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Statue honoring 1964 Olympic icon Billy Mills needs home

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Some of track and field’s biggest names have lent their prominent voices toward an effort to honor Olympic icon Billy Mills in 2020, The Japan Times has learned.

Edwin Moses and Ollan Cassell are staunch supporters of a bold plan to recognize Mills in Tokyo, where his stunning victory over Australian bronze medalist Ron Clarke and Tunisian runner-up Mohammed Gammoudi in the men’s 10,000 meters on Oct. 14, 1964, remains one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history.

Pojoaque Pueblo artist George Rivera, who resides in New Mexico, has created a 3.3-meter (11-foot) bronze statue of Mills. The Native American’s lofty ambition is to have the statue showcased in Tokyo during the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Since his Tokyo triumph more than 50 years ago, Mills, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, has dedicated his life to serving the Native American community. He’s a tireless advocate for healthy living and promoting exercise and fitness through the nonprofit group Running Strong for American Indian Youth, which he co-founded. In 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama gave Mills the Presidential Citizens Medal, honoring his foundation’s work.

When Mills completed the 10,000 in 28 minutes, 24.4 seconds (then the Olympic record) in Tokyo, he was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marines. Cassell, meanwhile, teamed up with fellow Americans Henry Carr, Mike Larrabee and Ulis Williams to nab the 4×400-meter gold at the 1964 Games.

In the years that followed, Cassell was a longtime sports administrator, serving as executive director of both the Amateur Athletic Union (1970-80) and USA Track and Field (1980-97; the organization was called the The Athletics Congress from 1979-92). His work in athletics also encompassed the global stage, including a longtime stint as vice president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, now known as the International Association of Athletics Federations (1976-99).

“For more than 30 years, I traveled the world representing USA, Olympic and international sport,” Cassell remarked. During his AAU days, for example, when it served as the national governing body of 15 different sports, “almost on all occasions, during meetings, someone would ask me about Billy Mills, remembering the fantastic Billy Mills race,” Cassell said.

He eloquently stated why honoring Mills would be a fitting tribute to the rich history of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and a logical bridge to Tokyo’s second Olympiad.

“Billy is such a symbol of the 1964 Games, coming from the USA, a country that had never won a medal in the 10,000 meters in the history of the games, being a Native American Indian and such an underdog, make him a very special guy,” Cassell commented. “No one gave him a chance except himself and his wife.”

That didn’t inflate Mills’ ego. Instead, he’s humbly served as a great ambassador for the Olympics.

“He continues to this day to promote Tokyo not just for the 1964 Games,” Cassell revealed, “but has paid, from his own pocket, to produce a video promoting the 2020 Games to IOC members when they were voting. He is the one person I remember the most that symbolizes the Olympic spirit wherever he goes and 24 hours each day.”

Moses, chairman of the Laureus Foundation USA board of trustees, confirmed he’s spread the message among Olympic colleagues and other movers and shakers within the global sports community.

“As Olympians we all love Billy Mills and his accomplishments and story,” Moses, who won 122 consecutive 400-meter hurdles races during his illustrious career, told this newspaper.

“It is a great initiative,” he added.

Joseph Karnes, race director of the Santa Fe (New Mexico) Thunder Half Marathon, is a point man for the project. He has spearheaded a public-relations campaign, working on Rivera’s behalf.

“As you can imagine, shipping the statue will be a major undertaking,” Karnes told The Japan Times in an interview. “My part of the effort has been focused on achieving approval of a location for the statue via written permission of the city or other proper authority. The request does not encompass any funding — that will be provided by others.”

During the past year, Karnes has attempted to foster dialogue with Tokyo Metropolitan Government officials, Tokyo 2020 organizers, the Japan Association of Athletics Federations and the Japan Sport Council about the idea of showcasing a Mills statue as a historic landmark that connects Japan’s Olympic past with the upcoming extravaganza. Those attempts have been unsuccessful.

A letter submitted to various organizations, including Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s office, included this vivid introduction: “To honor Billy Mills’ famous victory in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic 10,000M run, Santa Fe, New Mexico sculptor George Rivera created an 11-foot tall bronze sculpture featuring Mr. Mills’ iconic sprint to the finish line.”

The Japan Times has obtained a copy of the letter, which also stated, “Having the statue installed at an appropriate venue will provide an iconic image generating substantial publicity.”

An online petition has also been created to support the initiative. Here’s the link: www.ipetitions.com/petition/help-billy-mills-statue-make-it-to-the-tokyo

If Tokyo 2020 organizers do not give the OK for a Mills statue to be placed at/near the New National Stadium, an alternative plan could be pursued. For instance, Mills’ backers could propose that the statue be displayed at the USA House during the Summer Games and then moved to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo for permanent display afterward.

Meanwhile, distance-running coach Jack Daniels, who has mentored 1984 Olympic women’s marathon champ Joan Benoit Samuelson and other stars in his long career, told this newspaper that he will support the initiative. Daniels’ own Olympic involvement dates to the 1956 Melbourne Games when he earned a bronze in the modern pentathlon team event. He has been called the world’s best coach by Runner’s World magazine.

“I will do what I can,” Daniels, now 85, confirmed in an email. “I still talk at three Jim Ryun summer running camps each year and I imagine Jim has also heard about this honor for Billy.”

Mills, a member of the United States Olympic Hall of Fame, turned 80 on June 30. He has stated repeatedly that he wants to visit Tokyo during the 2020 Games. He maintains a busy schedule, making public appearances around the United States.

Karnes views the statue as an extension of Mills’ amazing life.

“Billy’s presence at the Olympics will be a monumental occasion and the presence of his statue will only add to the history,” he said.