Sam Querrey at Wimbledon
Sam Querrey at Wimbledon

When I played a lot of tennis in the 1970s and early 1980s, Americans like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were giants who battled the likes of Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, and Ivan Lendl. Connors and McEnroe passed the American torch to Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, who went on to greater championship glory. But those days of American dominance are long gone.

As this interesting article from Five Thirty Eight points out, an American named Sam Querrey became the first American since Andy Roddick in 2009 to reach a semi-final of a Grand Slam tournament, by beating Andy Murray at Wimbledon on July 13, 2017. (Querrey lost to Marin Cilic, thus continuing men’s futility in Grand Slams.)

Five Thirty Eight is a blog written by data analytic junkies, and they provide powerful data on the virtual disappearance of the American male in the semifinals of any of the four grand slam tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and The US Open. In fact, the last American to win a grand slam was Andre Agassi, at the 2003 Australian Open.

That is an amazing drought for the world’s biggest economy that happens to have a huge tennis fandom.

Five Thirty Eight provides the rationale:

The globalization of tennis has slowed down America year after year. In the early Open era, beginning in 1968, into the 1970s and ’80s, America led the world in tennis training, practice and equipment. American men won loads of Grand Slam titles from 1968 through the 1990s, when John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier ruled. From 1990 to 1999, American men reached the semifinals or better 62 times at Grand Slams. All the while, though, foreign tennis training improved. By the time 2000 came along, diversity had climbed. American men reached the semifinals or better only 26 times from 2000 to 2009.

OK. That kind of makes sense.

Except that the globalization argument should include data on women. Since the year 2000, there have been only 3 years when an American woman did not win a grand slam finals: 2004, 2006 and 2011. Every other year, an American has won: Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, and two others who happen to have the same last names: Williams.

Serena and Venus Williams have captured 29 of the past 70 grand slams since the year 2000, or 41% of them. If we add Jennifer Capriati’s three grand slam championships and one of Davenport’s, the total increases to 33 of 70 to nearly 47%, or nearly half of all grand slam championships in the 21st century.

It doesn’t appear globalization has slowed down American women.

Venus Williams makes it to her ninth Wimbledon Finals in 2017
Venus Williams makes it to her ninth Wimbledon Finals in 2017
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Garcetti Bach Hidalgo
Eric Garcetti, IOC President Thomas Bach, and Anne Hidalgo

Most Olympians who do not win a gold medal are happy to receive a silver or bronze medal. But in the dramatic selection process, in which IOC members choose an Olympic host city through a series of votes that thousands of people in candidate cities watch with hands clasped in prayer, there has been no silver medal.

Years of planning and millions of dollars spent in putting together a powerful bid can go to waste as a city’s mayor watches powerlessly in a winner-take-all vote by the IOC.

But this year, the mayors of the two top bids for the 2024 Summer Olympics, Anne Hidalgo of Paris and Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, have an opportunity to do something that no other mayor has had: to choose when their city holds an Olympic Games. The choices, albeit, are not that broad – the IOC voted on July 11, 2017 to accept the bids of both Paris and LA for 2024 and 2028.

The bids of both cities were too strong to drop either of them. And the fear of having fewer cities bidding down the road was too great, as cities like Hamburg, Rome and Budapest pulled themselves out of the campaign to host in 2024. They withdrew primarily due to growing local unpopularity of hosting expensive big-tent events. For those reasons, the IOC decided – yes, we have two gold medal winners.

According to this BBC article, “The IOC wants….the cities to reach an agreement on who hosts in 2028 by then.” And if the two cities don’t agree to who hosts in 2028, then the IOC reverts back to the original plan of voting death-match at the 131st IOC session on September 13 in Lima, Peru.

Most pundits are saying that a likely scenario is Paris going first. Both cities have many of the major venues and much of the critical infrastructure in place, unlike Rio and Sochi in recent years. But Paris does not yet have an Olympic Village, and keeping the property available for the building of the Village for a period beyond 2024 would be difficult, Paris organizers say.

According to this ESPN article, the mayors Hidalgo and Garcetti understand that this is a historic moment, when the mayors have the decision in their hands, and that they are willing to work together to make it work.

