The story of Billy Mills, the only American to have won 10,000m Olympic gold, is such a remarkable one that it is the subject of a film, Running Brave, released in 1983. A member of the Ogala Sioux tribe, Mills was brought up in impoverished circumstances in the Pine Ridge Native American Reservation in South Dakota. Orphaned 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 numerous cross-country races. Graduating with a degree in Physical Education, he then joined the US Marines as a lieutenant, and while serving 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. The 26-year-old Mills, meanwhile, had medical problems on his mind: “I was diagnosed as hypoglycaemic: low blood sugar,” he explains. “I didn’t know if could finish, if maybe I should slow down. But I just tried to stay with the leaders, lap after lap after lap.”
However, then came the moment that inspired Mills 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.
Mills’ stunning triumph in Tokyo has gone down in American folklore and among the many honours he has since received is the Presidential Citizens Medal, awarded to him by US President Barack Obama in 2012.