SI Vault
John Underwood
October 26, 1964
Gold medals were coming America's way in bargain-basement lots at the Tokyo Olympics. Two of them—for the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs—were treasures
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 26, 1964

We Win The Five And Ten

Gold medals were coming America's way in bargain-basement lots at the Tokyo Olympics. Two of them—for the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs—were treasures

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

But the mysterious Mills, shaking his hands at his sides as if to coax out all the tension that was building, clung to the leaders, lap after tiring lap, until he was one of only three of the 36 starters still in touch with Clarke, who had set or forced the pace the entire way. Four times Mills seemed to drop from contention, falling as much as 15 yards behind, but each time he came on again to rejoin the leaders. Five times he actually took the lead, but more often the pacesetter was Clarke or the Ethiopian, Mamo Walde, or the Tunisian army sergeant, Mohamed Gammoudi.

With 2� laps to go, Walde began to fade, and now there were three, winding their way in and out of a tangled mass of stragglers who had been lapped by the leaders. It was a terrible traffic jam and when, with one lap to go, Clarke decided to make his move he found himself boxed in by Mills on his right and a straggler in front. To get around he moved out and pushed against Mills. At almost the same moment Gammoudi, running third, had started his kick and found Clarke and Mills in his way. The Tunisian put his hands together as if to begin a comic dive and shoved between them, getting the lead as Mills broke stride and stumbled out across the track. ("It was a break," he said later. "Out there I found harder ground, better traction, and I was able to pick up immediately.") Clarke, who had turned to Mills as though to apologize, immediately went after Gammoudi, but Mills, who lost several yards recovering from the stumble, seemed out of it. At the turn into the stretch, however, he lengthened his stride and picked up speed, and as he came down the stretch, well out in the middle of the track, he suddenly loomed large on Clarke's right shoulder. Mills lammed past the Australian, caught Gammoudi 20 yards from the tape and crossed the finish line three yards ahead.

Mills then had to endure his first press conference. He told of being orphaned at 13, of attending high school on an Indian reservation, of starting to run because he wanted to train to be a boxer (the 16-ounce gloves eventually proved too heavy), of moving to the University of Kansas for an undistinguished career as a collegiate runner ("I didn't get along with the coach,") and finally of becoming a Marine platoon leader at Camp Pendleton in California. His wife Patsy, who was with him through the long interview, had to correct him when he reported their daughter's age as 16 months instead of 17. Afterward, as Billy and Patsy strolled out of the stadium gate with teammate Don Jeisy and his wife, Mrs. Jeisy fashioned an imaginary banner in the sky: "I can see it now—BILLY MILLS DAY AT CAMP PENDLETON." Mills said, "Yeah. Then maybe I can get some of those guys to obey orders."

If obeying orders is not an American characteristic, it is a Soviet one, and when Nikita Khrushchev finished out of the money in a private Kremlin popularity poll there was consternation in Russian quarters in Tokyo. "There is utter panic," said one Russian. The word in Russian is panika, and he used it again, "panika" and still again, "panika." He paused, a man acquainted with uncertainties. "It makes you have second thoughts about going back."

Eight of the 14 days of Olympic competition had passed, and for the Russians it had been eight days that must have seemed like eight Five-Year Plans fully carried out. A strong person could develop vertigo just following the spirals of their ups and downs. On the first Sunday, Alexy Vakhonin, a bantamweight weight lifter from the Ukraine, won the first gold medal of the Games and acclaimed it "the best present for the motherland." That afternoon propaganda booklets telling of the sweet life in Russia were placed at the Olympic Village cafeteria entrance for American athletes to trip over. That night in the Russian quarters there was cutting of pirog (Russian cake) to celebrate Vakhonin's victory, and the Russians agreed that as the days wore on and their superiority was established they would have their pirog and eat it, too, after each new victory. On Monday, a Russian seaman jumped the Olympic ship S.S. Uritsky in Yokohama harbor and begged political refuge. (At the Olympic Village, American Shotputter Parry O'Brien predicted that "at least three" Soviet athletes would do the same before the Games were over, but he was merely parroting a rumor that had been whispered around the Village indiscriminately since opening day.) On Tuesday three Russian cosmonauts who had been cast into space were reeled in again safely, right on the eve of the track-and-field competition. On Wednesday, however, Billy Mills won the 10,000, which the Russians consider their special cup of borsch. Russian Pyotr Bolotnikov, winner in Rome in 1960, did not even place. A Russian official charged the Americans half seriously with harboring a secret weapon in Mills.

By Thursday, American swimmers were firmly enshrined as the alltime heads of the class (page 30), American track-and-field athletes were more than holding their own, an American divinity student, Gary Anderson, had won the gold medal in free-rifle competition, the Vesper Boat Club had reestablished American supremacy in eight-oared rowing, and anyone at the Olympics who by now could not hum The Star-Spangled Banner had to have ear trouble.

In the Russian barracks there was fear that the pirog might go stale, so new ground rules for celebrating were set up. "The golden era is passed," said one Soviet athlete, dramatically raising an imaginary glass, "begins the bronze era." The cake-cutting resumed.

Then, on Thursday midnight, there went Khrushchev and the next day, Friday, the Red Chinese fired off a nuclear bomb. Finally, on Sunday morning, the eighth day, there began a rain that was to last until nightfall, and Tokyo papers advised their readers that a little radioactive fallout from the Chinese bomb test might be included with the morning edition. But in the rain (and the fallout) Schul won the 5,000. After eight days, the Americans had won 29 gold medals to Russia's 13, and in total medals (gold, silver, bronze), led 68 to 40. Russian victories were sure to come in gymnastics, boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, cycling, shooting and fencing, but would they now be enough? Possibly. But the Soviets would be hard pressed to repeat their "unofficial" team victories at Rome and Melbourne, and they definitely had lost ground in track and field.

On the other hand, the Americans had made up ground lost in Rome by winning both sprints—Bob Hayes at 100 meters and Henry Carr at 200—and, though there was international improvement and increased representation in almost every event, the Americans held fast. Al Oerter, the two-time Olympic discus champion, tore muscles and cartilage in his back overextending a throw and was unable to work effectively. He talked of withdrawing ("I do not like to be mediocre") but then thought better of it. His first practice throw in the competition doubled him up, but he continued. To stop internal bleeding, he had frozen his side with ice packs, but the pain persisted. In the discus finals he consistently threw low for the first four of his allotted six throws and trailed Ludvik Danek, the world-record holder from Czechoslovakia. On his fifth throw, however, he came up nicely and put 61 meters (200 feet 1� inches) between himself and the discus to win his third straight gold. Later, a foreign newsman told him that Danek had trained in a private camp, with his wife, for six months prior to the Games. "How do you get a deal like that?" Oerter asked. "Well," said the writer, "you have to live in Czechoslovakia."

Pole Vaulter John Pennell, the first man to clear 17 feet, reinjured his back and was unable to vault almost from the time he got to Tokyo. He tried for the finals but had to quit after two jumps. He watched as teammate Fred Hansen, whipping into the black Tokyo night after nearly 9� hours of poke-along competition, won at 16 feet 8� inches, also an Olympic record. Hayes Jones and Blaine Lindgren ran one-two in the 110-meter high hurdles. Lindgren stumbled from the lead with less than five meters to go, on a track made slippery by the rain. Jones said he was retiring as of that moment. Rex Cawley, forced to take mincing steps when the wind forced him close to the barrier on the backstretch, came on strong to win the 400-meter hurdles. And Mike Larrabee won the 400 meters over Trinidad's (and Yale's) favored Wendell Mottley.

Continue Story
1 2 3