The IOC is lucky in the sense that it wound up with two 2024 bid committees capable of cooperating and a pair of mayors who have an established relationship. What if the only cities left standing had come from countries with hostile relations or diametrically opposed forms of government? How likely is a repeat of this juxtaposition of two urban areas capable of handling and absorbing the unwieldy event and possibly — an important qualifier — emerging without serious post-Games issues?

Oriental Witches_9_ XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964-Asahi Shimbun
Celebrating their gold medal victory, from the book XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 Asahi Shimbun

The best novelists see the world more through their characters’ eyes and hearts. Japanese publisher, Kodansha, assembled a collection of essays of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics by some of Japan’s most prominent writers in the book, A Literary Writers’ Record of the Tokyo Olympics.

Their particular reflections on the triumphant women’s volleyball team are fascinating – not so much about the competitions, the strategies, the changes in momentum as a sports writer would note, but more about their impressions of the players’ appearances, and their own feelings toward the players and their accomplishment. I believe their views might be speaking to the state of mind of the rest of the Japanese population.

Calm and Collected

Novelist Tsutomu Minakami, whose works have been turned into many movies, observed an unexpected calm during the women’s team’s finals match against the mighty Soviet team.

At first, Soviets took the lead by four points. However before the game started I felt something strange, seeing the expressions of the Japanese team. There was no tension to be seen on those faces, giving no indication that they were entering a decisive battle. Before the game, the faces of (captain Masae) Kasai and her teammates were pale, with little smiles on their faces. There was no indication of tension. Coach Daimatsu was sitting on the bench looking like he was taking a short break. He sometimes raised his head, but kept still, expressionless – a swarthy look. He looked like he was interested only in the weather.

Novelist Hiroyuki Agawa, renowned for his post-war novels on Hiroshima, watched the Japanese women’s team in their penultimate match against Poland. And even though Poland was the only team to take a set from Japan, both sides, according to Agawa, understood that Japan was on a mission and that Poland was merely in their way.

At the beginning of fourth set, the ball rolled over the net without me understanding where it would fall, and when it finally fell on the Poland side, it was good that the Polish girl with the golden hair of a lioness, had the wherewithal to laugh. However, the Polish team looked exhausted. They couldn’t jump so well as they had used up all their energy in the third set, falling behind 9 to 1, then 14 to 2. The match finished with a Japanese victory – 15 to 2. Both teams shook hands, but the Poles were all smiling. For the Japanese team, there was no excitement of victory. The win appeared to be a customary outcome, quite natural to them, so they simply walked off the court.

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The medal ceremony, from the book XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 Asahi Shimbun

Proud of our Feminine Warriors

1964 was the first time in the Olympics that featured female team competitions. And it just happened to be a sport where Japanese women were favorites. The entire country rallied around this powerful women’s team, amazed that this relatively shorter, less muscular collection of women could take on the Amazonian women from the West. The novelists who observed these matches likely reflected the views of the masses – not only were Japanese women to be praised for their impressive athletic accomplishment on the volleyball court, they were able to triumph while retaining the ideal characteristics of Japanese femininity – sweetness, restraint, and quiet fortitude.

Here again is Agawa, comparing the sweetness of the Japanese women versus the coarseness of the Polish women.

Members of the Poland team were wearing red pants and white shirts and Japanese were in white shirts and green shorts. The Japanese girls would shout in curt strong voices, “Come on, let’s go,” and their teammates would answer with “hai, hai!” Those sweet “hai’s” were impressive. On the Polish side, voices called out what sounded like “yassera”, “buraa!”. All these voices sounded like big birds croaking in the woods. When our girls shouted, “hai”, their little faces in the court looked very beautiful. Besides that, even though these girls were playing sports, they didn’t look like boyish – they looked very feminine.

Macho-man and literary giant, Yukio Mishima, also framed the volleyball team in terms of gender, somewhat playfully referring to the Japanese captain as the hostess of a party.

