Sunday, October 12, 2014

Billy Mills 50th Anniversary Tribute

Congratulations to Billy Mills
on the 50th Anniversary
of his historic Tokyo Olympic 10,000 win
October 14, 1964

*Three Videos
*Most Memorable Quote

The second time I saw 1964 Olympic 10,000m champion Billy Mills was at the 2014 US Outdoor National Track and Field Championships in Sacramento, CA, when he hosted a 10k fund-raising race for his foundation, Running Strong for American Indian Youth. It was held in conjunction with the men’s and women’s outdoor track 10,000m national championship races.

One of the highlights of the championships was watching Mills watch the last lap of the women’s race, a classic, dramatic duel between Kim Conley and Jordan Hasay won by Conley in the last few meters of the race – sound familiar?!
Sacramento resident Mills was much in evidence during the championships. He served as an ambassador of the sport as he engaged fans of all ages in conversations in the stands.

I was privileged and honored to have the opportunity to introduce Mills to a large and enthusiastic crowd of high school runners and their coaches in Everett, Washington, US, in 2005. Here are my remarks, edited for print.

Billy Mills Introduction
Everett, WA, Civic Center Auditorium
March 7, 2005

Every Olympics has an image – a snapshot – a moment seared in our minds forever – that one iconic moment that captures the spirit of that quadrennium’s games.
Voice of

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were a games of favorites and of the expected.

Al Oerter won his third consecutive gold medal in the discus, while Betty Cuthbert, Australia’s darling of the ’56 Melbourne Games, returned to claim her fourth gold.

Peter Snell won his second 800m title and added the 1500m crown. Bob Hayes tied the world record in the 100m and anchored the U.S. 4x100m relay to victory with a split of 8.9 seconds.

Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila wore shoes this time as he strode to his second consecutive marathon victory.
Yet for all these outstanding accomplishments, the lasting image of the ’64 Olympics is none of these.
Billy Mills, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Although Pine Ridge is very rich in culture and spirit, it has long been recognized as one of the poorest communities in America with unemployment reaching 80%.

Yet it was here that a future Olympic champion and Olympic and world record holder took his first steps towards greatness.

Mills was orphaned by the age of twelve and was sent to boarding schools. He graduated from Haskell Indian School, where he was such a prominent and successful runner that he earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Kansas.

While he didn’t win a major collegiate race in track or cross country, he earned All-America honors seven times.

Upon graduating from Kansas, Mr. Mills received his commission as an officer in the United States Marine Corps and continued his training.

As second qualifier on his own Olympic team, and with a personal best almost a minute behind that of the favorite, Australian world record holder Ron Clarke, he arrived in Tokyo well under the radar screen.

In spite of the absence of major championships on his resume, he had trained since he was twelve with a focus and determination with only one goal in mind: an Olympic gold medal.

The world was about to see the greatest upset in Olympic history. Yet Tokyo was much more than an upset: it was an accomplishment and an achievement never yet matched by a U.S. man or woman.

Today, Mr. Mills is an accomplished businessman, author, and national spokesperson for Running Strong for American Indian Youth (, a division of Christian Relief Services.

In this role, he has helped raise over 500 million dollars in cash and in-kind gifts for charities worldwide, and through the Running Strong Foundation has raised over $75,000,000 for the Pine Ridge Reservation.

He has received five honorary doctorates, is a member of five Halls of Fame, and is the recipient of the highest honor the University of Kansas Alumni Association can bestow: the Distinguished Service Citation, which acknowledges outstanding achievement for the betterment of humankind (and in 2012 was honored by President Obama with the Presidential Citizens Medal for public service).

While many discussions of Mr. Mills’ running achievements seem to end with Tokyo, it’s important to note that the following year, while winning our national championships with a dramatic lean at the tape over his Tokyo roommate, Gerry Lindgren, he set a world record for six miles of 27:11.6.

A major motion picture has been made about Billy Mills titled “Running Brave”, and it has been a very positive and inspirational influence on American youth.

I am old enough to have been inspired before the movie. As a kid of twelve in 1964, I watched, transfixed, the dramatic race from Tokyo.

Twelve - an age when the sports heroes of one’s youth are defined, and when wanting to grow up to be like them becomes part and parcel of the fiber of one’s youthful dreams and daily inspiration.

I’ll leave the telling of the tale to Mr. Mills, as well as to the video you’re about to see, but I’ve long thought his stunning upset was best summed up by the official who came up to him afterwards and asked: “Who are you?”

To give our many young runners in the audience some context of the nature of his upset, suffice it to say that he set a personal record by nearly 2 seconds per lap for the 25 lap race.

We’ll see this evening that Billy Mills’ life is about far more than one moment of greatness; it’s about what he’s done with the platform which that moment of greatness provided him - or, to put it far more accurately, which he provided for himself.

Greatness, with Billy Mills, is a lifelong experience.

Before we hear from our distinguished guest, we will play a short video of his Olympic 10,000m triumph to recapture this dramatic moment.

Look for the two incidents of interference on the last lap, look for the finest 30m kick in 10k history, look to see what lane he finishes in, and most of all, look at his face.

Look at his face to see what happens when you are Running Strong, Running Brave, and running with unfettered joy.

Look for Billy Mills; the number on his singlet is 722:

See? It really IS ok to finish in Lane 4!
(I adlibbed: “no matter what your coach may tell you” – much to the delight of the thousand high school runners in the audience. Mills enjoyed the comment and came to the stage with a huge smile on his face.)

Let’s Welcome Billy Mills!
                                                          *     *     *     *     *

Three videos, with notes

The first (above, in the introduction) is the classic black and white version from the television broadcast, with announcer Dick Bank’s famous near-hysterical call; it shows particularly well how badly Mills was thrown off stride by Clarke’s push on the last lap (Runner

A color version complete with its own dramatic music; much higher resolution than the first video. Stay with this one to the very end to see Mills’ famous questioning gesture to an official immediately after the race (
A wonderful balance of past and present Billy Mills (

                                                           *     *     *     *     *

Mills’ Most Memorable Quote

What follows is from a Billy Mills interview posted at, Here and Now, Robin Young interviewer (transcribed directly from the audio interview, with one difference here from what is printed on the WBUR website).

Of Mills’ many memorable quotes, this one I carry closest, heartbreaking as it is. This is Mills’ father to eight-year-old Billy after his mother died.

As I mourned my mother, my dad told me I had broken wings.

He said,
“I’m going to share something with you and if you follow it, someday, someday you may have wings of an eagle.”

He told me to look beyond the hurt, the hate, the jealousy, self-pity.
All of those emotions destroy you.

He said,
“Look deeper and way down deeper where the dreams lie.
You’ve got to find a dream son.
It’s the pursuit of a dream that will heal broken souls.”

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