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Billy Mills, America's first and only Olympic 10,000m champion

IOC 1964
The story of the 10,000m is the story of one of the greatest upsets ever seen at the Olympic Games. The race had been predicted to be a three-way battle between Murray Halbert, the defending 5000m champion, the defending 10,000m champion Pyotr Bolotnikov, and the world record holder Ron Clarke. It did not go according to plan.

By the halfway mark, though, only Clarke was anywhere near the front, accompanied by Tunisian Mohamed Gammoudi and the American Billy Mills. Mills was so unheralded that, in the run-up to the Games, not one reporter had asked him a single question. They should have done, for his story was memorable.

He had been born in South Dakota as a member of a Native American family, and was raised on a reservation reserved for the Oglala Sioux people. He had 11 brothers and sisters, but was orphaned at the age of 12, and so was raised by his grandmother.

He took up boxing and used to run as a way of staying fit, but discovered he was a better runner than boxer, and so won a place at the University of Kansas on an athletic scholarship.

He excelled at cross-country while at university but, by the time of the Olympic Games, he had left Kansas to join the US Marine Corps. It was while serving in the armed forces that he qualified for the Games.
His qualifying time was not notable, but he had spent years planning for the final and had belief that, on the day, he would match the standard of those around him.


The race was more about endurance, tactics and even fortune than out-and-out pace. The last lap was a confusing affair, with slower runners being lapped as Clarke, Gammoudi and Mills charged along, elbowing and shoving each other as they jockeyed for position. Clarke led, then Gammoudi and then, to the astonishment of both the frontrunners, Mills sprinted past to win by almost three metres, beating his own personal best time by 47 seconds.

“I’m flabbergasted,” said Mills in victory. Famously, a Japanese reporter asked simply “who are you?” Victory changed his life. He was acclaimed by his tribe as a warrior and given the name Makoce Teh’la, which translates as “loves his country”. He has devoted much of his life to working with Native American communities and remains the first and, so far, only American to win Olympic 10,000m gold.

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