Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Choreographing Our Future

"The Pursuit of the Dream Heals Broken Souls"
Billy Mills in Coos Bay, Oregon

Copyright 2018. Mark Cullen/ All Rights Reserved.

Billy Mills at Steve Prefontaine's High School
Billy Mills, described by Superintendent Bryan Trendell as a "national treasure," gave an inspiring presentation to a rapt audience of engaged students at Coos Bay's Marshfield High School on Tuesday morning. Linda Prefontaine, who organized this event, gave a thoughtful and insightful introduction. Then Billy Mills had the audience spellbound.

On October 14, 1964, "I laid footprints that forever changed my life," said Mills of his historic 10,000m win at the Tokyo Olympics. "I truly felt I had wings on my feet."

"Olympians are chosen by the gods," he said, and "someday you may have wings of an eagle."

He described himself as once having been a "broken soul." Mills, who had lost both of his parents by the time he was 12, found healing in having a dream.

"It's the pursuit of the dream that heals broken souls."

Before his father's untimely death from a stroke, his father assured him, "Magic happens, son."

Mills' positive message was one arrived at through the heartbreak of being a Native American unwelcome in his native land. 

"I was not ready for the racism I would find in America," he said.

It was not uncommon for him to be asked to step out of victory photos, for example. For three years in a row of being a cross country All-American, two photos were taken after every race - one with him in, and one with him out.

Mills blended the "virtues and values from my culture" and transformed them into ones which he applied to his marriage and his lifetime goals.

"Pat was the first person to believe in me," he said of his wife. "I took the virtues and values of my Olympic pursuit and turned them into being a better husband and man. These were the things that gave us confidence."

Just as Mills set out on a quest to find what was broken and heal himself, now he passes that experience on to the younger generation.

"What we need to do is come together," he said. "You need to collectively choreograph your future."

He appreciates the platform that he gave himself, and today, at 80, he continues to be passionate about the opportunity to help others.

"Everyday I celebrate my victory when I heal a broken soul."

After his stirring speech, students formed a long queue to greet him, he met with the student leadership class, and students who wanted to engage with him for just a moment stopped him on his way to the car. 

Every time he met a student he asked, "Do you read?" He encouraged civic engagement and good citizenship every step of the way.

A magnificent day with Mills became even richer with the showing of "Running Brave" at the Egyptian Theater, which was followed by a question and answer session with the public.

Mills concluded the evening with unifying comments about the divisiveness that pervades our country. 

"We need to tell our own stories," Mills said. "If we can tell our own stories we can come together. The most powerful prayer in my tribal language is, 'We are all related.' "

"But there is fear," he continued. "Fear in America. We have to overcome that fear with knowledge, and our young people play a major, major role by learning, by coming together."

"We have to have the strength and the courage - collectively - through our tax system - to reach into the poverty pockets of America and give opportunity.

"Never in the history of our existence as a country has the need for tribal, state, and federal governments - along with our marketplace - to come together and collectively choreograph the horizon of our future been greater.

"It starts with our young people."

Billy Mills with Student Leadership Class at Marshfield High School

Personal Notes
Before the evening presentation, we took advantage of some great photo opportunities at the Prefontaine murals in downtown Coos Bay. Below you'll see Billy Mills and Linda Prefontaine in one; Billy Mills and yours truly in the other. 

Thanks to Linda Prefontaine for putting together Billy Mills' memorable visit. It was an excellent learning experience for all the students and runners Mills reached out to and connected with. 

Thanks to all who came, and thanks, too, to Linda for her invitation for me to introduce Mills, and for her warm and kind introduction of me last evening.

Billy Mills and Linda Prefontaine

Two American Distance Legends 
(Scroll Up!)

Billy Mills – Introduction
copyright 2018. Mark Cullen/ All Rights reserved.

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.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were a games of the expected, yet for all the outstanding accomplishments of favorites like Bob Hayes, Al Oerter, Wyomia Tyus, and Edith McGuire, the lasting image of the ’64 Olympics is none of these.

As you know from the film you just saw, Billy Mills was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian 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 often reaching 80%.

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

In spite of the absence of major championships on his resume, he had trained with a focus and determination since he was 12 with only one goal in mind: an Olympic gold medal.

He arrived in Tokyo well ‘under the radar screen,’ and the world was about to see the greatest upset in Olympic history unfold.

I’ve long thought Mills’ stunning victory was best summarized by the reporter who came up to him afterwards and asked: “Who are you?”

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

While most discussions of Mr. Mills’ running achievements seem to end with Tokyoit’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.

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 millions of dollars in cash and in-kind gifts for charities worldwide, and now has launched and supported the Dreamstarter program for Native American youth.

He has received five honorary doctorates, is a member of six Halls of Fame, and the Distinguished Service Citation of the University of Kansas Alumni Association cites his outstanding achievement for the betterment of humankind.

