Billy Mills’ rise to prominence began nearly 50 years ago. Now, as he looks back on his highly successful career as a distance runner, author, humanitarian and motivational speaker, he reflects on how significant a role the 1964 Tokyo Olympics played in his life.
In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times, the 75-year-old Mills said he considers Tokyo the best choice to host the 2020 Summer Games. That decision will be made by IOC members on Sept. 7 in Buenos Aires. Madrid and Istanbul are the other candidate cities.
With warm memories from his visit to Japan in October 1964, Mills, the surprise 10,000-meter gold medalist at National Stadium, pointed out that if Tokyo is awarded the 2020 Olympics, his life would come full circle.
“My wife Patricia and I look forward to returning to Tokyo, where in 1964 I won the Olympic 10,000-meter run,” Mills predicted a few days ago. “More importantly, I became a member of the global Olympic family (there) and it was where we started our sacred journey of global unity through global diversity. A journey that has taken us to 106 beautiful countries around the world and over 1,000 tribal nations as we search for the horizon to the future and empowerment for humanity.”
Mills was born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, became an orphan as a boy and pursued his dreams in athletics; he was a boxer at Haskell Institute (now called Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas), and running was a natural part of his training. Eventually, he focused just on running.
He attended the University of Kansas, earned three All-American accolades in cross country and helped the university win NCAA outdoor track national titles in 1959 and 1960.
In reflecting on his life, he has said many times he was fascinated by a story he read about Greek mythology. One line stuck with him for decades: “Olympians are chosen by the gods.”
Mills, a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, co-founded Running Strong for American Indian Youth in 1986 and has been its spokesman ever since. In recognition of his work with the organization — suicide prevention, education advocacy and health and housing assistance — Mills received the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal in February 2013, issued to him by President Barack Obama at the White House. Eighteen Americans were honored, nearly 6,000 were nominated.
The White House website describes the recognition this way: “(The medal will recognize) citizens of the United States of America who have performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens. . . . It is generally recognized as the second-highest civilian award of our government.”
In Tokyo, Mills’ gold medal-winning effort in the 10,000 stunned the world. Some have labeled it the greatest upset in Olympic history, and it happened in a race featuring Australian standout Ron Clarke, the world record holder, defending champion Pyotr Bolotnikov of the Soviet Union and New Zealand’s Murray Halberg, the 5,000 winner at the 1960 Rome Games.
Mills, then a 26-year-old U.S. Marine first lieutenant, was a classic example of an unheralded athlete.
“He was an almost totally unknown quantity, to Americans as much as anyone else,” Sports Illustrated’s John Underwood wrote in his account of the race. “He had never before won a major race, yet his time, (28 minutes, 24.4 seconds), set an Olympic record; it was the fourth fastest 10,000 ever run; it broke the old American record by almost half a minute; and it was 45 seconds faster than Mills had ever run the distance before. It was an utter and absolute surprise.”
Mills closed out the race with a superb last-gasp effort, outsprinting Clarke and Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia. And he remains the lone American, male or female, to win the 10,000 at the Olympics.
Indeed, wherever he goes, the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame member has an opportunity to talk about that race. He also enjoys sharing his thoughts on what makes the Olympics so special in all corners of the globe.
“Our world is rapidly changing and there is an acute need to address global unity through the dignity, character and beauty of global diversity, which to me is the inherent future of human kind,” Mills told The Japan Times. “The Olympic Games still remain one of the finest platforms from which to showcase unity through diversity.”
Not one to dwell on negatives — Mills, who lives near Sacramento, California, is a positive, inspirational individual — he recognizes that the Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo bids all have positive aspects.
“When you consider all of the complex issues and challenges in hosting the Olympic Games, each of the cities being considered would be a great choice,” he said. “They are all enchanting and have the ability to host successful games.
“However, I feel only Tokyo at this time in history can truly perform and capture the full potential and spirit of the Olympic Games, which is global unity through the dignity, character and beauty of global diversity.
“This will be illustrated through the artistic performances of sport and the display of sportsmanship from athletes around the world during the magical 16 days of glory at the 2020 Olympiad. . . .
“My humble vote, if the international IOC members care, goes to Tokyo 2020.”