When Billy Mills arrived in Tokyo for the 1964 Olympic Games, few people knew much about the lanky American athlete. By the time he left two weeks later, he was a global star.
The Olympics are full of inspirational stories, but few are as compelling as that of Mills, the Native American distance runner who pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Games history and went on to become a prominent advocate of humanitarian causes and racial and social justice.
Mills’ electrifying sprint in the final straight to overtake the leaders and win the 10,000-metre gold medal in Tokyo, and his personal and spiritual journey to “heal a broken soul”, resonate more than ever in today’s turbulent times of racial protest.
A member of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe, Mills was born in 1938 and grew up in poverty on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. His mother died when he was eight; his father died when he was 12.
Mills – whose Lakota name is Tamakoce Te’Hila (pronounced Tama-kosha Tech-a-heela) – overcame racial discrimination, hypoglycaemia, type 2 diabetes, suicidal thoughts and his own self-doubts to become an Olympic champion and a leading role model and campaigner for Native American youth.
Fifty-six years after becoming the first – and still only – American to win Olympic gold in the 10,000m, Mills had been looking forward to going back to Tokyo with his family this summer to attend the 2020 Games and relive the experiences that changed his life forever.
With the Olympics postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, he will have to wait another year in the hope of returning to what he calls “the place where, in a sense, I was reborn”.
“It’s very emotional for me,” Mills said. “It has nothing to do with winning the gold medal. Tokyo was about healing a broken soul. It was finding peace, making friends. Now it’s about going back and just participating and watching the day’s youth of the world hopefully come together. I hope they can leave Tokyo with some of the empowerment that I left Tokyo with.”
Wearing a light blue polo shirt and sporting a beard grown during the pandemic lockdown, Mills – who turned 82 on 30 June – was relaxed and engaging as he spoke over a video link from the home he shares in Sacramento, California, with Patricia, his wife of 58 years.
The memories spilled out, one after another.
The life lessons learned from his father. Becoming an orphan at the age of 12. His running career at the University of Kansas. Joining the US Marines and training for the Olympic Games. His battles with low blood sugar and depression. Coping with racism. The 10,000m race in Tokyo and the thrilling last lap that still stands out in Olympic lore. His humanitarian and philanthropic work. His awards. Passing on his family legacy to his children and grandchildren.
Through it all, Mills spoke passionately and in colourful detail. He smiled and laughed, but his eyes welled up as he recalled the emotional moments.
Perhaps none more so than the memory of standing atop the Tokyo medal podium in October of 1964 and fighting back tears – not of joy, but from feeling unaccepted.
“When they played the United States national anthem, it was powerful. It was beautiful,” Mills said. “I felt emotion being a citizen of our country, but overriding that was something more powerful. I whispered to myself, ‘I don’t belong.’ I came close to crying on the victory stand. People probably thought I was crying because I’d won a race. It was more powerful than that.”
Road to Tokyo
After losing his parents, Mills was sent to the Haskell Indian School in Kansas, where he developed into a promising runner. He earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Kansas and became a three-time All-American cross-country athlete.
As a junior at Kansas, Mills had just run in the AAU Championships and qualified for the prestigious San Silvestre road race in Brazil. As he lined up for pictures with his colleagues, a photographer told him to get out of the shot. It wasn’t the first time he had experienced such racial prejudice, but the incident hit him particularly hard.
Distraught, Mills went back to his room, climbed up on a chair and considered jumping out of the window. But the comforting words of his late father following his mother’s death came back to him. The young boy had “broken wings” but, if he chased his passion and dreams, he would one day be healed.
Mills got down from the chair and wrote himself a simple message: “Gold medal. Olympic 10,000m run.”
“The catalyst to heal the broken soul would be trying to make the Olympic team, trying to win a gold medal,” he said. “I put all my energy and discipline to that goal.”
Mills married Patricia in 1962 during their senior year at Kansas. Following graduation, Mills was commissioned as an officer in the US Marine Corps and made his way to Camp Pendleton, California, where he trained for the Olympic Games and qualified in both the 10,000m and the marathon. The Mills’ first daughter, Christina, was born in 1963.
That same year, Mills learned that he had hypoglycaemia, which causes blood sugar levels to drop below normal, as well as borderline type 2 diabetes, which elevates glucose levels. The diagnosis helped explain why Mills often ran out of gas in the late stages of races.