Just days ago – in fact hours before the 54th anniversary of his stirring triumph - he was inducted into the inaugural class of the National Native American Hall of Fame.

And to top it all off, in 2012, he was awarded the Presidential Citizen’s Medal by President Obama.

This evening we see that Mr. Mills’ life is about far more than one moment of greatness; rather. it’s about what he’s done with the platform that that moment of greatness has provided him – or, to put it far more accurately, which he provided for himself.

Greatness, in Mr. Mills’ case, is a lifelong experience.

Tonight, we have the great privilege of meeting with Billy Mills, and in no less a place than Coos Bay, OR, where someone else was also known for running brave.

Thank you, Linda Prefontaine, for making this opportunity happen.

Those of you who were at the high school this morning saw the video of the finish of Mr. Mills’ Tokyo 10,000m race, and tonight we’ve seen the recreation of one of the most iconic last laps in distance running history.

Many of you have noted that he finished in lane 4… In spite of what almost every coach will tell you about finishing in lane 1, some rules are made to be broken!

In both videos we’ve seen 1964’s iconic image, the smile that would not end – a testament to what happens when you are Running Brave, Running Strong,
and running with unfettered joy.

Let’s Welcome Billy Mills!

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Billy Mills to Speak in Steve Prefontaine's Hometown

1964 Olympic 10,000m gold medalist Billy Mills will speak in Steve Prefontaine's hometown of Coos Bay, Oregon, on Tuesday, October 30.

The inspirational biopic "Running Brave" will be screened at the Egyptian Theater at 6:00pm. Following a brief intermission, Mills will engage in a question and answer session with the public.

Admission is free.

The Egyptian Theater is located at 229 South Broadway:

Poster courtesy Prefontaine Productions LLC
In 2014, in honor of the 50th anniversary of his Tokyo triumph, I put together a copy of my 2005 introduction, links to three videos, and my favorite Billy Mills quote in this story:

I took this photo (below) at the 2017 US National Track and Field Championships in Sacramento. Paul Chelimo stands atop the victory stand as the winner of the men's 5,000m. Billy Mills is in the foreground having just presented the medalists with their honors.

Photo copyright Mark Cullen/, 2017, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Echoes of Silence

10/16/18 is the 50th anniversary of the famous black power protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the 200m victory stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. 

This is my story of the 2014 dedication of the 1968 training camp at Echo Summit, CA, as a California Historical Landmark - a story of that day, and of their times.

I’ve included an addendum to reflect recent scholarship on the role of the ‘third man on the podium,’ Australia’s fast-closing silver medalist, Peter Norman.

photo credit:
Peter Norman (silver), Tommie Smith (gold, world record), John Carlos (bronze)
Men’s 200m victory ceremony, 1968 Olympics, Mexico City

Echoes of Silence

by Mark Cullen

June 27, 2014

The 1968 US Men’s Olympic track and field team, arguably the greatest ever assembled, was honored today with the recognition of the Echo Summit, CA, US Men’s Track and Field Olympic Trials and high-altitude training site as a California Historical Landmark.

A crowd of several hundred gathered to celebrate the track and field legends who put their stamp on US social, cultural, and athletic history.

Members of the ’68 team in attendance were Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Ed Caruthers, Norm Tate, Reynaldo Brown, Larry Young, Tracy Smith, Mel Pender, Ed Burke, Geoff Vanderstock, and Bill Toomey. Smith and Carlos were the featured speakers.

Four world records were set during the Olympic Trials at the 7382’/2250m elevation of the Echo Summit site, chosen for its nearly identical elevation to that of Olympic host Mexico City.

The ceremony was at the same time touching and moving, high-spirited and celebratory. It had the look and feel of a family reunion. The eloquent remarks of the speakers were greeted with repeated and sustained standing ovations by the knowledgeable and enthusiastic crowd.

Bob Burns, former Sacramento Bee reporter and the force behind the recognition of Echo Summit, said, “Few teams mirrored the social climate of their times as much as the ’68 Olympic track team did the 1960s.”

Jill Geer, USATF Chief Public Affairs Officer, cited “the importance of these people not only to sport but to society.” Geer pointed out that while the team is rightly noted for its 12 Olympic gold medalists, 20 of its team members have been inducted into the USATF Hall of Fame. “This team was so good that you didn’t have to win a gold medal to make it to the Hall of Fame.”

California state historian William Burg said that of over 1,000 California historic sites, Echo Summit is “the only one associated with both sports and civil rights history.”

South Lake Tahoe Mayor Pro-Tem Brooke Laine paid tribute to Walt Little, South Lake Tahoe’s Recreation Director in the 1950s and ‘60s, who was instrumental in convincing Bill Bowerman, Director of the US Olympic High Altitude Training Program, to accept the Echo Summit bid.

Little’s sons, Walt Jr. and Bill, in a stirring memorial, revealed that their family had lost their house as their father had used mortgage funds to help pay for athletes’ food.

