betty Cuthbert 8_Ann Packer extends a hand to Cuthbert
Ann Packer (55) extends a congratulatory hand to Betty Cuthbert (12), after the finals of the 400-meter sprint. Judy Amoore (11) is to Cuthbert’s left.

At 18, Melbourne was a brilliant blur. At 22, in her prime, Rome was a frustrating flameout. But at the experienced age of 26, Tokyo was a blessing.

When Australian Betty Cuthbert won the finals in the 400-meter finals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and her fourth career gold medal, she was grateful.

I snapped the tape and realised I’d won. I felt so full of gratitude and humility that I clasped my hands in front of me, closed my eyes and said a silent prayer of thanks to God. Never before had I shown my appreciation so openly at the end of a race. I’d been able to control my emotions before. But not this time. I’d just won the final of the 400 metres at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. I couldn’t cry. I was just too happy.

Cuthbert, as she wrote in her autobiography, Golden Girl, had climbed a mountain. She achieved great success effortlessly in Melbourne and then failed to compete in Rome, sending her off into quiet retirement. But her inner passion to run and compete would not die. So she trained for the Tokyo Olympics, demonstrated little performance throughout 1963 and the first half of 1964, and essentially gave the press and the public little reason to believe that their Golden Girl, from Merrylands, New South Wales, was going to have any impact at the first Olympics in Asia.

But she believed. And she wanted to win. Cuthbert wrote of her nervousness the night before the finals of the women’s 400 meter sprint, and how she failed to fall asleep. She was going up against Britain’s Ann Packer, who was considered a strong favorite, and played over and over in her mind how she was running in the dreaded 8th lane.

When she finally got out of bed, and headed to the Australian team HQ, she learned to her delight that she had drawn lane 2, with her teammate and friend Judy Amoore in lane 3. The morning was starting off well

Thirty minutes prior to the start of the finals, Cuthbert hammered in her starting blocks, and took a quick jog to stay warm in the cool, damp October weather. And then she was reminded, by a shout from the stands – “Make use of the wind.” The wind that crossed through the stadium in a way that provided both tailwind and headwind, depending on what side of the track you were running. Most runners had to deal with it, particularly those in the inner lanes. The key was to be mentally prepared for it.

I got a wonderful start and went flat out as soon as I straight­ened up. For the first 100 metres I gave it everything I had and was gaining on Judy with every stride. She was the only one I was worried about at that stage. Ann would come later. As we raced down the back straight I felt the wind whip in behind me. Judy must have sensed me right at her heels because she spurted off a yard or so. I let her go. I told myself not to get flurried and to stick to my plan. I was having that little mental breather before really turning it on. Before I knew it we were coming to the curve. I caught Judy going into the bend, about 180 metres from home.

Halfway through the 400-meter final, which takes the runners around one full lap of the stadium track, Cuthbert saw her rival, Packer, when the wind came into play again.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Ann just a fraction behind me. Then the wind hit us. It was like running into a brick wall, but I was determined not to let it straighten me up and kept telling myself to lean forward into it. I could still see Ann. The wind was terrible and was like an invisible hand pushing against me. I was awfully tired then but forced myself to keep driving ahead. I didn’t think it would ever come to an end. My legs were getting heavier as the line edged closer. I wondered how Ann was going and if she had the strength to catch me. I felt her right on my heels and knew she must have been just as tired as I was. But I wasn’t going to be the first to give in. Keep going I said to myself…hold her off…it’s not far now. Ten metres, nine metres, eight metres…. An Australian television commentator shouted to his audience: ‘My God, she’s going to win it!’ Then I was just a stride from the tape. I knew I’d done it. I’d won!

Betty Cuthbert 1_ with Tokyo gold medal
Betty Cuthbert and her 1964 Tokyo gold medal

Cuthbert had accomplished something that no man or woman had done before or since – take the gold medal in all three individual sprints: the 100, 200 and 400 meters. As she stood on the award podium, on Saturday, October 17, 1964, Cuthbert was overwhelmed with emotion as she watched her country’s flag rise, with the Olympic flame “jumping and dancing in the breeze.”

Nothing had ever touched me as much as that medal cere­mony. Eight years before in Melbourne I had been too young fully to realise just what I had accomplished in winning three gold medals. But there in Tokyo I had at last achieved some­ thing I’d wanted for so long, sacrificed so much for and worked so hard to get. It was a dream come true.

Over 50 years later, Cuthbert lives in a nursing home near Perth, Australia. Her room is unadorned with her sporting triumphs, except for a single picture of her days as an athlete, according to this article – “a shot of her crossing the finish line in her finest hour, her mighty comeback race in the first Olympic women’s 400m final: Tokyo, 1964.”

Zach Railey in a Finn
Zach Railey in a Finn

Outside of Title IX in America, one of the most powerful levers for gender equality in sports have been the IOC. As I mentioned in this post, the IOC has added new sports categories and re-shuffled events so that Tokyo 2020 will have a female-male participation rate of 48.8 to 52.2%. That’s up from a 44.2% female participation rate at the 2012 London Olympics.in this post

Take a look at this list of planned Tokyo 2020 events and you’ll see that there is equality in almost every sports category. Can’t say that for much of the work world!

Interestingly, there are a handful of events that are gender-specific. In other words, there are still events that only men can compete in, and some that only women can compete in. In part one of this series, I will look at the men-only events, and part two will feature the women-only events.