The year before the Tokyo Olympic Games, Mills reached a crossroads when he was leading a 10,000m race in Belgium but faded and watched runners breeze past him on the final lap. The winner, Tunisia’s Mohammed Gammoudi, told him afterwards: “Billy, all you need is more speed.”
Mills took the suggestion to heart. He changed his training methods to incorporate speed workouts. In Tokyo, he ran 200-metre sprints out of the blocks in the final few days before his race and controlled his blood sugar levels as best he could. His confidence grew as the 10,000m approached.
Mills went into the Tokyo Games having run a six-mile time that would have ranked him eighth in the world at the equivalent 10,000m Olympic distance. Still, no one considered him a legitimate contender. When he went to the Adidas store in Tokyo for a new pair of shoes, he was turned away. A US representative told him there were only enough shoes left for potential medallists.
On race day, a young Polish female athlete sat next to Mills on the bus to the stadium. When she learned he was running in the 10,000m that day, she asked him who was going to win. “I am,” he said.
It was a cool, overcast late afternoon on 14 October 1964 when the field of nearly 40 runners lined up for the 10,000m. The red cinder track was wet and heavy after rain the previous night. The conditions were ideal for Mills, the runner with the Marine crew cut and white no. 722 bib across his blue USA singlet.
Ron Clarke, the Australian world-record holder, was the race favourite, and Gammoudi was also among the top medal prospects. Clarke seized control early on and led the field on world-record pace. At 5,000 metres, Mills was struggling and thought about dropping out. But he kept pushing and briefly shot to the front. Clarke grabbed back the lead but slowed the pace slightly.
“I stayed with the pack,” Mills said. “At that point I thought ‘I’m going to be with him down to the finish.’”
With the stadium lights switched on and two laps to go, four runners broke away: Clarke, Gammoudi, Mills and Ethiopia’s Mamo Wolde. Then Wolde dropped back, leaving three in the chase for gold. Clarke glanced over his shoulder and Mills thought: “My God, maybe he’s worried. I’m going to take the lead just to let him know I’m here.”
Mills went to the front and picked up the pace. Clarke overtook him but again slowed the pace. “That was like the telling point I’ve got a chance to win,” Mills said.
It all came down to the 25th and final lap.
As the bell rang, Mills pulled up alongside Clarke’s right shoulder and moved slightly ahead around the first bend. But Clarke responded immediately, and his right arm pushed the American, who stumbled into the next lane. Gammoudi seized his chance and squeezed through a narrow gap between the two. The Tunisian accelerated, opening up a lead, with Clarke chasing after him and Mills in third.
Mills said he started to feel low on blood sugar, including numbness and slightly blurred vision. But he fought through it and stayed close enough to Clarke “so he can pull me along”.
“I decided with 120 metres to go I’d make one final try to win,” he said.
Clarke closed the gap on Gammoudi, but the Tunisian held him off and stayed in front. The three leaders were lapping many slower runners, and Clarke was in danger of being boxed in.
Mills knew where his wife was sitting, about 30 rows up and 90 metres from the finish. That was the designated point from where he would launch his final kick.
“I start lifting my knees, lengthening my stride, pumping my arms,” he said. “My body’s not reacting. I almost panicked. I’m like, ‘I can’t let it happen.’”
Mills remembered that he had eaten a candy bar 20 minutes before the race and how it had given him a boost of energy. He summoned that energy again.
“I felt, ‘I’m going to win. I may not get to the finish line first. I may never be this close again. I’ve got to do it now,’” he said.
One of the lapped runners moved out from lane 1 to lane 5 to let Clarke and Gammoudi pass on the inside. Mills, in lane four, went past the same runner and saw what he thought was the image of an eagle on his singlet, evoking memories of conversations with his father.
“My dad used to say, ‘You do these things, son, someday you could have wings of an eagle. You have broken wings now, son. Wings of an eagle.’”
“I can win, I can win,” Mills thought, coming into the last stretch. “One final time, I can win. It was so powerful.”
Look at Mills! Look at Mills!
Mills, coming seemingly out of nowhere on the outside, put on a breathtaking burst of speed over the final 50 metres. As he blew first past Clarke and then Gammoudi, NBC TV analyst Dick Bank screamed the famous words: “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!”
