The 1964 Tokyo Olympics had a profound impact on the capital city and the nation. In the third installment of a five-part series running this month, best-selling author Robert Whiting, who lived in Japan at the time, looks at some of the stars who emerged during the competition.
By all accounts, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were a resounding success and were impressive for the high level of competition. As expected, the Americans would dominate in what was essentially a contest between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Although the Soviets won more medals in the final compilation, the Americans claimed the most gold, 36-30, and thus walked away with bragging honors. They dominated in swimming and in track and field, the big sex appeal sports, and were so gold medal heavy overall that a Japanese band truncated “The Star Spangled Banner” under the assumption that people would get tired of hearing it.
I remember sitting in a coffee shop one day as a medal ceremony was unfolding on the TV screen and the strains of the American national anthem played in the background. The band got as far as “. . .so gallantly streaming . . .,” and then stopped. At first, I thought there was something wrong with the TV, but no, this was the new official Olympic version.
An American named Uan Rasey, the lead horn for the MGM studio orchestra and a globe-trotting track enthusiast who was in attendance at the games, sought to compensate for this lack of respect by applying his own finishing kick to the aborted Japanese version of the anthem played after each American victory. Stationing himself just below the torch at National Stadium, presumably to get maximum range for his solo trumpet, he would gallantly pick up on the downbeat side of “so gal-lant-ly streaming” and blare out “and the rockets’ red glare . . .,” and on to the end.
He was later joined by Bob Crosby and the Bobcats, who were appearing at a Tokyo nightclub and were equally concerned that Francis Scott Key was not being given his due. (Tokyoites heard the U.S. national anthem so often that many of them took to whistling it unconsciously. And so did I for that matter.)
The most successful competitor in the games was blond-haired, Adonis-like American swimmer Don Schollander, who won four gold medals and set three world records, having trained five hours a day for eight years. He was voted the most outstanding athlete in the Olympics.
Schollander was mobbed wherever, constantly surrounded at poolside and on the street when he left the Olympic Village. He could barely move because he was so easily recognized and his autograph and his photo so eagerly sought. He was inundated with gifts from Japanese admirers, a great many of them female, and it was said he could have made a career in Japan endorsing Sony portable transistor radios or Yamaha motor scooters.
Said J. Lyman Bingham, executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee, in an interview with Curley Grieve, the San Francisco Examiner’s sports editor, after showing him a room full of 500 packages and several large baskets filled with letters and telegrams, most of which were intended for Schollander, “This is the greatest expression of goodwill for an individual I have ever seen in my life. He is so young, strong, handsome and appealing, Japan has just decided he is something of a god in a land where worship is complex religion.”
Schollander’s name and home address were used in a Japanese school textbook, to illustrate how to address letters in English.
I saw him one night at the Champs Elysee, a sidewalk cafe in Akasaka, across the street from the Copacabana. It was a popular hangout for young actors and actresses who came to attract the attention of visiting producers from Japan and Asia’s largest TV studio, TBS, which was situated nearby. He had apparently decided to train on something more stimulating than protein powder, as he accepted congratulations and signed autographs for a crowd of adoring fans.
Other American standouts included swimmer Dick Roth, who got up out of a hospital bed after fighting off an attack of appendicitis to set a world record in the 400-meter individual medley and Al Oerter who, through sheer grit, overcame pain from a chronic cervical disc injury that was so severe it caused him to collapse at one point in the competition to win his third straight Olympic gold medal in the discus.
The future heavyweight champion of the world, Joe Frazier, also earned a gold medal for the United States, seven years away from his first fight with Muhammad Ali. Fred Hansen triumphed in pole vault event that went on until 10 in the evening. And a little known distance runner Billy Mills, a Marine First Lieutenant who had been raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota for Lakota Sioux, surprised everyone by winning the 10,000-meter run, the first and only time in history an American had pulled off that feat.
Mills’ winning time of 28 minutes, 24.4 seconds was a an Olympic record and was, astonishingly, almost 50 seconds faster than Mills had ever run before. His feat was all the more remarkable because he came around the turn on the last lap, neck and neck with Ron Clarke, the famous Australian runner and pre-race favorite, down the back stretch. Suddenly a third runner, Tunisian Mohammed Gammoudi, came up behind and pushed between the two runners, knocking Mills off stride, but Mills just picked up his step and fought back. He gained on Clarke and passed him, then closed the gap on the Tunisian, pulling ahead to take the gold.