Kasai is a wonderful hostess as she notices almost instantly if the glasses of the guests (he means her enemies) are getting empty or any guests have a stiff muscles and takes care of that with splendid service. The Soviets became tired of such painful attention. However, the Russian player Riskal was amazing. The blond girl with loose hair and big breasts flew like an arrow and strongly hit the ball.

Even novelist, Sawako Ariyoshi, a woman who championed women in such novel’s as The Doctor’s Wife, The Twilight Years, and The River Ki, found herself praising the Japanese players as domestically minded and potentially good future wives.

Japanese athletes have not forgotten the elegance of Japanese women. It was a hot battle and the sweat was falling to the floor. As soon as they noticed it, they would wipe the floor with a cloth. That was a pretty sight. I was applauding to them thinking that they would be wonderful wives when they get married. I think that their attitude towards the game also made a strong impression about our country. They behaved very well.

But at the end of her essay, Ariyoshi seemed to assert more feminist views, praising these symbols of Japanese women power, where marriage was merely an option, and that they could accomplish anything. Having said that, the only person she gives thanks to is the male coach, Hirobumi Daimatsu.

Please don’t say such gloomy words to girls as marriage and love. From now on, be confident because you can do anything. If you go back to work or start a life in marriage, you will be fine. Because you showed everybody in Japan how smart you are to master those sports techniques and skills. I am praying for your happiness in the future to have all three – pretty appearance, physical fitness and a strong spirit. But at the same time, I must thank a man who brought up these women. Thank you, coach Daimatsu.

 

Note: Special thanks to Marija Linartaite, for her help in the research for this article.

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That instant when the weight of a nation fell off their shoulders, from Tokyo Shimbun.

October 23, 1964 was a momentous day for Japan. Two of the most memorable sports events in Japanese history took place on that day, both which left irrevocable imprints on the Japanese psyche.

That afternoon, hulkingingly tall Anton Geesink of the Netherlands handily defeated Akio Kaminaga of Japan in the open weight class of the judo competition at the Budokan, thus denying Japan to win gold in all four weight classes in judo’s debut at the Tokyo Olympics.

That evening, the Japanese women’s volleyball team closed out the Soviet Union in three straight sets to win gold at the Komazawa Indoor Ball Sports Field, thus fulfilling the expectations of an entire nation.

The Japanese judoka did their country proud by dominating and winning in the other weight classes of a sport that was born in Japan. But despite the fact that Geesink had already defeated Kaminaga in the past, including in this particular Olympic tournament, the shock to the nation of a non-Japanese winning a judo competition was significant.

In comparison to the “West”, the Japanese saw themselves as underdogs. After all, it was only 19 years earlier when the Allied Forces flattened Japan with its superior weaponry, and then ruled over Japan as occupiers for over 5 years. Judo was a Japanese creation, and yet a taller, stronger Westerner easily defeated Japan’s best. Was Geesink’s victory yet another symbol of Japan’s “inferiority”?

But only a few hours later, the national psychology was already undergoing a shift, as people all over the country completed their day’s work, settled down to meals, or gathered in public places to watch the finals of the women’s volleyball competition. The Japanese team had never lost since joining international competition and losing to the Soviet Union in the volleyball world championships in 1960. This very team had already defeated the Soviet Union at the 1962 world championships…in Moscow. And so, the weight of an entire country pushed heavily on the shoulders of these Japanese women, particularly after the jarring disappointment of that day’s judo finals.

Fortunately, the women of the Japanese volleyball team restored their country’s faith in themselves by easily defeating the Soviet Union in three sets. The shorter, less muscular team from Asia defeated the taller, more powerful team from the West, on the biggest sports stage in the world, on the final competitive day of the 1964 Olympics.

Oriental Witches_5_Asahi Graf
The Japanese women’s volleyball team sharing their success with one of the owners of a hotel the team often used on their trips around the country, from the Asahi Graf.

In fact, the way the Japanese women – aka, The Oriental Witches – won became a symbol for Japan and its dramatic turnaround, from a nation defeated and devastated to a nation most resilient and proud. Christian Tagsold of Heinrich Heine University describes this symbolism in his article entitled, “Remember to Get Back on Your Feet Quickly: the Japanese Women’s Volleyball team at the 1964 Olympics as a ‘Realm of Memory’.”

