BY ED CHURCH (April 2020)
When writing a book, self-doubt is never far away. At some point, a familiar question will always find a way of popping into your head… ‘Is this really any good?’. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the whole process of overcoming doubt was something I was keen for my protagonist, Brook Deelman, to go through. I was never that interested in a hero who marches through life with 100% certainty in all they do.
Sport – the thing I used to write about before joining the police – has an interesting relationship with self-doubt. Its professional participants will generally go to great lengths to avoid any outward display of it (in the hope of inducing it in their opponents). And yet, from a spectator’s point of view, the greatest exponents of this are also the least likely to earn a place in the crowd’s hearts. More often than not, it is the cracks in the façade that endear a sportsperson to us, the glimpses of human fragility behind the competitive armour.
It is why, for example, a winning machine such as Pete Sampras will never quite find a place in the Wimbledon crowd’s affections in the same way as Boris Becker – the insecurities worn that bit closer to the surface, the crowd carried along on an emotional journey to victory or defeat. Indeed, it was only in Sampras’ last couple of tournaments, his powers on the wane, that the public’s response began to change from detached admiration to fondness. Champions may seek perfection, but it’s in their imperfection that we warm to them.
Which brings me to the point of this blog post… the last lap of the Olympic 10,000m final, Tokyo 1964. (‘Of course!’ I hear you cry). This little piece of sporting history intrigued me when I first came across it, and now, as someone who tries to write stories, it continues to grip me. As much as any work of fiction, it contains a plot, sub-plot, supporting cast, stunning twist, and one of sport’s greatest vulnerable heroes…
Billy Mills (USA) was the first ever athlete of Native American descent to reach an Olympic final. Raised by siblings after the death of his parents, he found purpose in running during a troubled childhood. An obvious talent throughout college and, later, the military, Mills’ potential was hampered by a recurring problem – sudden blood sugar dips in the closing stages of races (he was, belatedly, diagnosed with diabetes). Nevertheless, as that 10,000m final in Tokyo reached its closing stages, Billy Mills was one of just three men still in contention. As the bell went for the final lap, he took the lead.
Ron Clarke (Australia) was as well-known as Mills was little-known. A multiple world record holder, he was renowned as a ferocious competitor prepared to push his body to the limit time and again (in the high altitude of Mexico City four years later, this would nearly cost him his life). Moments after Mills took the lead, the pugnacious Clarke barged past him on the inside, sending a wobbly Mills staggering into lane three…
If self-doubt was ever going to take hold of Billy Mills, then this was surely the moment. The race was moving way faster than any times he had ever run, a clammy, diabetic sweat was breaking out on his skin, and now – after Clarke’s unceremonious shove – he feared he would fall altogether. Mills stayed upright, only for the diminutive figure of Mohammed Gammoudi (Tunisia) to sweep past both him and Ron Clarke.
Gammoudi was a prodigious talent, at the start of an Olympic career that would see him win medals of all colours across three Games. Here, with 300m still to go, he kicked for home, opening up a sizeable lead over the other two men. With his trademark determination, world champion Clarke gradually began reeling him in as Billy Mills drifted out of the race for gold.
Now, every story needs a story-teller and, in this instance, for millions of Americans at least, that task fell to NBC commentators Bud Palmer and Dick Bank. As the two remaining contenders for gold went through a throng of back-markers on the final bend, Palmer was entirely focused on the enthralling battle between them… ‘Can Ron Clarke catch Gammoudi?… They’re going through the field… He’s coming up… He’s passing Gammoudi!’
It was Palmer’s co-commentator Dick Bank who first noticed something strange was happening further down the field. Watching the footage back, over half a century later, one can still feel the surge of shock and excitement as his words catch in his throat…
Only at the second attempt, is Bank able to get the famous words out.
‘LOOK AT MILLS! LOOK AT MILLS!’
For television viewers, the reason for Bank’s incredulity became clear as Billy Mills charged back into camera shot. From a seemingly forlorn position – both in terms of the race and his own body – the Native American runner was now catching the lead duo at a rate that challenged the brain to believe the eye. He tore past them like an express train overtaking a local service and was still pulling away as he crossed the line to take gold. Astonishingly, Mills had not only beaten Clarke and Gammoudi, he had beaten his own personal best by fully fifty seconds.
As his co-commentator whooped in the background (with the occasional cry of ‘Oh my God!’) Bud Palmer tried to provide some fitting words for the occasion…
‘The mighty Bill Mills! What a tremendous surprise here! Bill Mills of the United States – a tremendous upset – wins the 10,000m. This unheralded runner!’
Dick Bank’s more instinctive reaction to Mills’ explosion of speed did not go down well with his TV bosses. For what they considered an ‘unprofessional outburst’ he never worked another day for NBC. As if to add insult to injury, a bodged studio edit meant primetime news audiences were presented with his iconic audio out of sync (giving the impression he was slow on the uptake rather than the first to spot what was happening).
Thankfully, history was kinder to Bank. The original live broadcast of the final lap is now widely available and, more than five decades later, ‘LOOK AT MILLS! LOOK AT MILLS!’ continues to feature in polls of the greatest ever sports calls.
Billy Mills went on to dedicate his life to public-spirited endeavours. As well as speaking on diabetes prevention, he is co-founder of an organisation that, among other things, helps disadvantaged Native American youth find self-esteem. Fifty-six years after taking Olympic gold against all the odds, now aged 81, he is still helping others overcome self-doubt.