his wife Pat, did not openly accept Mills initially.

“In retrospect, I can understand now that some of that might have been not because I was an Indian, but because here I was, an orphan, raised in poverty, and the prospect that their daughter might have some security with me was very slim,” he wrote in Tales of Gold, which profiled him. “But at the time, I understood that they didn’t want their daughter to have anything to do with an Indian, even a part Indian.”

The gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was an affirmation for Mills, that he was indeed worthy of his biggest dreams. His success at the Olympics provided Mills with a platform to help young Native Americans. In 1986, he and the founder of the Christian Relief Services Charities, Gene Krizek, formed a non-profit organization called Running Strong for American Indian Youth.

Running Strong helps to ensure that the survival needs of American Indians – food, water and shelter – are met. This NPO also develops and implements programs that perhaps Mills himself would have benefited from when he was a youth – development opportunities to help build self-esteem and purpose.

Mills often talks about how important it is for people to “look behind the hurt, the hate, the jealousy, the self-pity, all of those emotions that destroy you.” And in 1964, he told a New York Daily News reporter that his biggest memory from the Tokyo Olympics was the young man, Yoshinori Sakai, who carried the Olympic flame to the top of the National Stadium steps, to light the Olympic cauldron. Sakai was born on August 6, 1945 in Hiroshima, the day that an atomic bomb was dropped on his city. Sakai survived. He did not let hate or self-pity keep him down. Instead, at those 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Sakai elevated himself.

So too did Billy Mills.

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

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.”

Mohammed  Ghamouddy Ron Clarke and Billy MIlls in 10000 meters_Bi to Chikara
Mohammed Gammoudi Ron Clarke and Billy MIlls in 10000 meters_Bi to Chikara

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.”

dsc_0361
Me between 1964 Tokyo Olympians, Billy Mills and Andras Toro

One of the biggest sports stories of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was the come-from-behind sprint by Billy Mills to win the 10,000 meter finals.

For nearly two years, I’ve been hoping to meet the man. And last week, I met Billy Mills!

Thanks to fellow ’64 Olympian, Andras Toro, I enjoyed a couple of hours with Mills and his wife Pat. There’s so much to write about, but let me tell this story first.

On September 7, 2013, the International Olympic Committee gathered in Buenos Aires, Argentina to vote on the final three contenders to hose the 2020 Summer Olympics. The three cities up for selection were Istanbul, Turkey, Madrid, Spain and Tokyo, Japan.

A few months prior to the vote, Billy Mills and Pat Mills thought they could not remain silent, that Japan had a special place in their heart, and that if anyone could pull off a great Olympics, it was Japan. They very quickly produced a 1-minute video explaining why Japan should host the 2020 Games. They were not asked to do so, but based on phone calls he received from Japanese government and Tokyo2020 officials, Mills’ endorsement was a tremendous boost of confidence. It may have even played a role in the decision making.

Here’s the video – a rousing endorsement of Tokyo, Japan – from one of the brightest stars of the first Olympics held in Japan.

 

Of the three cities today that are bidding to host the 2020 Olympic Games, they’re all enchanting, they’re magical. They all could host a very successful Olympic Games. However when you consider the world today, there’s only one city that could truly capture the full potential and the spirit that the Olympic Games has to offer to the world. And that’s Tokyo. My vote? Tokyo, Japan 2020.

Billy Mills training
Billy Mills at the University of Kansas, from the collection of Billy Mills

It was a very hot day, and I was running in the back of the pack. As I came by Easton he said, “Billy, get up where you belong; get up in front.” Another lap went by, and I heard him say, or I thought I heard him say, “Get up where you belong or get off the track.” And I thought, You know, there’s a third way to do this, and it’s my way. I’m a senior in college. I can do it my way, which is to run in the back and come up slowly.

When Easton said that again, I walked off the track. He sent for me and said, “Why did you quit?” I answered, “Coach, I didn’t quit. You said to get up in front or get off the track. I got off the track.” “You quit,” he said. All the pressures I was feeling I took out on this man who was really trying to help me. By walking off the track I may have appeared to be protesting against my coach, but in reality was protesting against society. I don’t think he ever understood that.

Billy Mills, who would later take the world by surprise at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was an angry young man, as you can tell from his own words, published in the book, Tales of Gold. A Native American of the Lakota tribe, he developed into such a strong distance runner that he earned a scholarship to the University of Kansas. As described in a previous post, Mills struggled with the transition to life outside the reservation.

Bill Easton
Coach Bill Easton

Bill Easton was the coach of the track team at the University of Kansas. During Coach Easton’s tenure at KU, from 1947 to 1965, his track teams won 39 conference championships, including eight years in a row from 1952-1959. By the time Billy Mills met the KU coach, Easton had the supreme confidence that comes from consistently winning. And yet, Mills and Easton were like oil and water. Mills felt that Easton was a symbol of all the barriers society threw in his face, and after the altercation described at the top of this post, Mills quit the track team.