… the Oriental Witches were clearly linked to the economic and technological progress of the 1960s. This success replaced the more classical notions of the nation in Japan and supported a new type of nationalism. Economic achievements were vital for regaining international standing as a nation, because the GNP acted as a yardstick for national pride. The Oriental Witches embodied this new self-assurance.

Tagsold is referring in his title to a particular maneuver developed by team coach Hirobumi Daimatsu, a technique called “kaiten reshibu” (receive and rotate). Players were trained to dive for balls, using their momentum to roll as they hit the ground, like a judoka would, so that they could emerge back on their feet quickly to take on another attack. This technique was a competitive advantage as Japanese players were more willing to dive to the hard court floors and quicker to their feet than players on other teams.

Tagsold highlights this technique as a symbol of how the underdog Japanese can outperform bigger stronger foes, not only on the volleyball court, but also on the global economic stage.

(The kaiten reshibu) was a symbol for the means in which Japan had invested to regain her economic strength only two decades after suffering the worst. The invention of clever technical solutions was imperative to the country, which saw itself as small island without natural resources to offer. Daimatsu did for volleyball and Japanese sports, in general, what Morita Akio did as a leader of Sony and what Ohno Taiichi achieved at Toyota by introducing the Toyota Production System. The rolling dive recovered lost time and reduced the burden on Japanese bodies caused by their inferiority compared to Western athletes.

… the kaiten reshıbu could be read very naively as the story of post-war Japan. The Japanese fell, but they got back on their feet again quickly. It had taken the country only 19 years to be back on top, both economically and in women’s volleyball…. The women overcame all hard attacks and rolled on the ground only momentarily. But falling was part of the success in the end. Many conservatives in the 1960s began to stress the sacrifice that the country had made in the Second World War as a cause for their current prosperity. In their opinion, it seemed inevitable to stumble once in order to be in a much better position in the future.

 

The film, over 54 years later, can indeed make one cringe.

The male coach, throwing a volleyball to the right and to the left of a young woman whose sole mission is to get a hand on the ball, do a somersault on the hard court over her shoulder or across her back, land on her feet in order to begin running the other way so she can desperately get her hand on the ball, back and forth, down and up, over and over again….until she’s so tired she does not realize her body is simply moving on its own.

This technique is called “kaiten reshibu” (receive and rotate), and was one of the secret weapons that made Japan’s women’s volleyball team so effective in the sixties. When they marched into Moscow to take on the mighty Soviet Union in the 1962 world championships, where the Soviet team was not only on their home court, but had a distinct height and strength advantage, the Japanese entered the arena as underdogs, and left the arena as world champions.

It is said that the Soviet press were so amazed by the Japanese that they called them “The Oriental Witches”, a moniker that the international press took up with relish. Interestingly, the Japanese press and the team itself took to that title with pride.

“In Japan, ‘witch’ (majo) is a scary thing,” said team captain, Masae Kasai in an interview with Helen Macnaughtan of SOAS, University of London. “But the nickname wasn’t meant to reflect this. It was a word to describe our volleyball play, which had never been seen before: techniques such as ‘receive and rotate’ (kaiten reshibu).”

The domineering head coach of the women’s national team of Japan, Hirobumi Daimatsu, knew that the Japanese had to find a way to compensate for their weaknesses. The Japanese women were smaller, so they had to be quicker, more efficient, more willing to sacrifice their bodies.

And while the end seemed to justify the means – the women’s volleyball team under Daimatsu had never lost – some wondered whether the coach was crossing the line, and abusing his players. In a Japanese documentary cited by Iwona Mewrklejn in her article, “The Taming of the Witch: Daimatsu Hirobumi and Coaching Discourses of Women’s Vollevball in Japan”, the labor union of the company that employed the members of the women’s volleyball team criticized Daimatsu for his training regimen. But “the union’s objections did not seem to matter, either to the coach or to the management.”