Mills was later the subject of a film, “Running Brave,” starring Robbie Benson.
The most dramatic performance in the entire games came from American Bob Hayes, who had the crowd roaring with excitement every time he ran. He won the 100-meter title in a time of 10.0 seconds, equaling the world record. He had run the distance in 9.9 seconds in the semifinal, but this was not recognized as a world record as it was wind-aided.
Prior to the 4×100-meter relay, France’s anchor leg runner had famously said to American runner Paul Drayton, “You can’t win, all you have is Bob Hayes.
Drayton was able to reply afterward, “That’s all we need.”
The final leg of the 4×100 relay was one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history. Hayes vaulted from fifth to first to win a devastating victory for his team by a full 2.7 meters.
An excited NHK announcer called him “Kuroi Dangan,” or “The Black Bullet.” Hayes’ winning leg was hand-timed as between 8.5 and 8.9 seconds, one of the fastest ever to help the team set a world record. The Los Angeles Times called it “the most astonishing sprint of all time.” It was Hayes’ last race as a track and field athlete.
Hayes came away from Tokyo with two gold medals and several thousand dollars in payments from Adidas for wearing their shoes, which he used to buy nine tailored silk suits. He went on to play professional football in the NFL as a wide receiver, and helped the Dallas Cowboys capture a Super Bowl, thereby becoming the only man to win both an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring.
Hayes was also the second gold medalist elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Jim Thorpe was the first), despite serving time in Huntsville Prison in Texas for selling narcotics.
The events left a medley of other notable impressions: Peter Snell of New Zealand winning gold medals in the 800 — and 1,500-meter races. British runner Ann Packer setting a world record in the 800, despite having never competed in that distance at the international level before the Tokyo Games.
Exquisite blonde Czechoslovakian gymnast Vera Caslauska, charming the Japanese with her skill and elegance, taking home three gold medals, including the individual all-around in which she displaced the reigning champion, legendary Soviet gymnast Laris Latynina, who would hold the record for most Olympic medals at 18 until it was broken by Michael Phelps in 2012.
At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Caslaulska would gain more fame when she protested the Soviet invasion of her country by turning her head down and away from the Soviet flag while on the podium during medal ceremonies.
Russian Valeriy Brumel claimed the high jump gold medal by clearing 2.18 meters, earning himself a lasting reputation as one of the greatest athletes ever to participate in that event.
Many of the other members of the Russian contingent, however, looked like something out of a steroid factory. The Soviets took seven golds in weightlifting events alone. Of particular note in this regard were the muscular Press sisters, Tamara, a shot put and discus gold medalist, and Irina, gold-medal winner of the pentathlon,who were dubbed the “Press Brothers” behind their backs by sports journalists who believed the two were actually men or at least were taking hormone injections.
When chromosome gender testing was introduced for the European Championships in 1966, Soviet officials withdrew both Presses from the event, even though Irina was the defending champion in the pentathlon. The two never competed again and returned to obscurity in the Ukraine.
Russia’s statuesque Elvira Ozolina, the defending gold medalist in the javelin, was, on the other hand, one of the most beautiful female athletes in the games. She had a magnificent mane of long, golden hair that hung all the way down her back. However, when she finished a surprising fifth in her event, she was inconsolable—perhaps because she knew that her failure to retain the gold in the javelin meant a certain loss of standing and benefits back home at the VSS Burevestnik in Leningrad where Olympians were essentially state-sponsored athletes.
The next day, still distraught, she went to a Japanese hairdresser and told the girl to shave her head. The Japanese beautician refused the request. So Ozolina grabbed the scissors and cut off her own hair. She walked around the village for the rest of the games virtually bald, exposing her shame at her poor performance.
In a special category all by himself was long-distance runner Ranatunga Karunananda, a Sri Lankan athlete who finished last in the 10,000 meters and, in the process, became a national hero in Japan. By the time Billy Mills had broken the tape to win that event, Karunananda was a full four laps behind.
