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

Ulis Williams stumbles in the 4X400 relay finals_The Olympic Century - XVIII Olympiad - Volume 16
Ulis Williams stumbles handing off the baton to Henry Carr in the 4X400 relay finals_The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16

The baton hand off in relay races are critical. The slightest misplay and you lose. The US 4X100 relay team in Rome, which had the fastest time in the finals, was disqualified because of a mis-timed hand off between two runners.

So when you see a picture like the one above, you can imagine only disaster. American Ulis Williams was handing off to anchor Henry Carr in the finals of the 4X400 relay race in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. As Ulis told me, he saw his closest competition fall in behind Williams to get the inside lane. That’s when Williams put on the jets around the curve approaching the exchange lane where the anchor awaited.

“I put on the speed and got five or six yards on him,” Williams explained to me. “Henry (Carr) took off, but he didn’t take off fast enough. He was too close on my approach, and I didn’t want to spike him. I took a chance and leaned forward to give him the baton, so I took a short step, didn’t plant my lead foot. I concentrated so much on handing him the baton that I slammed hard into the ground.”

It was a scary moment for lead runner, Ollan Cassell. “I dragged Ulis off because I didn’t want him to get a DQ for interference.” Williams said he tore the skin right off his upper thigh, but all he remembers is celebrating with his teammates at the finish line.

Carr successfully

The red cinder track with white vinyl lines in the National Stadium stood out in beautiful contrast to the green infield and the blue sky.

But compared to the synthetic tracks of today, not many runners miss the cinder tracks. Ollan Cassel, winner in the 4X400 relay team, said they referred to cinder tracks as “British garbage”.

Cinder tracks were often made by a British company called “En–Tout-Cas“, which was also the name of the surface they first created for tennis courts in the early 20th century. As noted in the link to this company, this British bricklaying and construction firm turned another man’s garbage into gold. They procured vast amounts of rubble that was the result of German bombing raids over London during World War II and created tennis courts and running tracks all over the world.

By 1968, cinder tracks were replaced by synthetic tracks. Cassell said that there was a big difference, between the two. “The cinders were always uneven and needed long spikes, which dug into the track and attracted the material into the shoes. This made it more difficult to glide and run like on a cloud.”

The shift from cinder tracks to artificial tracks had another effect, according to Cassell. “The all-weather track made it necessary for shoe companies to make special shoes with much shorter spikes, often called brush spikes, to keep the damage to the track to a minimum. You could also get a better stride rhythm with less resistance, as well as receive more bounce form each stride.”

TOKYO, JAPAN - OCTOBER 17:  (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) Henry Carr (2nd L) of United States crosses the finishing line to win the gold medal in the Men's 200m at the National Stadium during the Tokyo Olympic on October 17, 1964 in Tokyo, Japan.  (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN – OCTOBER 17: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) Henry Carr (2nd L) of United States crosses the finishing line to win the gold medal in the Men’s 200m at the National Stadium during the Tokyo Olympic on October 17, 1964 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

In Rome, the US men’s team did not take its customary gold in any of the 100 or 200-meter races. Along with Bob Hayes, Henry Carr returned sprint supremacy to the United States in Tokyo in 1964. Carr won gold in the 200-meter race as well as in the 4X400 relay competition.

Carr passed away on May 29, 2015.

In Tokyo, his running mate on that world-record setting 4X400 team, Ollan Cassell, told me nobody was going to take gold from Carr in the 200. “Mike Larrabee and I were practicing our 200 meter sprints, and Henry wanted to join. I told him that the times were really fast. He was not really dressed for a serious sprint as he was wearing his sweats and fat running shoes with no spikes. The coach even told Henry that he could hurt himself running without spikes. Henry then proceeded to finish ahead of both me and Mike. An Italian 200 meter runner was watching. He realized he would be running for second.”

Carr would go on to