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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Kokichi Tsuburaya and his bronze medal
Kokichi Tsuburaya and his bronze medal

Kokichi Tsuburaya was a national hero. He raced his heart out in front of an entire nation, which saw an exhausted Tsuburaya get out-sprinted at the  very end of a 42-kilometer marathon, and collectively groaned when their new hero dropped from silver to bronze.

But as related in this post, Tsuburaya was a man of commitment, and he promised he would work hard to ensure he was ready to compete and do better at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Not only did Tsuburaya feel that added weight to make up for the “loss” of silver, so too did his seniors at Tsuburaya’s place of employment, Japan’s Ground Self Defense Forces.

Tsuburaya did indeed train hard. And yet, somehow, he also found time for courtship, as explained in Ichiro Aoyama’s book, The Lone Runner – The Kokichi Tsuburaya Story. He had a met a girl named Eiko before the Tokyo Olympics, and he wanted to marry her after the Tokyo Games. His coach at the Self Defense Forces athletics school, Hiro Hatano, was supportive of the proposed marriage. Tsuburaya’s parents too approved of their son’s plans to marry Eiko.

One would assume that further approval would be unnecessary, but in 1966, coach Hatano’s boss expressed his dissatisfaction with the union. Perhaps Hatano’s boss thought that Tsuburaya needed to keep his focus 100% on his training – I’m not clear yet on the specifics. But in a country where hierarchy determines status and power, and in the context of a military culture where the norms of hierarchy are amplified even more, Hatano’s boss had the power to overrule a personal decision of someone in his organization.

Perhaps, in an exercise of power that feels cruel, Hatano’s boss brought Hatano, Eiko and Eiko’s mother together to inform them that the marriage to Tsuburaya would have to wait until after the Games in Mexico City so that Tsuburaya could focus solely on his training. Tsuburaya was not present in that meeting.

Eiko was devoted to Tsuburaya and wanted to wait until they could get married. But Eiko’s mother was no longer supportive, worried that marriage to a famous man like the marathon bronze medalist who had the weight of a nation’s expectations on his shoulder would only lay unknown burdens on the shoulders of the wife. Perhaps more of a concern, Eiko’s mother was not confident that a marriage to Tsuburaya was a sure thing in two years, and was worried that Eiko, at the age of 22, could lose other opportunities to marry well in that period.

Tsuburaya and Miyake celebrating
Tsuburaya (left) and gold medal weighlifter Yoshinobu Miyake (right) celebrating their Tokyo Olympic medals.

In the end, the proposed marriage of Kokichi and Eiko was broken off. Tsuburaya’s coach and manager, Hatano, was left with the unfortunate task of informing Tsuburaya. Hatano protested these decisions to his own boss to the point where he ended up being demoted and removed as Tsuburaya’s coach. Tsuburaya thus had to train on his own, likely feeling quite alone. Very quickly, injuries began to plague Tsuburaya – first the return of the intense pain of the slipped disc, and then an injury to an achilles tendon, which required surgery in 1967.

At the end of 1967, Tsuburaya returned to his hometown of Sukagawa, Fukushima for the long holiday break that bridges the old year with the new. Tsuburaya’s father was pained with news that he wasn’t sure he should share with his son. But he thought it best to tell his son before he found out on his own – that his former fiancé, Eiko, had gotten married. Kokichi replied “Oh, Eiko-san is married. That’s good for her.” The son pretended that he was OK with the news, but his father could tell that his son was shocked and saddened.

Tsuburaya returned to his Self Defense Forces base after his time with family during the New Year’s break. And on January 8th, 1968, he slit his wrist and died in his dorm room.

 

Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Shiina Ishige, for her in-depth research that contributed heavily to the writing of this post.