Overseas journalists also thought that the women were being abused, as you can tell in the title of a Sports Illustrated article, “Driven Beyond Dignity.” In this March 16, 1964 article, the writer, Eric Whitehead, described the punishing practices that Daimatsu put his players through. When a player looked so exhausted that she wanted to quit, Whitehead quoted Daimatsu as saying:

If you’d rather be home with your mother, then go. We don’t want you here.

There’s a South Korean team in town. If this is too tough for you, maybe you should go and play with them.

Driven Beyond Dignity SI photo 1
From the March 16, 1964 Sports Illustrated

Whitehead goes on to describe the evening meal break from practice as terse, something that more or less interrupts the coach’s training timeline.

It is 7 o’clock now and the girls’ supper is wheeled in in metal urns: rice, meat and fish. Daimatsu ignores it and quickens the pace. His grim, wild-eyed intensity is frightening. His face is still a mask, but it is strained and beaded with sweat. Now many of the girls are openly sobbing, their faces distorted with the agony of effort and the physical punishment. But they keep staggering in, and the food sits for half an hour before Daimatsu gives a curt signal and the first-team girls- always the first to eat – go to the urns. The others shift to a brisk scrimmage as Daimatsu goes to the sidelines for his own meal, which is served to him by a ball girl. As he dines he is even more chilling to observe, for now one seems to see in him the cool arrogance of a despot.

One could also say there is a bit of “arrogance” in Whitehead’s writing. In response to a comment by Daimatsu about the importance of this kind of training, Whitehead editorialized directly in his article with a single, dismissive line.

Except for a one-week break around Eastertime, this is the routing, year in and year out. Says Coach Daimatsu: “There is time for nothing else. The players know absolutely no other life. They do it because they choose to. The preparation for winning is a personal, individual challenge. It is accepted without question.

Ah, but then, I said to myself, it’s only volleyball, played by girls.

If this were high school football in Texas, where football has been religion for decades, my guess is that Whitehead would never write “Ah, but then, it’s only high school football, played by boys.” Never mind that many of the women on Daimatsu’s team were in their mid to late 20s, he may not have fully understood the expectations that the entire nation of Japan had of this women’s team, although he gives a nod to the notion, albeit in a somewhat patronizing way:

The team’s captain, tall, graceful Masae Kasai, smiles shyly from her desk. Little stories like hers tell the big one. Two years ago, at age 28, Masae was in love and engaged to a young man from Osaka. She had a choice: marriage and a home, or a continuation of the daily torture under Hirofumi (sic) Daimatsu. She chose the latter, for at the 1964 Olympics the glory of Japan will flicker again and glory is everything.

Perhaps Masae had said it all the previous night when I asked her about the team’s chances at the Olympics. “You must understand,” she said gravely. “We have never experienced defeat. We must win.”

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Captain Masae Kasai and Coach Hirobumi Daimatsu during a practice in early 1964, from Sports Illustrated

Whether they were chasing glory or just trying to meet the heavy expectations of their country, Kasai and her teammates bought into Daimatsu’s approach, as explained by Macnaughtan. After all, they tried his methods and won, and never believed that he was treating them with disrespect. In fact, they trusted Daimatsu explicitly.

I had a lot of trust and respect for Coach Daimatsu. The team was happy to take direction from him because we trusted him. He was a volleyball player himself when he was a university student. He joined Nichibo (the name of the team’s company) after being a soldier in the war. The team and I followed his hard training because of his great human nature. He was a man we could trust and respect as a human being. Whenever our team won, we were convinced that his hard training was the right way to go, and so we would practice and train hard again, and then we would win again. There was a very close bond between him and the team.

 

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.”

 

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.

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.

Weightlifting Bending under the weight

The IOC sought to inject youth and improve gender diversity into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by adding events, while keeping the total number of invited athletes the same. In addition to the five new sports added in August, 2016 (baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the addition of 15 new events to existing sports.

And yet, to keep to a limit of 11,090 total athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, cuts had to be made. The IOC made decisions that resulted in the elimination of 285 quota slots for various sports. Much of this was driven by a need to improve gender ratios, particularly in sports like cycling, judo, rowing, sailing, shooting, swimming and water polo.

