Billy Mills

Billy Mills Is Still Golden, 50 Years Later

Rodney Harwood

The field involved an insane number of 38 runners, so there were several stragglers that weren’t even on the final lap as the leaders jockeyed for position in the final 400 meters.

“I read in the paper that [Clarke] lost the Commonwealth Games the year before because he allowed himself to get boxed in,” Mills said. “Going into the bell lap, I moved onto Clarke’s shoulder and I could see about 10 yards ahead there were runners we were ready to lap. I accelerated to cut in and he accelerated not to let me cut in. So I thought I’d just stay right here and run him into the back (of a straggler), which is legal. He panicked and pushed me out. My quad buckled a little and I thought I was going to go down.”

The dream could have ended right there, but for the grace of the Creator. Mills regained stride, but stumbled out into lane 4 to stay on his feet. On the backstretch, Gammoudi made his move, cutting between Mills and Clarke to take the lead.

“When I saw Clarke push you, ‘My daddy said, poor Billy, he’s out of the race. My friend Billy’s out of the race,” Nadia said to Mills, conveying Gammoudi’s thoughts. “He’s off balance. Clarke’s off balance, I must strike now. My daddy struck, but you recovered. When you closed back on Clarke’s shoulder, you closed the window of opportunity for my daddy.”

Billy Mills at the 1964 Olympic Games. (Associated Press)

Reports before the race said Clarke had everything to lose and Mills nothing to lose. But that wasn’t true. Mills was running for the Creator, running for the People, running for his own father, who taught him how to chase a dream. As a United States Marine and a Lakota warrior, his mindset after Clarke’s push was somewhere between “Oorah” and “Hoka, Hey.”

“I was angry. I wanted to hit somebody,” Mills recalled with a laugh. “But my main concern was that I was going into low blood sugar. I was diagnosed as borderline diabetic and hypoglycemic nine months before the Games. So I let them get 10 yards ahead of me before I’d make another try.”

Mills waited the entire back straight, knowing if he mistimed his final push his body would lockup and the dream would die 200 meters from the finish line. Gammoudi put the hammer down, sensing gold. Clarke had nothing left, but remained in second. Mills sat in third with an impossible task of running lane 2 to the tape.


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