Soon, everyone was finished except him, but Karunananda continued to run. At first, many fans began to jeer, thinking he should just quit, but by his final lap, the jeers had turned to cheers and applause for his perseverance. After crossing the finish line, he reminded reporters of the words of the father of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who said, in 1896, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.”
Karunananda became a media sensation. He went on to meet the Emperor and to appear on national TV. His feat was eventually entered into Japanese school textbooks. Everyone was taken with his demonstration of the true spirit of the Olympics, which, as everyone also knew, was, unfortunately eroding.
The marathon was run on Wednesday, Oct. 21, in the persistent rain and fog that had plagued the second week of the games. Marathons were extremely popular in Japan and the 42.195-km race, which went from National Stadium to a halfway point near Fuchu on the Koshu Kaido highway and back, was watched by energetic crowds of people nine and 10 deep on each side of the road, many of whom had staked their spots the night before. Among them were airmen from Fuchu Air Station and nearby Tachikawa Air Base, including a certain bleary-eyed 21-year-old GI from California, who had just come off an all-night midnight-to-noon shift.
The event was won by Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila, champion of the Rome Olympics race, who then became the first man to win two Olympic marathons. I remember just catching a glimpse of him as he flashed past, not an ounce of extra flesh on his frame, striding along the pavement with an ease that was almost arrogant.
Bikila had run barefoot in Rome and was famous for it. It was said that the soles of his feet were thicker and more cushioned than loafers. (This was generally so in Ethiopia where shoes were a rare luxury at the time. According to a friend who lived in the country, if a man fell down dead at the roadside and was scavenged by hyenas, the only part of him left over were the indigestible soles of his feet.)
But this time around, because of the October Tokyo chill, he was wearing shoes and socks.
Bikila got a standing ovation and became an iconic figure in Japan, as well as in his native country, where an emperor of his own waited to greet him at the head of admiring multitudes, remembered for his feat even decades later. Fans were shocked when after the race, barely winded, he went through a series of cool-down exercises, which included push-ups and sit-ups, while other marathoners were collapsing on the grass of National Stadium, and calmly said that he could have run another 6.2 km.
But the marathon contained another story that gripped the nation as well, one involving Japan’s Kokichi Tsuburaya, who had entered the stadium in second place with such a substantial lead he seemed guaranteed the silver medal.
By then, I had retreated out of the mist to a small wood front coffee shop near Higashi- Fuchu station with plastic models of food and drink displayed in the window, among them an unappetizing banana, tomato and cucumber sandwich. I sat there at a rickety Formica table in the corner, beneath a poster of the Olympic rings below the Rising Sun, sipped oolong tea and watched the end of the race on the 53-cm Sanyo color TV the proprietors had bought for the games, cheering along with other customers whose ranks included a local rice farmer and a couple of puffy-faced off-duty bar girls, in jeans and blouses with bandanas wrapped around their heads, chain-smoking Winston cigarettes.
The cheering for Tsuburaya was building to a crescendo when suddenly Great Britain’s Basil Heatley came into view and proceeded to put on one of Olympic track and field’s great all-time spurts. He steadily closed the gap in the last 100 meters, passing Tsuburaya shortly before the wire, turning the wild cheering in the coffee shop, and in the stadium, and no doubt in the rest of Japan, into one huge collective groan.
Tsuburaya, who hailed from Fukushima Prefecture, was visibly mortified at the seeming ease with which he had been overtaken. After the race, he was quoted as saying to fellow marathoner Kenji Kimihara, “I committed an inexcusable blunder in front of the Japanese people. I have to make amends by running and hoisting the Hinomaru in the next Olympics, in Mexico.”
But Tsuburaya, a first lieutenant in the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, suffered back problems (lumbago) and in January 1968, while training for the Mexico City Games, would commit suicide by slashing his wrists in the Olympic dormitory. He was found in his room holding his bronze medal.
A suicide note found at the scene is still remembered today. It began by recalling the treats he had just recently enjoyed with his family on New Year’s:
“Father, Mother, the yam was delicious, the dried persimmons were delicious, the mochi rice cakes were delicious . . .” In the same vein he thanked his sisters and brothers-in-law for the handmade sushi, the wine, the apples. Then again to his parents: “Kokichi is exhausted to the bone and can’t run any more. Please forgive me. I know that I have caused you continual worry and pain. All I really wanted was to be able to live close to you.”
