Published on February 27, 2013 by Amy
William Mervin “Billy” Mills, also known as Makata Taka Hela (born June 30, 1938), is the second Native American to win an Olympic gold medal. He accomplished this feat in the 10,000 meter run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, becoming the only American ever to win the Olympic gold in this event. His 1964 victory is considered one of the greatest of Olympic upsets. A former United States Marine, Billy Mills is a member of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Tribe.
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William Mervin Mills was born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and was raised on the impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for Oglala Sioux people. He was orphaned when he was twelve years old and was raised by his grandmother. Mills took up running while attending the Haskell Institute, which is now known as Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. Both a boxer and a runner in his youth, Mills gave up boxing to focus on running.
He attended the University of Kansas on an athletic scholarship. He was named a NCAA All-America cross-country runner three times and in 1960 he won the individual title in the Big Eight cross-country championship. The University of Kansas track team won the 1959 and 1960 outdoor national championships while Mills was on the team.
After graduating with a degree in Physical Education, Mills entered the United States Marine Corps. He was a First Lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserves when he competed in the 1964 Olympics.
Billy Mills qualified for the 1964 Summer Olympics on the U.S. Track and Field Team in the 10,000 meter and the marathon. The favorite in 1964 for the 10,000 m was Ron Clarke of Australia who held the world record. The runners expected to challenge him were defending champion Pyotr Bolotnikov of the Soviet Union, and Murray Halberg of New Zealand, who had won the 5000 m in 1960.
Mills was a virtual unknown. He had finished second in the U.S. Olympic trials. His time in the preliminaries was a full minute slower than Clarke’s. Clarke set the tone of the race. His tactic of surging every other lap appeared to be working. Halfway through the race, only four runners were still with Clarke: Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia, Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan, and Mills. Tsuburaya, the local favorite, lost contact first, then Wolde. With two laps to go, only two runners were still with Clarke. On paper, it seemed to be Clarke’s race. He had run a world record time of 28:15.6 while neither Gammoudi nor Mills had ever run under 29 minutes.
Mills and Clarke were running together with Gammoudi right behind as they entered the final lap. They were lapping other runners and, down the backstretch, Clarke was boxed in. He pushed Mills once, then again. Then Gammoudi pushed them both and surged into the lead as they rounded the final curve. Clarke recovered and began chasing Gammoudi while Mills appeared to be too far back to be in contention. Clarke failed to catch Gammoudi, but Mills pulled out to lane 3 and sprinted past them both. His winning time of 28:24.4 was almost 50 seconds faster than he had run before and set a new Olympic record for the event. No American had ever before won the 10,000 m, nor had one come seriously close until Galen Rupp took the silver at the 2012 London Olympics.
American television viewers were able to hear the surprise and drama as NBC expert analyst Dick Bank screamed, “Look at Mills, look at Mills” over the more sedate play-by-play announcer Bud Palmer, who seemed to miss what was unfolding. For bringing that drama to the coverage, Bank was fired.
After the race, Mills talked with Clarke and asked if he was straining as hard as he could on the final straightaway to the finish, to which Clarke replied, “Yes.” Mills has stated that he tried to be relaxed during his final kick to the finish line and felt that helped him to pass both Gammoudi and Clarke. Both Clarke and Mills ran the marathon at the 1964 Olympics after the 10,000 m event. Clarke finished in 9th place, and Mills finished in 14th, in a respectable 2:22:55.4, approximately two-and-a-half minutes behind Clarke.
Mills later set U.S. records for 10,000 m (28:17.6) and the three-mile run, and had a 5,000 m best of 13:41.4. In 1965, he and Gerry Lindgren both broke the world record for the six-mile run when they finished in a tie at the AAU National Championships, running 27:11.6.