In one of the most exciting finishes in Olympic track and field history, unknown American Mills and Tunisia’s Mohamed Gammoudi both improved their personal best times by more than 45 seconds in a monumental reversal of Australian world record holder Ron Clarke in the 10,000-meter in 1964 in Tokyo.
After a seesawing struggle, Mills dashed home past Gammoudi and Clarke to the finish and emerged victorious by three yards. Mills, however, was not allowed to complete the victory lap owing to the many strugglers breasting the tape one after another following him.
Twenty years later, cameraman Bud Greenspan brought Mills to Tokyo for a nostalgic around the oval run reminiscent of the Jessie Owens, who, likewise, denied the honor during the 1936 Games in Berlin.
Mills wasn’t the best United States 10,000 runner who earned a ticket to Tokyo. Ferry Lindgren, who beat Mills black and blue in the Olympic trials, was. Lindgren, thus, became America’s brightest hope for a medal against a star-studded field of international runners that included heavy-favorite Clarke
Also tapped to win were Pyotr Bolotnikov, winner of the 5,000-meter four years ago in Rome, and New Zealand’s Murray Halberg, the 5,000-meer kingpin in the same Games. Mills? Well, quite a few predicted him to land no better than in the top 10.
“My strategy was simply to go out there with the top four runners and stay in contact and hope for the best,” Mills recalled. “But when we reached the halfway mark, I was within one second of my fastest 5,000 meters ever and there was still 5,000 meters to go. I said to myself, I’m going to have to quit.”
Rather than quit, Mills started to sprint and took the lead. “I knew where my wife Patricia was sitting in the stands and I happened to glance up at the spot where she was, so if I quit, maybe she wouldn’t see me.”
“My thoughts were that she was crying and not so much the fact that she knew I was ready to quit. Together we had made a commitment, we had a goal and I was pursuing it, and there was really no way that I could quit,” he said.
As they began he last lap, Clarke bumped into Mills while trying to overtake. The American dropped to third from first. Gammoudi took advantage and overtook, instead Mills and Clarke. It appeared to many the race was over in that situation.
Not to Mills. “Something inside me was saying. ‘There’s still a chance.’ So I started driving. There were fifteen yards in front of me, but it seemed like 50 yards. Then I kept telling myself, ‘I can win … I can win … I can win …. And the next thing I remember I broke the tape.”
The crowd turned hysterical.
Billy Mills had accomplished, perhaps, the greatest upset in Olympic track and field history and, in the process, becoming the only American to ever win the 10,000-meter race.