In October 1964, Tokyo hosted their first Olympic Games. To celebrate, Tokyo 2020 will bring you some of the most incredible and historic moments that took place 56 years ago. In the latest part of the series, we take a look at Billy Mills, the Native American who brought home his country's only medal in the 10,000m.
Billy Mills was the man no-one expected to win at the Olympic Games. But when he left Tokyo 1964, not only would he be one of its brightest stars, he also went on to make his mark in the world as a humanitarian and a fierce campaigner for racial and social justice.
Mills was a member of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux Tribe), grew up in poverty and was orphaned at a very young age. Finding solace in sport, the Native American became an avid runner and obtained an athletic scholarship at the University of Kansas, where he became a three-time NCAA All-America cross-country runner. He won his individual title at the Big Eight cross-country championship.
Despite being a strong runner, he experienced racial prejudice and discrimination in his early athletic career. At one point it drove him to suicidal thoughts. However, Mills vowed to prove his detractors wrong by aiming for his highest aspiration of winning a “Gold medal. Olympic 10,000-metre run.”
After becoming a lieutenant for the US Marines, Mills qualified for the Olympic Games in both the 10,000m and marathon.
As the Games approached, the odds were stacked against Mills. He learned he was a borderline type 2 diabetic and had hypoglycemia which had been impacting his race performance.
But Mills was relentless in his pursuit of the Olympic dream. He worked around his health condition and overhauled his workouts so that he could last longer in his races.
So when Mills landed in Tokyo 1964, he was ready to conquer the Games.
However, he was virtually unknown as all eyes were on Australian Ron Clarke, who had set the world record in 1963, and Mohammed Gammoudi, who had won the 5,000m and the 10,000m events at the 1963 Mediterranean Games.
As expected, Clarke took the early lead, while Mills and the rest were struggling to keep up with his pace. But at the 5,000m mark, Mills found his tempo and for a split second was at the front, only for Clarke to snatch back the lead and dictate the pace of the race, with 40 other runners streaming behind him.
But with two laps to go, four runners pulled away from the rest: Clarke, Mills, Gammoudi and Ethiopia’s Mamo Wolde, who would eventually fall back. Mills and Clarke were neck and neck trying to outrun each other with Gammoudi catching up.
When the bell rang for the final lap, Mills edged out Clarke but as the American surged ahead, he stumbled when Clarke’s right arm pushed him. In the meantime, Gammoudi found an opening and accelerated, leaving Mills in third.
However, Mills was in full fighting form and wasn't about to let go of his momentum.
“I can win, I can win,” thought Mills as he approached the final 50m. “One final time, I can win. It was so powerful.”
In the final seconds, he blew past Clarke and Gammoudi, to cross the line with a winning time of 28:24:4, an Olympic record and a personal best.
Gammoudi won silver, while the crowd favourite, Clarke, took bronze.
2013 Getty Images
What happened next
For Mills, the Olympic Games were two races.
In an interview with World Athletics.org he said: "I told myself during the race, ‘I’m going to win, but I may not get to the finish line first.’
"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,’’ Mills said referring to his struggles as a Native American athlete.
When he retired, Mills found his true mission: becoming an inspiration for the Native American community.
In 1986, Mills and Eugene Krizak founded Running Strong for American Indian Youth to help Native American communities.
“We wanted to empower the visions of the elders and inspire the dreams of the youth,” he said.
For his work, he received the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal from former U.S. President Barack Obama and was also 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,” he added.
These days, Mills is looking forward to Tokyo 2020, 56 years after he won his gold medal at the 1964 Games, and is planning to attend with his family and grandchildren.
“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.”
If a patron can be found, some of the best track and field athletes plan to honour Mills by bringing a statue of of the Native American athlete depicting his gold-winning moment in Tokyo.
“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,” Mills said.