“Tokyo Olympiad,” a documentary about the 1964 Summer Olympic Games, was partly fictitious — a gold medalist “acted” to re-create an iconic scene at the request of the film’s legendary director, Kon Ichikawa.
“Along the marathon course, there was no place to film a runner with the Olympic cauldron flame” with National Stadium visible in the distance, recalled Masuo Yamaguchi, 82, who filmed the race.
“Kon wanted that scene by any means, found a place for it near the stadium and asked Abebe (Bikila) to run there” the day after the actual race, Yamaguchi said.
The Ethiopian runner agreed — and ran about 100 meters wearing the same gear he had worn the previous day when he won his second Olympic marathon gold medal. He had won the first four years earlier, at the Rome Games, where he had run barefoot.
When an assistant director sprayed water on Bikila’s neck to make him look like he was sweating, Bikila “appeared offended but ran pleasantly,” Yamaguchi recalled.
A four-second clip from the fictitious scene was included in the official film of the 1964 Summer Olympic Games.
Yamaguchi recalled the anecdote as Japan kicks off preparations to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. The organizing committee has yet to decide whether to produce a documentary film this time around.
Yamaguchi filmed the 1964 marathon from a specially modified Chevrolet convertible work. He tracked Bikila, who was leaving the other runners far behind.
But at one point, Yamaguchi heard a radio reporter say that Japan’s Kokichi Tsuburaya was in second place.
As there was no time to turn around, Yamaguchi screamed at the driver and told him to reverse. Even when a race official protested from a nearby vehicle, Yamaguchi kept telling the driver to “Go! Go! Go!”
“I was excited because Japan’s national flag would be hoisted at the main stadium for the first time,” he recalled.
After reversing for about 500 meters, he saw Tsuburaya running down a hill.
Yamaguchi’s decision meant that the documentary contains actual film of Tsuburaya running the course, with people cheering ecstatically from the sidelines. However, he was overtaken at the very end of the 42-km race, during the last few hundred meters run in the stadium, to take the bronze medal.
“Tokyo Olympiad” was completed in March 1965. Although a documentary, it did not focus exclusively on athletic events, as Ichikawa had told his staff to capture “the spirit of the Olympics.”
The Japanese Olympic Committee displays a statement by Ichikawa — “I did not want to make a mere documentary film” — on its website.
As the sun and Olympic flame were the theme of the movie, Ichikawa “needed Abebe and the Olympic cauldron flame,” Yamaguchi said.
The work was criticized by Ichiro Kono, the Cabinet minister in charge of the Olympics, for “ignoring the nature of the film as a documentary.”
However, well-known actress Hideko Takamine defended Ichikawa, triggering heated debate over whether the movie should be seen as an “artistic or documentary” work.
“Tokyo Olympiad” was viewed by nearly 20 million people, partly because the debate stimulated public interest.
Olympic documentaries have not been produced since the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, where Ichikawa was one of eight directors involved in producing the official film.
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