Tokyo Olympics sure to provide wow moments, just like 1964

Ian O’Riordan: Story of Billy Mills’ 10,000m gold an inspiring tale of overcoming adversity

They reopened The Blue Light this week, and on Thursday evening the summer light was working its old magic across the calm panorama of Dublin Bay, from Killiney to Howth, the city spread out below in perfect miniature.

It’s still one of my favourite spots this time of year, when that view from the Dublin mountains to the Irish sea makes living up here feel like a wonderful idea, unlike those icy winter nights, when it feels like complete madness.

Refreshing local quarrymen since the 1700s, The Blue Light earned a gentle reputation for being a little rough and rowdy over the years, but not anymore: it’s retained its charm and enhanced its originality and you can now be fed and watered, the politely enforced need for social distancing placing extra tables in the front car park, where that view always comes for free.

It also felt strange sitting up there on Thursday, knowing it could have been a bar somewhere in Tokyo, on the eve of the opening ceremony for the 2020 Olympics, where after seven years of meticulously expensive planning Japan would become the centre of the world. Turns out the world had other ideas.


It felt strange too because The Blue Light was always one of the first ports of call after coming back from the Olympics, the perfect re-entry point from that sense of being taken out of this world. From the steamy three weeks in Athens, T-shirt plastered to the back in sweat; from the wide and curious Beijing, so perfectly fake in parts; from the hype and hullabaloo of London, where even you came calling; from the chaos and crime of Rio de Janeiro, where at least there was something in the water.

Hope and reason

Still throughout them all, for better or for worse, believable or otherwise, no sporting event on earth presents more wows than the Olympics. Enough to give hope and reason for the Games to begin again a year from now, with some reminders this week too of the lasting wows that came with the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, beginning with the story of Billy Mills, the Native American who won the 10,000m against every sporting odd and then some.

With the possible exception of Abebe Bikila defending his Olympic marathon title, 40 days after an appendectomy, no athlete provided a bigger wow in Tokyo than Mills, and for good reason. His story also holds up 56 years later for reasons beyond just sport, but as a reminder of the racism and inequality in America which in parts still exists today, and which Mills himself, now 82, is still fighting against.

Mills was born into the Sioux tribe of the Oglala Lakota, and grew up in the desolate poverty of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota, where alcohol was always ripe. His mother died when he was eight, and his father died when he was 12, and not long after that he was sent to the Haskell Indian School in Kansas, where he first showed his promise as a distance runner.

As a college career beckoned, Mills was offered a running scholarship to the University of Kansas, around the same time my dad finished up at Tralee CBS and got a similar offer from Idaho State University. These were competitive days and they crossed tracks several times, including at the 1959 NCAA Cross Country in East Lansing Michigan, where Tom O’Riordan finished fifth, and Billy Mills finished sixth.

It was also around this time that Mills faced a different sort of challenge, when the leading finishers of a cross country race gathered to get their photograph taken: “Then I heard one photographer, ‘you, yeah, you, the darker-skinned one, I want you out of the photo,’ and that just went to the depths of my soul, it broke me.” Mills later recalled in Tales of Gold.

He returned to his hotel, climbed up on a chair and considered jumping out of the window, before the comforting words of his late father following his mother’s death came back to him, telling him that it takes a dream to heal broken hearts. With Mills got down from the chair and wrote himself a simple message: “Gold medal. Olympic 10,000m run”.

The two crossed tracks again in Tokyo, five years after East Lansing, only this time in different events, my dad going out in his heat of the 5,000m, Mills going on to win that 10,000m final as he’d once promised himself – the first and last American of any background to do so.

It didn’t come easy: he did run a six-mile time that ranked him eighth in the world going to Tokyo, but no one gave Mills, then 26, a chance of winning, not against the likes Ron Clarke, the Australian world record holder, who broke 12 world best marks in 1965, plus the likes of Ethiopia’s Mamo Wolde and the formidable Mohanned Gammoudi of Tunisia.

Clarke set off on the 25 laps at world record pace, and by halfway only that quartet remained: Clarke, Wolde, Gammoudi and Mills. At the bell, Clarke elbowed Mills into the next lane, and into the homestretch, it was still between Clarke and Gammoudi, until Mills blazed past them both, producing one the most decisive finishing kicks in Olympic history.

Heights of Tokyo

Seven days later Mills also finished 14th in the marathon, behind Bikila, and although he never regained the heights of Tokyo, he dedicated the rest of his life to empowering American Indians, writing two books about Lakota life lessons, and also co-founding Running Strong for American Indian Youth, which in 2012 earned him a Presidential Citizens Medal from Barack Obama.

Everything about the Billy Mills story is a reminder too about what we miss about live sport – track, field, or anything else – and that simple and irreplaceable need to still search out that wow factor, no matter how near or far.

Such as to the Moyne athletics track, just outside Thurles, where on Saturday afternoon, before no spectators but streamed live on their Facebook page, a small field of Ireland’s top distance runners will line up with one big thing in mind. Among them will be Andrew Coscoran, who in January joined the still elite club of 44 Irish sub-four minute milers, clocking 3:56.85 indoors in Boston, and also Sean Tobin, who has run 3:57.00, both now coached by the progressive mind of Feidhlim Kelly at the Dublin Track Club.

Because in the long history of Irish sub-four minute miles, starting with Ronnie Delany in 1956, the vast majority have been run in either Dublin or Cork, the rest either in the UK or America.

Wow – Irishman runs first sub-four mile in Tipperary!