I had a love-hate relationship with Easton. I wanted to please him, but I wanted to do things my way, the way I knew was best for me. And the hostility that grew out of all the blatant and subtle rejections that society was throwing at me I took out on him, and he really had no idea I was doing that. I was trying to find answers to questions I couldn’t even express, and my coach was not a sociologist or a psychologist. He couldn’t determine where I was coming from. So during my years at Kansas my track career languished.

After getting his degree in education, Mills joined the United States Marine Corps, and moved to the Marine Corp Base in Virginia, called Quantico, where he was immediately asked to join the track team. It was there he met former Annapolis track coach, Earl “Tommy” Thomson. Thomson was a gold medalist in the 110-meter hurdles, representing Canada at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. But more importantly, as Mills told me, Thomson was a mentor.

Coach Easton, he broke me. Tommy Thomson, he was my mentor. He was totally deaf. He would read lips. He was the first white man I ever trusted. He helped me. He came up to me and said, ‘I don’t want to coach you. I’d like to be your mentor. But you have to let me inside,’ he said, holding his hand near my chest. I learned that word, ‘mentor,’ from my dad. He’s saying this in a gentle way. I believe the creator sent him to me because he’s talking like my dad.

In the exchange below, Mills is explaining to me that Thomson had a way of dealing with Mills’ sensitivities, and asking the right questions to get to the truth.

Thomson asked me, ‘what you do you want to do?’ I said ‘I want to go to the Olympics.’ He said, ‘Why the Olympics?’ I said, ‘Don’t you think I can?’ I’m defensive. He asked, ‘What do you want to do at the Olympics?’ I said, ‘Win a medal.’ He asked, ‘Why a medal?’ I replied, ‘Don’t you think I can?’ He said, ‘Which medal?’ I said to him, ‘I want to win the gold medal.’ He said, ‘Now we know.’

In the summer of 1964, Mills is running well approaching the Olympic trials. But in a race prior to the trials, Coach Easton is in the stadium. And for Mills, all he has to do is see Mills and he turns into a confused cacophony of emotions. He said that he confronted Easton and made it clear he did not want to see or hear him. “I cannot run in your presence. I could do well in Tokyo, but if I hear your voice, I will drop out.”

Billy Mills Crossing the finish line_Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency
Billy Mills Crossing the finish line, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency

Easton stayed away. Mills went to Tokyo, and seemingly out of the blue, went on to become the first and only American to win the 10,000 meter race at the Olympics.

A day after the winning the gold medal, a Japanese woman came up to Mills with a letter, and asks him to open it. The letter was from Coach Easton.

Dear Billy, I saw the greatest race of my life. You are the greatest Jayhawker of all. It was an honor to coach you.

The woman then pointed out Easton, who had made the trip to Tokyo. “When I saw him, we grabbed each other and cried.”

 

Japan's Women's Volleyball team victorious 1964_Bi to Chikara
Japan’s Women’s Volleyball team victorious from the book, Bi to Chikara

As I drive towards the first draft of my book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, I wrote extensively on some of the greatest as well as some of the lesser known dramas of those Games, some of these based on interviews I’ve had with Olympians. Interviewing Olympians, as well as reading about them, has been such an inspiration to me. I hope they are to you too.

 

Billy Mills at Haskell Institute
Billy Mills at Haskell Institute, from the collection of Billy Mills.

 

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

logos-1964-and-2020

Tokyo2020: It’s still three-and-a-half years away! It’s only three-and-a-half years away!

SI_5Oct1964 edited

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future. – Nils Bohr, Nobel laureate in Physics

 

A good forecaster is not smarter than everyone else, he merely has his ignorance better organised.  – Anonymous

In Sports Illustrated’s preview of the Tokyo Olympics, the editors offered their very specific predictions for gold, silver and bronze medalists for each of the Olympic events. Not only did they provide the names and orders of victors, they offered a bit of analysis for practically each event.

If we consider that this is 1964, when the only practical way to share information real time was the telephone, and shorter term by telegram, telex and snail mail. Using their considerable global connections at the time, they put together a pretty impressive set of predictions.

Let’s take a look at the 17 track and field events shown at the top of this post. Of that 17, SI identified the actual gold medalist 11 times, as you can see the green check mark I applied to an accurate prediction. In four events (indicated by a gray check mark), they didn’t identify the eventual gold medalist, although the one they picked made it to the medal podium.

Predictions part 1_with checkmarks

In fact, on this particular page, SI got only the marathon and steeplechase gold medalist wrong. They picked Ron Clarke for gold in the 10,000 meters, who eventually took bronze. No one knew that a kid from Kansas named Billy Mills would come out of nowhere to take gold and become one of the darlings of the ’64 Games.

True, men’s athletics were dominated by the US and USSR, and the American press were very aware of the USSR stars, so maybe these selections weren’t huge gambles.

Still, I’d be happy with this success rate.