But the biggest losers? Wrestling with 56 cuts, weightlifting with 64 and athletics with 105 cuts.

Perhaps messages are being sent.

Wrestling was actually dropped from the Olympic menu of core sports in February, 2013 because the rules were considered vague.  Wrestling’s scoring system was too difficult to understand, which in turn made it difficult to engage the average television viewer. Somehow, through significant lobbying efforts, wrestling was reinstated as a non-core sport for the 2020 Games, but the latest decision to cull the wrestling numbers may be a reminder that wrestling has to work at its game.

Athletics, with its high profile events and global track stars, also suffers from a deep and dark history of doping. Most recently, the IAAF banned the entire Russian track and field team from the 2016 Rio Olympics. All of this may have made it easier for the IOC to prioritize cuts in athletics.

As for weightlifting, the dark clouds of doping have hung over this sport for decades. The IOC dropped an entire men’s weight class on its way to eliminating 64 quota slots for Tokyo 2020. Said Japan Weightlifting Association President Yoshiyuki Miyake in this Mainichi Daily News article, It’s a shame. I’m confused why they would make this kind of decision without any discussion.”

The New York Times wasn’t confused, as they stated in this piece entitled, “Freshening Up the Olympics. Sorry Men’s Weight Lifters.”

In the men’s 94-kilogram class at the 2012 London Games, Poland’s Tomasz Zielinski finished ninth. A disappointment, to be sure, but Zielinski was eventually awarded the bronze medal after six of the lifters ahead of him failed drug tests.

Wonderful story, right? Not so much. Zielinski, who obviously didn’t win a medal for his ability to learn from other’s mistakes, was kicked out of the 2016 Rio Games when one of his own tests came back positive.

IOC president has been explicit that he is sending messages, according to that same article:

Bach called weight lifting’s punishment in Friday’s reordering of the Games “a strong signal” to the sport. Good for him. Standing up to cheaters, and meting out real punishment, is common sense. If one sport’s athletes can’t follow the rules, other athletes from other sports should get a chance.

Gender Equality IOC

Imagine if we had the 4×400 Mixed Relay at the Rio Olympics. Imagine 400-meter bronze medalist LaShawn Merritt passing the baton to 400-meter gold medalist, Allyson Felix, for the finish.

At the Tokyo Olympics, we no longer will have to imagine as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced on June 9, 2017 the addition of 15 new events for the 2020 Games, including the 4×400 Mixed Relay track event.

The IOC has worked to inject the Olympics with youthful enthusiasm with additions of such sports as skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing. And they have also worked towards gender equality, recently announcing in March 2017 the start of a study entitled “Gender Equality Review Project . The aim of the study is to produce recommendations to raise awareness and “further assist us to remove the barriers that continue to prevent women and girls in sport in general and elite sport in particular.”

Along those lines, the IOC has worked towards ensuring equality in Olympic events by ensuring that there are no events that only men compete in, or only women compete in. For example, the IOC announced the addition of the men’s 800-meter freestyle swimming and women’s 1500-meter freestyle swimming to balance out the gender ledger. And with the elimination of a men’s weightlifting class, and now ensuring that canoeing, rowing, shooting and weightlifting have equal number of men and women participants, the Tokyo2020 Olympics will approach a 50:50 male:female athlete representation. Considering that women made up 44.2% of athletes at the 2012 London Olympics and 45.6% at the 2016 Rio Olympics, getting to nearly 50% by 2020 is impressive.

Additionally, the Games will be reinvigorated with the mixed competitions. In addition to the 4×400 mixed relay footrace, the IOC is adding a 4×100 medley mixed swimming relay, a mixed archery team event, a mixed judo team event, mixed fencing team events, mixed doubles table tennis and, intriguingly, the mixed triathlon team relay.

Said gold medal breastroker, Adam Peaty, in this BBC article, “it’s something that would make things [at the Olympics] a little bit more fun. Obviously it’s very serious, but it’s great to mix things up from what they’ve been for so long as it adds a little spice and they’re great to watch.”

Watch the video for a fascinating look at what happens when women and men compete against each other in a relay race, particularly in the third and fourth legs.