No Women Allowed

  • Greco-Roman Wrestling: There has never been an Olympic competition in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Olympics, and there are currently no international tournaments devoted to women in that sport. It is unclear to me why Greco-Roman wrestling, which disallows grabbing of legs and kicking of legs compared to freestlye wrestling, is not encouraged for women. One of most significant physical differences between men and women is muscle mass, particularly in the upper body, but no one is saying that men and women should compete against each other in Greco-Roman wrestling. While the IOC has pressured the United World Wrestling Federation to improve gender representation in their tournaments, Greco-Roman, for whatever reason, has not had a high female participation rate historically. The biggest challenge for the wrestling federation, as I understand it, is to increase the popularity of Greco-Roman wrestling for women so that they can put together a competitive enough field. This may take until after Tokyo 2020 to hit critical mass and allow for gender equality in Olympic wrestling.
  • Finn – One Person Dinghy: This sailing discipline is apparently the greatest sailing test for an individual. According to sailor Zach Railey in this article, “It is well documented that overall people throughout the world are getting bigger, stronger and fitter, and the Finn is really a true test of power, endurance, and mental strength. Anyone who has sailed a Finn in steep chop and 20 knots can tell you just how physically hard the boat is to sail.” So strength again emerges as a differentiator. And perhaps as a result, the number or women who compete in Finn has not reached critical mass. The question is, with the strength requirements for the Finn, is it too dangerous for the fairer sex? Who knows.
  • 50km Race-Walking: I can’t find any decent explanation for why the 50-km race walk is male only in the Olympics. Both men and women can compete in the 20-km race walk as Olympians. And women appear to have raced competitively in the 50k race walk in IAAF competitions through much of the 21st century. Who knows?
  • Rings: Again, men have the advantage in upper body strength vis-a-vis women. So perhaps the number of women competing in this gymnastics discipline never reached critical mass. And yet, according to this site, women competed in the rings (or as they used to be called, “the flying rings”, at the 1948 London Olympics as a part of the Women’s Team All Around competition. Women never competed in the rings again after the ’48 Games, and I don’t know why.
  • Pommel Horse: Hmmm….the pommel horse discipline in gymnastics appears to be a less popular discipline for men than say, the floor exercise, the rings or the parallel bar for example. This article explains that the pommel horse “caters to a different body type. Having long arms helps, giving the gymnast greater separation from the horse, and in turn, room for his hips and legs to swivel underneath him. And the basic motion – going around and around on a horizontal plane – is the opposite from the up-and-down motion of the bars, rings and vaults.” And yet, I can’t find any explanation as to why women have not traditionally competed except for the reason it’s true for the rings – greater requirements for upper body strength have discouraged women from training on the horse, and so a critical mass of women fit for competition may have never emerged. Again, who knows?

 

Woman on Rings

Betty Cuthbert 4_winning gold in the 200-meters at the 1956 Melbourne Games
Betty Cuthbert edges Christa Stubnick in 200-meter finals at the Melbourne Games

No one’s ever done it – man or woman.

Betty Cuthbert won gold in the 100-meter, 200-meter sprints and 4×100 meter relay at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, and then added another in the 400-meter sprint 8 years later at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The Merrylands, New South Wales native, was Olympic champion in the three major individual sprints. Think of it. Usain Bolt and Carl Lewis never did it. Florence Griffith Joyner came somewhat close, winning silver in the 4×400 at the 1988 Seoul Olympics to complement her individual 100 and 200-meter golds. But no one has shown such individual sprinting virtuosity over a career as Cuthbert.

Ever since winning local carnival picnic races as a primary school student, the shy tomboy was hooked on winning footraces. By the time she turned 18, Cuthbert had a reputation not only for winning, but for high knee lifts, long strides and wide-open mouth during her sprints.

At the Australian track and field championships in 1956, Cuthbert got eliminated in the 100-yard sprint, but won the 220-yard sprint, earning her a berth on the Australian squad headed to the Melbourne Olympics later that year.

After an overwhelming opening ceremony, witnessing her country’s biggest splash in the international arena, Cuthbert got ready for the 100-meter heats. After zipping through a very fast 11.4 in the first heat, the 18-year old eased up in her semi-final heat, letting East German Christa Stubnick fly by her at the end. Finishing second qualified her for the finals, but more importantly, the shock of losing the race at the end, even in a qualifier, was the motivation she needed to keep her focus.

Two days later, Cuthbert jumped to a lead, her mouth in her customary gape, and never relinquished it. One gold down.

A few days later, Cuthbert lined up for the finals of the 200 meter sprint. She had set the world record in the 200 (23.2 seconds), her first of many, only a few months earlier in an Olympic tune up. Having just won gold in the 100 meters, she was the favorite for the 200. And as it turned out, the winners of the gold, silver and bronze – Cuthbert, Stubnick and fellow Aussie, Marlene Matthews – were the same winners in the same order as the 100 meter race.

Two gold down for Cuthbert. And suddenly, she was dubbed in the press, “Golden Girl.”

Betty Cuthbert 7_Australia's Golden Girls of the Melbourne Olympics
Australia’s Golden Girls of the Melbourne Olympics: Flour Mellor, Norma Croker, Betty Cuthbert and Shirley Strickland with gold medals

Golden Girl had a chance for the trifecta – gold in the 4×100. In the heats, both Germany and Australia set world record times at 44.9 seconds. In the finals, Australia fell behind in the first leg. When Shirley Strickland handed the baton over, Norma Croker made up the time on the British team that had started out in the lead. Fleur Mellor held her own against her British counterpart until Cuthbert took the baton for the anchor run. Running ahead of Heather Armitrage of Britain, who was slowed by the handoff, Cuthbert held her slight lead all the way to the end and won gold for Australia. Here’s how she describes the feeling in her autobiography, Golden Girl:

We were stride-for-stride all the way down the straight till just before the tape when I managed to inch clear and win it. The four of us danced for joy and did an extra little jig when the time was called at 44.5s. We’d knocked seven-tenths of a second off the world record and four-tenths off the time we’d run in the heat!

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.

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.”