He is 74 now, almost 50 summers from when he stunned the Tokyo Olympics by rocketing past the greatest 10,000-meter runners in the world in the final 100 meters for the gold medal — a performance ranked by Runner’s World magazine as the second-greatest Olympic moment.
“You still look fast,” President Obama quipped to a smiling Billy Mills when they met Friday morning.
I went to the White House partly to see Mills receive the nation’s second-highest civilian honor — the Presidential Citizens Medal. He was one of 18 honorees, including six Sandy Hook Elementary School teachers who gave their lives to protect their pupils, whose family members received their medals amid a room full of tears.
I went because I know Billy and what he has done for Running Strong for American Indian Youth, his foundation that for the past 26 years has drilled wells, donated coats to children, plowed grow-your-own farms and ran food-bank programs on his native Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota as well as in other parts of Indian country.
But mostly I went to the White House on Friday to see authentic human majesty — because there seems to be so little left in the athletes we now gullibly call our heroes.
If you would have told me the double-amputee track star they called the Blade Runner — who incredibly ran on carbon-fiber prosthetics at the London Games this past summer and beat able-bodied Olympians to the tape — would be charged in the shooting death of his model girlfriend two days ago, I would have said you’re delusional.
But today they write headlines about Oscar Pistorius, days ago perhaps the most popular South African since Nelson Mandela, that begin “Blade Gunner.”
Police said there had been previous incidents at the home, allegedly “of a domestic nature,” flying in the face of reports that Pistorius might have mistaken the woman as an intruder.
I stood inches from this man after one of his Olympic qualifying heats, heard him almost break down talking about a letter his mother had written him and its inspiring message: “A loser isn’t the person that gets involved and comes last, but it’s the person that doesn’t get involved in the first place.”
After trying to make the Olympic standard for six years, he said, almost overcome with emotion, “It’s very difficult to separate the occasion from the race.”
What did I miss? What did everyone miss? The more that comes out about his anger and his recklessness — speedboat wrecks, violent threats, a gun obsession — it’s almost as if no one wanted to pull back those layers because they didn’t fit the “Fastest Man With No Legs” script.
No, we decided, Oscar was just adventurous. He was an action figure come to life, the great hope for the physically challenged everywhere.
Why do we keep searching for real-life inspiration from our athletic heroes after they do so much to disappoint us as citizens?
On and on the contradictions go, the reality that many champions of sport are hardly champions of life.
Before the next definitive magazine or broadcast piece is written or taped, can’t we just admit we don’t really know anybody anymore. We think we do, but we don’t. And more than ever we’re duped by Web sites and handlers who feed false narratives that carefully camouflage flawed humans who happen to be great at what they do.
If we genuinely are going to enjoy sports on any guiltless level, isn’t there a need to permanently separate the song from the singer, the performer from the performance?
I thought about that as Billy Mills spoke Friday.
“In my own struggle, growing up an orphan, almost committing suicide when I felt broken by the racism around me, then looking toward Native American virtues and values to overcome that,” he began. “Then winning the gold medal, knowing it was an incredible gift given to me and helping others afterward, this is just an affirmation of the journey. I’m very humbled to receive this award.”
Mills said he heard about Pistorius’s arrest shortly before he flew from his home in Sacramento to Washington. “Just shock, that’s all I felt,” he said. “I couldn’t believe the story, it was so awful.”
When I told him it was hard to believe in heroism beyond the court or field anymore, Mills nodded.
“The only downfall of our beautiful free-enterprise system is profit at all cost,” he said. “When you pursue profit at all costs, you’re having to let go of some beautiful strengths you still have within you. You lose sight of virtues and values that made a Lance Armstrong, virtues and values that make all of us.
“We all make mistakes — I’ve probably made multitudes of mistakes I can’t probably ever ask forgiveness for. But it’s the virtues and values that keep us going forward.”
How to find our way back, then, to the time when physical rigor was thought to build moral character, when Olympians went home and became greater citizens than they were athletic stars?
Billy Mills nodded again. “The greatest degree of freedom many times calls for the greatest degree of discipline,” he said.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.