“I’m lifting my knees, pumping my arms,” Mills said, “and the tape breaks across my chest.”
Gold medal. Olympic 10,000m run.
Mills’ winning time of 28:24.4 was an Olympic record, nearly 50 seconds faster than his previous best. Gammoudi took silver in 28:24.8 and Clarke bronze in 28:25.8.
Feeling giddy and emotional, Mills wandered down the track as cheers rang down from the stands. When a Japanese technical official approached him, Mills thought something must be wrong.
"Do I have one more lap to go?” he asked.
No, the official assured him, Mills had finished the race. He told him: “You are the new Olympic champion.’’
Video of the race shows Mills holding up his right index finger as if to say, “I’m No. 1.’’
The reality was different.
“No,” Mills said. “I was asking, ‘Am I No. 1?’”
Satisfied that he was indeed the winner, Mills searched out the runner whose eagle symbol on the shirt had helped propel him to victory. He was in for a surprise.
“I looked,” Mills said, “and there was no eagle. It was just a perception."
Later that night, Mills woke up suddenly and turned to Patricia.
“I know what it meant. I know what it meant,’’ he told her.
“What?’’ she said.
‘’I told myself during the race, ‘I’m going to win, but I may not get to the finish line first,’’’ Mills said. ‘’It was because there were two races. The first was to heal the broken soul. And in the process, I won an Olympic gold medal.’’
Seven days after the gold medal ceremony in which he felt he did not belong, Mills ran in the Olympic marathon and was among the leading contenders for much of the race. But he said he didn’t drink enough fluids and “blacked out” at the 23-mile mark from low blood sugar.
By the time he recovered, several runners had passed him, and he thought he was in last place. Mills managed to finish a respectable 14th in a race won by Ethiopian great Abebe Bikila. He still regrets not drinking some Tang, a flavoured mixed drink, and rues missing out on a possible second medal.
“To this day, if I’d just taken the glucose, I felt I could have gotten second or third,” Mills said.
One of Mills’ fondest memories of the Games was from the day he left Tokyo. He and Patricia were told by United States Olympic Committee officials that there were no available vehicles to take them to the airport, and that they would have to make their own way. Japanese officials immediately stepped in and offered to drive them.
The couple were waiting outside the Imperial Palace Hotel when a black limousine pulled up, with the Japanese and Olympic flags flying at the front and the US and Olympic flags at the back. A police motorcycle escort delivered them to the airport in style.
“What a beautiful way to leave the Games,” Mills said.
Mills seemed poised for more great achievements on the track following his surprise triumph in Tokyo. He now had world records in his sights.
The year after the Games, Mills set US records for the 10,000m (28:17.6) and three-mile run, and posted a personal best of 13:41.4 in the 5,000 metres. He and Gerry Lindgren broke the world record in the six-mile run (27:11.6) when they finished in a dead heat at the AAU Championships.
But Mills failed to achieve his ultimate goal of going under 27:40 and breaking the 10,000m world record. He and Lindgren trained to make the attempt at a USA-Soviet dual meet in Kiev, Ukraine, but Mills fell ill during the trip and never got the chance.
Most of all, Mills was determined to attack the world records held by Clarke, who in 1965 broke 12 world marks, including lowering the 10,000m record to 27:39.4.
‘’I really feel in my heart that I could have gotten 10 or 12 of Clarke’s records,’’ Mills said. “I never got to do that.”
In August 1965, Mills accepted the harsh reality.
“I came off the track, looked at my wife and said, ‘I will never be world class again. It’s too hard competing [while being] hypoglycaemic and borderline diabetic,’” he said.
Mills did later come out of retirement in a bid to qualify for the Mexico City 1968 Games. He didn’t feel capable of defending his 10,000m title, so he tried to qualify in the 5,000m instead. Paced by Clarke in a special time trial, Mills ran faster than other qualifiers at the US trials but didn’t make the team because USOC officials said he had improperly filled in an application form.
Racism and suicidal thoughts
After his return to the US from the Tokyo Olympic Games, Mills felt disconnected.
“I came back as a gold medallist who created one of the great upsets and was introduced to another world,” he said. “I wasn’t ready for the introduction.”
