This week marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most magical moments in Olympics history. Billy Mills became the first American to win the 10,000m in 1964, and he did so in dramatic fashion. The story is so incredible even Hollywood couldn’t have dreamed it up. But, perhaps, more significant and more important than his athletic achievements is what Mills has done in the years since.
Mills, an Oglala Lakota, was born in June of 1938 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. His family was poor. His father worked odds jobs — he was briefly employed in the Indian Service and occasionally boxed for money. Conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation were horrific and the Depression only made them worse. At the time of his birth, the Federal government provided 82.5% of the income for the entire population on Pine Ridge. By the time he was 12, Mills’ mother, father and sister had died. He and his brothers were orphaned.
Billy Mills’ oldest brother, Sid, was 21 at the time. He was in the Navy, married, and had a family. Responsible for looking after his younger brothers, he sent them to the Haskell Institute — a federal Indian boarding school in Lawrence, KS. Billy attended high school there and that’s where he found running.
Though Billy was active and ran throughout his childhood, it was always a part of play, not an avocation. After failing to earn a spot on the Haskell boxing team, Mills reluctantly joined the cross country team. He became an almost immediate success. He found a supporting mentor and father figure in his coach Tony Coffin, who pushed him to develop both academically and athletically. Mills broke the state records of two Olympians (Glenn Cunningham in the indoor mile, and Wes Santee for the 2 mile cross country run) during his high school career. His name was in the newspaper, a lot. Coffin told Mills that it was fine to read the stories about himself, but he should combine those with other stories — stories about local, national, and global issues. These lessons helped Mills and informed his writing as a journalist for the Haskell Indian Leader student-newspaper.
Following his graduation from Haskell, Mills followed in the footsteps of the Olympians whose accomplishments he equaled. He enrolled at the University of Kansas. Though he was already familiar with the city of Lawrence, the University showed him a different world, a tougher world. Mills experienced racism, he struggled on the track, and he often felt lost and out-of-place. Although he won a Big 8 championship and was named an All-American, his career was a disappointment to many as he failed to live up to their expectations.
Again taking the familiar path of prior Olympians, he joined the U.S. Marines Corps following his graduation in 1962. Wes Santee had explained to Mills that military service allowed former athletes to remain amateurs and permitted them to continue training. It was the support structure for the vast majority of the country’s Olympic hopefuls, particularly during the Cold War. The Marines also appealed to Mills’ heritage. American Indians have historically served in the armed forces at a higher level than any other population. Mills’ father and brother served, and it felt like the right thing to do. Along with his marriage to Patricia Harris in 1962, Mills credits his time in the Marines as something that changed his life. Both renewed his sense of purpose and supported him on his journey to accomplishing his dream: winning an Olympic Gold Medal.
When Mills qualified for the 10,000m at the 1964 Olympics, he had the 8th fastest time in the world that year. He was never viewed as a serious contender, however. Australian Ron Clarke held the World Record and won the 1960 Gold Medal — he was the favorite. The top American hopeful was an 18-year old phenom, Gerry Lindgren, but it was viewed as a stretch even for him to medal.
Despite these prognostications, each runner still had to toe the line in Tokyo and survive the grueling 25-lap race. Heavy rains the night before didn’t make it any easier. The cinder track was sloppy and poised to turn the event into a physical race. Billy Mills had as good of a chance as any.
Since his college days Mills had changed his training strategy. He had a new training partner and coach in the Marines. Much of his focus was on logging miles, building his endurance, while staying sharp enough to kick if he needed to. The training had paid off. Mills also qualified to run in the 1964 Olympic marathon a week later. Going into the 10,000m, Mills strategy was to stick with the leaders. Sports Illustrated‘s preview of the Olympics noted that Clarke “is immensely strong but lacks sprint.” If Mills could stay with him, he had a chance.
Mills race plan worked. As the race’s last lap approached, he was in the top three and within striking distance. He was ready to make his move. Then, as they approached the final turn, he was bumped out into lane 3 by Clarke. Muhammed Gammoudi passed him and Clarke. He was in third barely hanging on.
Now entering the finals stretch, Mills had to go. It was his last chance. Trusting his training, he began sprinting, forcefully extending his legs, lifting his knees, and dicing the air with his arms powering his way through a crowd of lapped runners and back into contention. Gammoudi who had taken a commanding lead was beginning to fade. Clarke was on his heals. Mills remained in third but was gaining ground.
