Billy Mills remains the USA’s one and only gold medallist in the men’s 10,000m, a feat he achieved at Tokyo 1964.
The story of Billy Mills, the only American to this day to have won 10,000m Olympic gold, is so remarkable that it is the subject of a 1983 film entitled Running Brave. A member of the Ogala Sioux tribe, Mills endured a harsh upbringing in the Pine Ridge Native American Reservation in South Dakota. An orphan at the age of 12, he nurtured his talent for running and boxing in his formative years and gained a place at the University of Kansas, where he won a number of cross-country races. Graduating with a degree in physical education, he then joined the US Marines as a lieutenant.
It was while serving in the Marines that he qualified for the 10,000m and the marathon at Tokyo 1964. The favourite for the 10,000m was Australia’s world record holder Ron Clarke, while Mills, who was 26 at the time, entered the race burdened by medical concerns, having been diagnosed with hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar). As he later explained, he when the race got under way he was focused more on just staying in contention than actually attempting to win it. “I just tried to stay with the leaders, lap after lap after lap,” he recalled.
But then came the moment that inspired the American to glory. Spotting the eagle embroidered on the shirt of German runner Siegfried Herrmann, he cast his mind back to his childhood and kicked for home. “The wings of an eagle!” he says. “Back to my dad when I’m small: ‘Son, you do these
things, someday you’ll have wings of an eagle’. I may never be this close again. I’ve got to do it now: wings of an eagle. Then I felt the tape break across my chest. A Japanese man came and he said, ‘Who are you? Who are you?’ And I thought I’d miscounted the laps: ‘Finished, finished! You are the new Olympic champion’.”
In a breathtaking final lap watched by a rapt 85,000 crowd and millions of TV viewers around the world, Tunisia’s Mohammed Gammoudi broke clear of the bunch only for Clarke to close the gap as the final straight approached. It was then that Mills stunned everyone, bursting into the lead and taking the tape in a new Olympic record time of 28.24.4, a whole 50 seconds faster than his previous personal best. A few day later Mills acquitted himself admirably in the marathon, finishing 14th, around 10 minutes behind the winner, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia National distinction Mills’ stunning triumph in Tokyo has gone down in American folklore. He has since received a number of honours, among them the Presidential Citizens Medal, which was presented to him by US President Barack Obama in 2012.
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