Billy Mills was the man no-one expected to win at the Olympic Games. But when he left Tokyo 1964, not only would he be one of its brightest stars, he also went on to make his mark in the world as a humanitarian and a fierce campaigner for racial and social justice.
Mills was a member of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux Tribe), grew up in poverty and was orphaned at a very young age. Finding solace in sport, the Native American became an avid runner and obtained an athletic scholarship at the University of Kansas, where he became a three-time NCAA All-America cross-country runner. He won his individual title at the Big Eight cross-country championship.
Despite being a strong runner, he experienced racial prejudice and discrimination in his early athletic career. At one point it drove him to suicidal thoughts. However, Mills vowed to prove his detractors wrong by aiming for his highest aspiration of winning a “Gold medal. Olympic 10,000-metre run.”
After becoming a lieutenant for the US Marines, Mills qualified for the Olympic Games in both the 10,000m and marathon.
As the Games approached, the odds were stacked against Mills. He learned he was a borderline type 2 diabetic and had hypoglycemia which had been impacting his race performance.
But Mills was relentless in his pursuit of the Olympic dream. He worked around his health condition and overhauled his workouts so that he could last longer in his races.
So when Mills landed in Tokyo 1964, he was ready to conquer the Games.
However, he was virtually unknown as all eyes were on Australian Ron Clarke, who had set the world record in 1963, and Mohammed Gammoudi, who had won the 5,000m and the 10,000m events at the 1963 Mediterranean Games.
As expected, Clarke took the early lead, while Mills and the rest were struggling to keep up with his pace. But at the 5,000m mark, Mills found his tempo and for a split second was at the front, only for Clarke to snatch back the lead and dictate the pace of the race, with 40 other runners streaming behind him.
But with two laps to go, four runners pulled away from the rest: Clarke, Mills, Gammoudi and Ethiopia’s Mamo Wolde, who would eventually fall back. Mills and Clarke were neck and neck trying to outrun each other with Gammoudi catching up.
When the bell rang for the final lap, Mills edged out Clarke but as the American surged ahead, he stumbled when Clarke’s right arm pushed him. In the meantime, Gammoudi found an opening and accelerated, leaving Mills in third.
However, Mills was in full fighting form and wasn't about to let go of his momentum.
“I can win, I can win,” thought Mills as he approached the final 50m. “One final time, I can win. It was so powerful.”
In the final seconds, he blew past Clarke and Gammoudi, to cross the line with a winning time of 28:24:4, an Olympic record and a personal best.
Gammoudi won silver, while the crowd favourite, Clarke, took bronze.