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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Billy Mills: Running Brave in Tokyo

The burden of being the favourite in an Olympic Games event can be both a boon and burden. Over the 112 years of the modern Summer and Winter Games many a pre-event world champion or world record holder had taken their standing as a platform for launching their ascendancy over their Olympic competitors. Michael Phelps in Beijing 2008 was is just one of the most recent examples of this situation, and the same could be said about Maurice Greene in Sydney 2000. On the other hand an athlete who was considered a certainty for Olympic gold because of their pre-games form or ranking has been known to blow up, lose out to a near rival or even a complete unknown. Matt Biondi felt this particularly painful sting when Duncan Armstrong literally surfed to a world record and gold medal over the leading qualifier in the 200 metres fresstyle final in Seoul 1988, followed by an equally surprising loss to Anthony Nesty from Surinam in the 100 metres butterfly at the same Olympics. For Ron Clarke his Olympic career will always be known for his role as the defeated favourite in the men's 10,000 metres final in Tokyo, when William 'Billy' Mills took gold with an audacious and historic run.

These two greats of Olympic distance running in the 1960s came from very different backgrounds. Clarke was an Australian from the host city of the 1956 Summer Olympics, Melbourne and had the great honour of lighting the cauldron at the opening ceremony of those games. Immediately prior to these Olympics Ron Clarke had featured in a famous 1500 metres final at the Australian national championships when after tripping. The second man to break four minutes for the mile, John Landy stopped after accidentally spiking Clarke, helped him up and then completed the race winning the title. This was but the first time Clarke would be involved in great drama on the athletics track. The Australian's athletics career was put aside after the Melbourne Olympics and it took until 1962 before he re-emerged as a world class distance runner. His efforts at that year's Perth Commonwealth Games were encouraging, and in 1963 Clarke finally set his first world record over the 10,000 metres. It was hoped by his Australian fans that Ron Clarke would follow on the traditions set by the likes of Landy and Herb Elliott, and collect gold in Tokyo 1964.

Billy Mills came from a somewhat different background prior to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Born in Pine Ridge South Dakota, Mills was one of twelve children and had been orphaned at the age of twelve, whereupon he was sent ot the Haskall Insitute in Kansas. Taking up running originally because he was interested in boxing, the part-Lakota Native American then developed further as a distance runner at the University of Kansas, where Mills was coached by Bill Easton. During his time at the University of Kansas Billy Mills established himself in NCAA amateur athletic meets with some strong performances in 1959-1960. Then Mills joined the United States Marine Corps, and after qualifying as a Second Lieutenant in December 1962 he served in motor transport units of the USMC. By the time of the trials for the US Olympic team in 1964 he was based at Camp Pendleton, California. At those trials he ran 29 minutes 10.4 seconds for the 10,000 metres, almost a minute slower than Clarke's world record time of 28 minutes 15.6 seconds. Mills was the second US entrant for this event as he was beaten by Gerry Lindgren; so when it came to pre-race favourites for the Tokyo Olympics Billy Mills was way way under the radar.

Coming into the Tokyo 1964 Summer Olympics Ron Clarke was the world record holder for the 10,000 metres plus a well-regarded contender for the 5000 metres. It was widely expected that the Australian would be the one to beat in the longer of the two races. There were others with some claim, amongst them Degaga 'Mamo' Wolde from Ethiopia, Murray Halberg (NZL), defending Rome 1960 10,000 metres gold medallist Pyotr Bolotnikov (URS) and Tunisian Mohammad Gammoudi. The American pair of Lindgren and Mills were not ranked as gold medal hopes, and it looked even less hopeful for the US athletics team in Tokyo just two days before the 10,000 metres final. Lindgren twisted his ankle near the Meiji shrine whilst running a practice cross-country course and then ignoring advice he failed to get the injury treated for at least three hours. It looked fairly bleak for those who were hoping to hear the 'Star Spangled Banner' played after the longest men's athletics race in the main Olympic stadium in Tokyo.

