Running Right into the History Books

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

Billy Mills's come-from-behind victory in the 10,000 meters is still considered one of the greatest Olympic upsets of all time. Photo courtesy of Kansas Athletics, Inc.

Billy Mills’s come-from-behind victory in the 10,000 meters is still considered one of the greatest Olympic upsets of all time. Photo courtesy of Kansas Athletics, Inc.

As the runners pulled into the last stretch of the 10,000 meters in the 1964 Olympics, all eyes were on Australian Ron Clarke, who held the world record in the event and was heavily favored to win.

Then came Billy Mills, veering in from the fourth lane and sprinting past Clarke and the other top contenders to take gold—a feat no American had ever accomplished in the 10,000 meters, and which hasn’t been repeated since.

Although not from Kansas originally, Mills’s connections to the state are strong. He began running while attending the Haskell Institute (now the Haskell Indian Nations University) in Lawrence and later attended the University of Kansas on an athletic scholarship, where he excelled both as an individual runner and as a member of the 1959 and 1960 national championship outdoor track teams.

Mills’s stunning Olympics victory cemented his place in Kansas sports history, and he has since used that fame to promote health initiatives to reduce rates of diabetes among Native Americans. Only the second Native American to win an Olympic gold medal—the first was the great Jim Thorpe—Mills is devoted to giving back to Native American communities. Recently, he partnered with the Kickapoo Nation located near Horton to break ground on the Billy Mills Kickapoo Tribe Cross Country Park. Kickapoo tribal chairman Steve Cadue met Mills in 1965, when he watched Mills compete in Germany the year after Mills won his medal.

A fun fact: Mills’s underdog Olympics triumph was so unexpected that one of the American television commentators barely seemed to notice it happening. His fellow commentator, however, definitely noticed: “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” he shouted enthusiastically as Mills passed silver medalist Mohammed Gammoudi and eventual bronze medalist Clarke.  You can watch a clip of the historic moment here.