He then set out individual apologies to his old school principal, to a teacher who had been influential in his life and to the chairman of the Japanese Olympic Organizing Committee: “I’m sorry that I was unable to keep my promise. I pray for your success at the Mexico Games.”
The second event of moment was the judo open weight class, held two days later on a Friday afternoon. The Japanese sport of judo, developed in the late 19th century by Jigoro Kano, who had based it on the ancient martial art of jujitsu, had been included in the Olympics for the first time at Japan’s behest. The Japanese had dominated it at international competitions following World War II. It was a martial art that symbolized the Japanese way of approaching sports — with its special focus on endless training and development of spirit (accomplished, among other things, through special winter camps in which athletes had to arise at four in the morning and run barefoot through the snow in freezing temperatures.)
For the Tokyo Games it had been decided to award medals in lightweight, middleweight, heavyweight and open weight classes. As expected, Japanese judoka took gold medals in all of the first three classes.
Reigning world champion Osamu Watanabe capped off a long career by winning the freestyle wrestling event, surrendering not a single point, then announcing his retirement. To that date, he was the only undefeated Olympic champion with a total record of 189-0.
The hall was packed with 15,000 fans for the final open weight match between national champion Akio Kaminaga and Dutchman Anton Geesink, 201 cm and 122 kg to Kaminaga’s 180 cm and 104 kg, who had crushed Japanese opponents for the gold medal at the 1961 world judo championships in Paris. But many in the crowd and watching on TV, believed that Kaminaga would prevail on his home ground given the momentousness of the event, where national pride was at stake, and Kaminaga’s supposedly superior fighting spirit because he was Japanese. After all, the whole point of judo from its inception was that a small man could defeat a larger man with proper technique and attitude.
But it was not to be. Geeskink, a former soccer and basketball player, had speed and agility as well as size. He dominated the match from beginning to end, pinning Kaminaga to the tatami in just 9 minutes and 22 seconds. It raised the question of just how far konjo, or fighting spirit, alone could take one. (It was not commonly known that the Japanese judoka was suffering from a cruciate ligament tear in his knee, but he refused to make excuses, saying simply when it was all over, “Heishinku wa tsuyokatta dake,” or “Geesink was just too strong.”)
Geesink’s lopsided win was a bitter disappointment for millions of Japanese fans. It was doubly painful because the big, blond foreigner had humiliated his opponent in front of the entire planet, via satellite TV. I could see that pain first hand when I watched the match, standing in front of a big color TV on display in the show window of an electronics store on the Ginza, in Sukiyabayashi. Around me was a large crowd of grim-faced Japanese men in suits, some of whom looked to me to be near tears.
As author and Japanologist Ian Buruma would later write in a memorable essay: “Sports like sex, cuts where it hurts the most, that soft spot where national virility is at stake. And at no time was it more delicate that in the 1960s, when the nation was beginning to crawl away from the shame of the greatest humiliation of all: defeat in war and subsequent occupation by a superior foreign power. The Tokyo Olympics were supposed to have put the seal on all that. The revival of national virility, already boosted by the accelerating economic boom, was at hand, the judo open weight gold medal was meant to have clinched it: the shame of defeat would be wiped out and Japanese face would finally have been restored . . . (but instead) it was as though the ancestral Sun Goddess had been raped in public by a gang of alien demons . . .”
Still, unlike some victorious American athletes whose effusive celebrations knew no bounds, Geesink had shown restraint and respect to Japan in his triumph. He had bowed to Kaminaga after the match, as was required by judo form, and had behaved in a dignified manner throughout. This earned him respect (as did the fact he had successfully helped to internationalize a Japanese sport).
Unfortunately, in his later years he moved to Japan to become a professional wrestler and did much damage to his image not only because of the tergiversation, but also because of his surprising inability to perform in his new sport. Said Giant Baba, owner of the All Japan Pro Wrestling association to which Geesink belonged, “With a judogi on, there was nobody better. In wrestling trunks there was nobody worse.”
Part one: Olympic construction transformed Tokyo
Part two: Opening Ceremony ushered in new era for Japan
Part three: Schollander, Hayes were spectacular at Tokyo Games
Part four: ‘Witches of the Orient’ symbolized Japan’s fortitude
Part five: Negative impact of 1964 Olympics profound