Most people, I suppose, have seen video of Billy Mills winning the 10,000-meter run at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.
I have, many times. I love track and field, and I love the Olympic Games. I wish I could have seen Mills run live at the time, but it was the early ‘60s. I bunked in Harding Hall at South Dakota State University. The only television was in the lobby, and it had a limited set of channels. I learned of Mills’ upset gold-medal performance from the radio, read more in the evening newspaper and caught details and color from the news magazines days later.
Mills’ incredible race has been in the news recently, what with the COVID-19 delayed 2020 Olympics underway in Tokyo. It deserves the attention. Almost certainly it was the biggest upset in Olympic running to that time. Arguably remains so to this day. Running against the world record holder, Ron Clarke of Australia, and the fiercely competitive Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia, Mills burst past them both down the final stretch and broke the tape.
His huge smile after the race is among my favorite sports images. So is the news clip in which, after the finish, he turns to an Olympic official, holds up his index finger and nods questioningly, making sure he really won the gold medal. Indeed, he did, with an Olympic record time. I’ve always been amazed that he ran the second half of the race almost as fast as the first. Only a handful of runners in the world at that time had the capability of sustaining such a pace over the six-plus miles.
Mills’ victory remained a topic of conversation around Harding Hall for days and days after the event, as it did across America. I can’t tell you how many references I heard to Mills being an unknown, a dark horse, a most unlikely Olympic champion. This was no fluke, though. He had the talent and the drive, and the elite distance runners were aware of his potential. He just needed that one big moment on that one big stage. The moment came, and the Oglala Lakota runner from the Pine Ridge Reservation made the most of it.
Four or five years after the 1964 Games, I had the opportunity to meet Mills. He came to Sioux Falls for some event, and John Egan, my boss in sports at the newspaper, invited me along. I got to shake Mills’ hand, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more thrilled about meeting an athlete. He exuded the confidence of a champion, yet there was about him a certain shyness. His smile was almost that of a youngster not quite sure what all the fuss was about.
Some years later, I met Mills again when he visited the youth center in Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. The organization he co-founded, Running Strong for American Indian Youth, supported the youth center, its facilities and its programs. Mills, naturally, was the center of attention that day. He was self-assured and confident, but I was sure I saw a bit of the shyness I’d detected years earlier.
We had a chance to sit and talk a few years ago when Mills returned for the funeral of old friend and fellow Lakota distance runner, Nyal Brings. Billy and I were among speakers at the service, and I was able to sit with him afterward. He has a way of drawing people into his conversations, looking around to see if anyone is hanging back at the edge of the group, wanting to join in but unsure about being accepted. I like that his focus was outward.
I like that at the cemetery, he rolled up his sleeves, grabbed a shovel and in the heat of a Mellette County summer afternoon, helped shovel dirt into his friend’s grave. One of the best-known Olympic athletes in history was that day a humble man paying respects to a friend.
I’ll always remember the images of Billy Mills winning Olympic gold, but I’ll never forget the sight of him with the shovel in his hands. There’s something special about a champion.