America is all about winning: being the best, strongest, most powerful. Every four years when the Olympics come around, it is a chance for us to once again show our superiority over the rest of the world in total medals won. Nowadays, our focus is on events with the marquee names: swimming with Michael Phelps, gymnastics with Shawn Johnson, and track and field with Usain Bolt. When we look at track and field, a lot of people watch the events to see the “world’s fastest man” in the 100 and 200. No one really seems to care about anything longer than an eighth of a mile. I wonder sometimes if people even know how many miles make up a 10k race. If I told you that one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history came from a 10k, not many people would believe it. Yet, this is most certainly the truth.
Let’s pretend for a moment it is 1964. We are in Tokyo gearing up for the 10,000 meter final. Dominating the public’s eye is Ron Clarke, the world leader in the 10k who is representing his native Australia. Among him are the various Kenyans, Ethiopians that have come to dominate long distance track. Lost in this group of ultra-skinny, mess of tight muscles is Billy Mills, a Native American who hails from the Lakota Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Everyone is counting him out; most people do not even know who he is. But, he is about to shock everyone and win this race.
Billy Mills is the only American man to ever win the 10,000 meter race. He was also the second Native American to ever win an Olympic medal. His win is not only impressive from those figures, but also the stats and perspectives facing him. He bested his personal best by 46 seconds to win this race. Nobody put him in contention. But, he did. He did because of what his culture taught him as a kid. Like many runners, running was his way to get away. It also enabled him to form an identity as a warrior like his father (3/4 Sioux) taught him growing up. It was a way to blunt the rejection and insults he faced as a Native American growing up in a prejudice nation. His story is almost like Shoni’s of a couple blog posts ago. Instead of retreating into the reservation, they are broadcasting the talents and skills that Native Americans have. They are providing a sense of pride and identity for their respective nations.
The story continues after the race. While gaining fame for this momentous occasion, Mills never forgot where he came from. He has co-founded “Running Strong for American Indian Youth” which ” helps “American Indian people meet their immediate survival needs – food, water, and shelter – while implementing and supporting programs designed to create opportunities for self-sufficiency and self-esteem.” He still speaks to Native American youths and contributes a lot to charities. Billy Mills is a person that not only young Native Americans, but every young person can look up to for what he does on and off the track.
Courtesy of Indian Country Today