Mills toured cities where officials invited him to join business clubs which normally excluded minorities; they were ready to make an “exception” for the Olympic champion. He declined. It reminded him of the times he was not allowed to join a university fraternity or room with white or black friends.
Mills decided to dig deep into American history and the fate of his ancestors, including the Doctrine of Discovery that was used to justify the expropriation of land from indigenous people. He visited reservations and saw the devastating effects of drugs on Native American communities.
At least three times during his lifetime, Mills contemplated suicide.
"The racism in America came real close to destroying me,” Mills said. “How could I cope with that, never feeling like I belonged? You never really wanted to kill yourself. It was just so easy to say, ‘It would be so quiet, it would be over.’ I can honestly say I never wanted to kill myself, but I wanted to have the quietness. I find that quietness now by addressing issues.”
Once his running career was over, Mills and his wife decided his new mission would be to give back to the community and share his legacy with a new generation.
"We wanted to empower the visions of the elders and inspire the dreams of the youth,” he said.
They made Running Brave, a 1983 film starring Robby Benson that tells the story of Mills’ journey from Indian reservation to Olympic gold. Mills also teamed up with writer Nicholas Sparks on the book Lessons of a Lakota.
In 1986, Mills and Eugene Krizek co-founded Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a charitable organisation that helps secure housing, water, healthcare, food and other basic needs for Native American communities, and implements programmes to encourage self-sufficiency and pride in their heritage.
President Barack Obama presented Mills with the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2012 for his work with Running Strong. Mills feels the greatest acknowledgement he received was being honoured, along with 11 others, at the Anti-Defamation League’s Concert Against Hate in 2014.
“It is the highest award they give on a global basis in taking a stand against hate,” said Mills, who has also spent years on the road speaking on empowerment. “That was so powerful.”
Back to Tokyo
These days, Mills has been busy writing a monthly instalment for the series Road to Tokyo, which chronicles his preparations for the 1964 Games and is published on the Running Strong website.
He also spends free time playing golf with Patricia, who teaches art. Mills is waiting for surgery or stem cell treatment on his arthritic right hip following repeated falls on the ski slopes.
When the couple return to Tokyo next year, they plan to take their four daughters, two sons-in-law and a family friend. Mills plans to take part in a special World Athletics panel discussion.
Mills has been to 14 Olympic Games and rates Tokyo and London 2012 – the first and the last he attended – as magical.
“I think Tokyo ‘64, the youth seeing the world as one, in many ways brought the Japanese out of the ashes and made them a vital component of the world,” he said. “If we’re far enough along controlling the pandemic, I think Tokyo can step up in 2021 and bring the world together again.”
Hopefully, if a patron can be found, also travelling to Japan will be a 14-foot bronze statue by sculptor George Rivera depicting Mills in full stride during his final sprint to Tokyo gold. Mills hopes the statue can be displayed in Tokyo, eventually returning to the United States to find a permanent home at the University of Kansas.
“I want the statue to represent global unity, dignity, character and the theme of global diversity as a theme for the youth of the world,” he said.
Mills remains in contact with Gammoudi and his family. During a visit to Tunis last year, Mills was presented by Gammoudi with a duplicate of the Olympic gold medal the Tunisian won in Mexico City in the 5,000 metres. Mills hopes to reciprocate by giving his friend a duplicate of his 10,000m gold in Tokyo next year.
A family moment
Christina Mills was just 17 months old when her father became an Olympic champion. A few years ago, she and her husband John went to Tokyo to visit the stadium where Mills made his name. The venue was about to be torn down to make way for the new National Stadium that will host the 2020 Games.
Christina jogged and walked around the track to imagine her father’s famous last lap. She sat in the stands near the spot where her mother had watched Mills launch his final burst to victory. She crossed the finish line and raised her arms above her head just like her dad all those years ago.
And, from that exact spot, Christina phoned her parents back in California.
“She said she just crossed the finish line,” Mills said. “She couldn’t complete the sentence. She started crying. When I realised what she was referring to, I started crying. It was such a powerful moment. It was important that they were able to be in the place where my and my wife’s journey began.”
More than five decades later, Mills and Tokyo remain indelibly linked in Olympic history.
All it took were those few words written on a piece of paper by a troubled young man hoping to heal a broken soul.
Gold medal. Olympic 10,000m run.