With 50 meters to go, Mills overtook Clarke and seemed to be gaining speed. Shocked by the cheering, Gammoudi glanced to his right with 20 meters left. His eyes were greeted by a blurry silhouette of Mills zooming by. Seconds later the race was over. Billy Mills had won.
The shock and elation of the race were captured beautifully on the NBC telecast. Announcer Dick Blank interrupted the call by screaming “LOOK AT MILLS! LOOK AT MILLS!” and chortling with glee. On the track, Japanese officials were equally as shocked. They seized the exhausted Mills asking “Who are you? Who are you?”
In the days following the 10,000m Billy Mills became a household name. His identity was implanted in the public consciousness. Newspapers worldwide ran feature stories introducing the sensation of ’64. The world was touched by his story: an impoverished American Indian, orphaned, succeeding against the longest odds. Mills became living proof of the American Dream. He was also an American patriot, a Marine Lieutenant with a sixteen-month old daughter. His Olympic moment transformed his life.
Now 50 year later, Billy Mills continues to be transformed by that moment, and he shares that transformation with the world around him. Relying on his Lakota heritage and the values taught to him by his family, Mills has embarked on a traditional giveaway that requires he repay those who have helped him along his journey. Except, Mills has expanded the reach and definition for contemporary times. Winning the Olympics required the help of thousands of people all over the world, from various cultures. In his post-Olympic life Mills has sought to reach out to all of them as well.
The concept of the giveaway informs his humanitarian and philanthropic work. In 1983, he created the film Running Brave to share his story (financed and produced entirely by Americans Indians ). In 1990, he published a book, Wokini, that shares the Lakota lessons that have helped shape his life. Additionally, he has traveled constantly visiting over 100 countries sharing his story. The primary focus of this outreach is American Indian youth. Mills hopes that his story can be an inspiration and an example to help develop self-esteem and cultural pride as well as dignity and character. While sport is a key component, extracurricular activities of all kinds serve as venues for development.
Mills’ foundation, Running Strong for American Indian Youth, is the lead arm of these efforts. The organization takes a holistic approach by addressing the “important needs of food, shelter, youth initiatives, and culture and language preservation.” Since it’s creation in 1986 it has raised well over $650 million.
Billy Mills’ story is important to me for so many reasons. As a former runner, he was one of my heroes growing up. The final hill at the University of Kansas’ Rim Rock Farm cross country course is named “The Billy Mills Ascent.” During my high school years this was the site of the Kansas state cross country meet. My teammates and I spent hundreds of hours training for that hill, preparing for the aching pain of the journey to its top before embarking on a 400m sprint to the finish.
That hill is symbolic of so much about Billy Mills’ life. The long painful struggle up a dark, tree lined hill, that crests into the morning sunlight on a chilly October day. Though you’re at the top and the hardest part is behind you, it is not the end of the race. You have to keep going, pushing forward, willing yourself to take one more step because the end is insight and the purpose of each step is now clear. That purpose for Mills is the empowerment of others and the betterment of American Indian youth. It’s a purpose he has dedicated his life to.
This story is also important to me because Billy Mills has, in a lot of ways, informed my entire career as a historian. Mills’ story introduced me to the power of sports and its tremendous impact on individuals, policies, and society. It forced me to confront issues of representation, authority, and power. While writing my master’s thesis, I also had to confront my own position as a fan, a scholar, and a person of privilege peering into a foreign world. His story changed me and has changed my view of the world.
In many ways I’m personally indebted to the Mills. They opened their home to me for an oral interview in the January of 2011, and shared so much of their lives with me. Billy and Patricia continue to be generous and inspiring people. I consider them friends. As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of his incredible Olympic victory, it is important that we understand both their struggle and their work to improve the lives of others. His journey to the 1964 Olympics is intertwined in a complex history of race, sports, and federal policy just as their lives since then are a part of a history of activism and philanthropy pushing back against many of those same issues. These complex histories never really have an end, and celebrating them as moments of complete victory does a disservice to the continued struggles and successes that have followed.
To join in the Billy Mills 10k 50th Anniversary visit: http://indianyouth.org/Anniversary
Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. He is a Kansan and wrote his master’s thesis on Billy Mills and Jim Thorpe. His dissertation explores the world of Bud Wilkinson and Oklahoma football. You can reach him via email at email@example.com or on Twitter: @admcgregor85