Most commemorations of historical events wait for multiples of five or more to hold any sort of significant celebration, but there’s at least one that deserves recognition even though it’s just one year shy of the half-century mark.
In fact, it could well be argued that Billy Mills’ stunning victory in the Olympic 10,000 meter run in Tokyo on the ides of October, 1964, is worth celebrating on each of its anniversaries, and indeed, every one of the 364 days in between.
For those whose grasp of track and field history is a bit foggy, Mills was the Native American and U.S. Marine who shocked the world by outsprinting world record holder Ron Clarke of Australia, the pre-race favorite, and Tunisia’s Mohammed Gammoudi down the final straightaway to grab the gold medal in an Olympic record 28:24.4, a PR by almost 50 seconds. It remains the only Olympic gold won by an American in the event and was the only medal of any color until Galen Rupp won silver in London in the race last year.
As shocking as Mills’ victory was, he proved he was no flash-in-the-pan, one hit wonder, as he subsequently set American records for three miles and 10,000m (28:17.6) and tied with the enigmatic Gerry Lindgren for the world record in the six mile run at the 1965 AAU championships, clocking 27:11.6.
The story of an orphaned Oglala Sioux growing up to fashion one of the most stunning upsets in track and field proved tempting fodder for Hollywood, which produced Running Brave, a movie starring Robby Benson, 30 years ago. While the film seems somewhat dated now, the running scenes are more realistic than most running-based movies, and can still serve as inspiration to any individual or team facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge going into a race.
But as stirring as Mills’ life story leading up to his Olympic gold might be, it’s what he has done in the years since he hung up his spikes that should prove truly inspirational.
For most of that time, he has traveled the world as a motivational speaker, but his heart remains focused on helping other young Native Americans achieve success in a society that seems stacked against them. As the national spokesman for Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a non-profit that helps communities with self-sufficiency programs, youth activities and cultural identity projects, he’s brought attention, as well as millions of dollars in contributions, to the plight of young Native Americans, and helped establish running programs in many of their schools and communities as a way of raising self-esteem. As a result, he was honored last year with the Presidential Citizens Medal.
Runners, it seems, are always being tapped by some charity or other, whether for some medical cause or social service program, either through race entry fees or sponsoring fellow runners in a marathon. Here is one spearheaded by one of our nation’s greatest runners, Native American or not. Going to their website and checking out the good they do, and maybe even sending a few dollars their way, would be a fitting way to honor Billy Mills and celebrate his achievement of 49 years ago.