The day of the 10,000 metres final in Tokyo was held on a wet track at 4.00 pm on Tuesday July 14th, 1964. Seventeen nations had competitors in the final, with 28 men expected to chase Ron Clarke to the final line. Clarke's tactics were to surge every second lap, and with his ability to burn off his competitors he hoped this would bring him the gold. Surprisingly Billy Mills was running the 10,000 metres in borrowed shoes as the US team's shoe sponsors said there were only enough for potential winners. Between the world record holder an a US Marine in borrowed track shoes there seemed a huge unbridgable gulf. But these were the Olympic finals...

The race started as expected with Clarke in the front grouping, accompanied by Gammoudi, Walde and local favourite for the Japanese supporters Kokichi Tsuburaya. Mills was seen to drop back from these front runners four times, and at one stage was nearly 14 metres behind Clarke and the other leaders. However even though he was often caught up in the bunch of slower competitors Mills returned on each of the four occasions to rejoin the leading group. He even took the lead five times, but Clarke reasserted control of the race so that by the last 1000 metres the gold medal looked to be the Australian's with the rest of the field to fight over the minor medals.

Walde dropped away at this mark, leaving Clarke, Gammoudi, Tsuburaya and Mills fighting out the medal hunt. The Japanese was dropped off by the last lap, leaving the Australian, the Tunisian and the American running abreast for the final 400 metres. In the back straight Clarke was blocked to the front by a straggler from the back of the field, and at the side by Mills. Trying to get a clear run the world record holder tapped the USMC officer, attempting to get Mills to give way. Mills stayed in his path, so Clarke shoved making the American veer off to the right of the track. Seeing an opening the Tunisian Gammoudi sprinted between the leaders, grabbing the front for himself. Gammoudi lengthened his lead as Mills reattached himself to Clarke, and these were the placings as the three struggled to pass slower competitors. Later Clarke would describe the crowded final lap "like a dash for a train in a peak-hour crowd", whilst Mills was able to say of his brief shoving with Clarke "It was a break, out there I found harder ground, better traction, and I was able to pick up immediately". The Australian realised that he had to bridge the gap that Gammoudi had established, so he began a final spurt. Mills appeared to be out of it, but his desire to stay in the chase kept him nipping at Clarke's heels.

At the beginning of the home stretch Clarke caught Gammoudi and it appeared that he was going to take the gold everyone expected. Yet Gammoudi came again and then, with an amazing rush whilst going through more stragglers Billy Mills hurtled forward like a sprinter. Gammoudi was well in front of Clarke as Mills passed the Tunisian and then to the astonishment of all in the event and watching the American crossed the finish line. His gold medal was won in a time almost 45 seconds faster than he had ever run the 10,000 metres before, plus he had beaten a man who was considered the best runner over that distance in the world at that time. Clarke the world record holder had taken bronze behind Gammoudi, but it was Billy Mills who had made Olympic history.

As Mills was slowing down from his supreme efforts a Japanese official came over to him. For a moment the American was uncertain what he was saying, and whether he had in fact finished too early. It then dawned on him that he was being asked repeatedly "Who are you? Who are you?" An unknown before the 10,000 metres the Japanese official hadn't recognised the gold medallist. Then the same official said "Finished," and it sank in for Billy; he was the 10,000 metres gold medallist and the first American to achieve this honour at the Olympic Games.

The manner in which Mills won his gold medal showed that in an Olympics there will be moments of unscripted heroics. Ron Clarke was unbackable as a favourite, and his efforts to replicate the achievements of the great Emil Zatopek would normally have been considered unlikely but probable. Billy Mills on the other hand had only one race in Tokyo and he was not expected to have any effect. Instead Clarke would walk away from these Olympics with no gold, and in fact end up setting 19 world records without ever finishing first at the Summer Games. It was Billy Mills who would have the honour of being known as an Olympic gold medal champion.



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2 comments:

derblitz said...

One correction: Billy Mills also ran the marathon later in the olympics and finished 14th. I loved the story though.

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