Walt Little, Jr., said that their father was motivated “because of the Olympians and what they stood for. Dad carved his dream of a track and field arena out of the ice, the snow, and the trees. Echo Summit became the most beautiful track and field arena the world has ever seen.”

John Carlos lauded Little as “an icon in the world of athletics.”

“We are proud to have been a small part of your success,” Little, Jr., said to the assembled athletes. “Welcome home.”

My youth was marked by political violence: the assassination of the President when I was 11 and of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy when I was 16. Shortly before the 1968 Olympic Trials began, there were riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Upon the opening of the Olympics in Mexico City, protests there were brutally suppressed. The 1963 March on Washington was peaceful, but by 1968 there was a growing divide in both the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements over what kinds of action to take.

That discussion was reflected in the choices made by athletes at Echo Summit. To boycott the Olympics or not? African-American athletes were under heavy pressure to do so. But all made the same choice: to represent their country in Mexico City.

When Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medal winners in the Mexico City 200m, took the victory stand and raised their glove-covered fists in silent protest, I was awestruck at the peaceful eloquence of their statement.

They spoke to the whole world without uttering a single word.

The next day, the US Olympic Committee, under threat by the IOC of having the entire US team disqualified from the Olympics, dismissed Smith and Carlos from the team and they were forced to leave Mexico City immediately.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos have been united for life by their singular act as young men. They have traversed the territory from outcasts to heroes. Their “protest on the victory stand in Mexico City is one of the iconic images of the 1960s and the civil rights movement,” said Burns.

After their peaceful protest, Smith and Carlos paid a heavy personal price, and it was common to find them denounced in the US media for what were characterized as unpatriotic acts.

“Mr. Smith and I, in particular,” said Carlos, “we were vilified.”

Carlos noted the irony of the fact that he and Smith are now regarded as patriots and said, “All the individuals on this team are patriots… In many ways they tried to divide our team: these guys are civil rights activists, these guys are athletes. These guys are for a boycott, these guys are not for a boycott.”

“I’m just here to let you know now that we are one. We have been one all along.”

Smith and Carlos reflected on their days at Echo Summit. Both expressed gratitude and appreciation to the US Forest Service for their support of the ‘100 Days at Tahoe’ in 1968 as well as Friday’s ceremony.

“Look around and you see the goodness,” Smith said to the many youth foresters who staffed this event. “My heart is so full now.”

Smith remembered what it was like to take the turn from Highway 50 to the track at Echo Summit. “I hated to see that turn because that meant I had to train against him, and to train against John Carlos is no fun at all! You would have to run a world best just to stay in his shadow,” said Smith.

Smith noted the humor that came with practicing at a site that was carved out of a forest. When Bob Seagren came down from a 17’ pole vault clearance, Smith recalled, “I thought he had fallen out of a tree!” 

To say that they raised the bar for each other is to put it mildly. “Tommie and John had to run awfully fast to put themselves in a position to mount a protest that will outlast any record,” said Burns.

Carlos paid tribute to the US athletes who watched the Olympics from home.

'I have to remember those individuals who did not make the team… It’s just unfortunate that God put so many of us in a cluster and we could only pick three. But it didn’t stop us in terms of who we were as human beings... as civil libertarians... as people that were concerned about humanity.'

Smith reflected on his remaining time on this earth. “I hope that it’s longer than I feel sometimes… Sometimes you get up in the morning, you head for the door - and it never gets to you!”

Carlos concluded by noting that “the only downfall that we had here is the fact that we didn’t have a co-ed team. It was a shame that the women that represented this nation did not have a chance to experience the beauty, the love, the understanding, and bonding that we had.”

In 1968, their silent act of courage echoed around the world;  it reverberates still.

Today, it echoed among these trees, one last time.

photo credit:

Peter Norman Update

Peter Norman, Australian silver medalist, also paid dearly for his courage. He wore a badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights in support of Smith and Carlos, and for this he, too, was vilified in his home country. 

In spite of the fact that he met the 1972 100m and 200m qualifying marks repeatedly, was the 200m defending silver medalist and the Australian 200m record holder (and still is to this day), he was not named to Australia’s 1972 Olympic team. To Australia’s eternal shame, Norman was not invited to the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

It was in 2012 that the Australian Parliament finally apologized to Norman.

Too little too late; he had died in 2006.

Smith and Carlos, lifelong friends of Norman’s, served as pallbearers at his funeral.

Research credit for information about Peter Norman: Riccardo Gazzaniga.

Track and Field Autographs of a Lifetime

Program signed at the dedication of the Echo Summit, CA, site of the
1968 US Olympic High Altitude Training Center and Olympic Trials
June 27, 2014

Photo copyright 2014 Mark Cullen. All Rights Reserved

Copyright 2014  Mark Cullen/ All Rights Reserved