The Olympics has long been an event where dreams come true for athletes. And for the duration of the games, the world seems to come together, united in the common goal of bringing home the gold. United States athlete Billy Mills, however, has proved there's more to winning than getting a golden medal around his neck.
Running Strong for Native American Youth, a group founded by Mills, and the Native American Student Association are bringing Mills to Eastern Washington University on Monday to tell his story.
"Greeks believed Olympians are chosen by the gods, and I liked that idea," says Mills, thinking back to when he was 9 years old. He liked the idea so much, in fact, he became a runner and went on to be the first and only American to win an Olympic gold medal in the 10,000-meter run.
Mills, now 62, is a Lakota Sioux from South Dakota. After being orphaned at an early age, he was sent to boarding school, where he began to take an avid interest in sports. In 1962, Mills graduated from the University of Kansas with a bachelor of science in education, and two years later at the Olympics in Tokyo, he would earn one of the greatest honors in the world.
"It was not my medal, not my records, not the achievement. I took a true sense of global unity from the Olympics," says Mills.
He says he began to realize the Olympics was more than just a game. The theme of the Olympics is, "global unity through the dignity, the character and the beauty of global diversity. That's not only the theme of the Olympics, it's the future of humanity," says Mills. "Socrates said, 'With achievement comes honor, with honor comes responsibility.' "
After his success in the 1964 Olympics, Mills felt he had a certain responsibility, not only to Native Americans, but to people everywhere. He started giving speeches as a way of reaching out to people and sharing his experiences about sports while incorporating Greek mythology and Native American stories.
"I talk about what I took from sports. Sports was to teach life values, and this is sacred," says Mills. He recognizes that not all people will find what they are looking for by doing sports, but he stresses that everyone should find a way to be self-empowered no matter what they are doing.
"I promote finding your passion. Without a passion, we're lost and we look at defeat as failure," says Mills. He found his passion in running, but the wins he accomplished were not his greatest reward.
"Perception is the greatest honor I ever had bestowed upon me," says Mills. To explain this, he uses an experience out of his Native American heritage.
"I was given warrior status in my tribe," he says. The tribe gave him a name that means "loves your country" or "respects the earth." The main things Mills learned from this honor were to be responsible, humble and learn the power of giving. He later realized his perceptions of a warrior were much different from many other people's.
Naming a football team the Washington Redskins was supposed to have been an honor for Native Americans. Mills felt no such honor because one of the origins of this word comes from a sign shopkeepers used to hang in their windows to advertise the sale of Native American body parts. This explains the differences in perception from one person or group to another. "I'm a warrior, not a sports team mascot," says Mills.
"The greatest challenge we face in a changing world is perception," says Mills. "Anytime we face change, we need to be made to feel less threatened by change." Once people begin to open up and see things in a different way, they have increased their perception and thereby increased their knowledge.
"I address the reality," says Mills on the subject of racism. He won his first cross-country meet when he was a sophomore in high school, and the local paper wrote an article about him. "I read my article over and over again. I turned to the front page after I read mine about 12 times, and that was the first time I read the name Thurgood Marshall," says Mills. The story was about Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education. Separate but equal was still the big debate in all of the states, however, there didn't seem to be a place where Native Americans fit into this civil rights battle.
"I saw myself living in a white and black America. Native American issues were swept under the carpet and laid dormant for 30 years," says Mills. He believes that these issues are now being brought into the open in the form of corporate, institutional and political racism. Mills cites when he was approached by Coca-Cola in 1988 as an example of corporate racism.
"Coke was going to use me in a commercial, and I was all excited," he says. Shortly after, they told him they couldn't use him because they looked at their demographics and realized there were only 2 million Native Americans living in the U.S. Apparently, this was not a large enough target for their ad. "It was devastating, but it's life. If I was white, I would break into the endorsement world," says Mills.
Mills is hopeful that the future will open many new doors for Native Americans. "Five to 20 percent of all cases brought before the U.S. Supreme Court pertain to Native American issues. It's time for Bush to nominate a Native American to the U.S. Supreme Court," says Mills. He even has a candidate in mind: John Echohawk, a Pawnee and the executive director of the Native American Rights Fund.
Mills speech at EWU will cover a wide range of ideas all centering on the pursuit of excellence. He doesn't want people to feel like they can't come because they're not Native American or they're not an athlete. Mills guarantees that, "everyone who goes will leave feeling empowered. They'll leave feeling like a better person."
& & & lt;i & Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills will be speaking at Eastern Washington University's Showalter Auditorium on Monday, Jan. 29, at 2 pm. Admission is free and open to the public. Call: 359-4711. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &