This was my father’s identity card for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Through his work for NBC News, and NBC’s sustained relationship to the Olympic Games, I was a fan of the greatest sports competition in the world. I was only one years-old at the time of the Tokyo Olympic Games, and of course remember nothing of it. But come 2020, when the Summer Games return to Tokyo, I will be there.
In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the XVIII Olympiad, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”
In 1964, Japan was preparing an extravaganza for the world, and they just had to get it right. Over 5,000 athletes from over ninety nations were coming to Tokyo. So were thousands of government and sports officials, members of the press, coaches, athlete-family members and sports fans from all parts of the world. If they could show the world that they were peace-loving, Western-like, modern and eager to contribute, then they could stand tall with the other great nations of the world.
Only two decades before, the Japanese were considered Asian upstarts, aggressors, and in some parts, cruel barbarians who would die for the Emperor without a thought. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics was the biggest coming-out party in Asian history, and Japan wanted to change perceptions, and look its absolute best.
Hundreds of known pickpockets were plucked off the streets by police months in advance. Gangs were prevailed upon to send their scarier-looking yakuza out of town. Signs were posted around the city declaring that urinating in the streets or littering would not be tolerated. Bars were closed by midnight. Taxi drivers were advised to drive with “proper traffic manners.” Local citizens brushed up their English and, overcoming their normal reticence, proactively sought out foreign visitors who looked as though they might need guidance. For a while, “May I help you?” was the most commonly heard phrase on the streets.
Stories abounded about the lengths to which the Japanese hosts went to look after visitors in need of help. To rescue an Australian couple who had lost bullet train tickets to Kyoto, their hotel voucher and a notice of remittance so they could pick up cash at a local bank branch, the manager of the Japan Travel Bureau at the pier where they docked raised money from his own staff to buy new train tickets, called the hotel and arranged for the couple to stay without the voucher, and made arrangements with the bank so the cash would be made available.
When a European prince reported his Dunhill tobacco pouch lost at the equestrian event at Karuizawa, an entire Self-Defense Force platoon combed the 33-kilometer course and found the pouch in less than an hour. A journalist who had dropped his signed traveler’s checks—in a nightclub as it turned out—got them back after the Mama-san spent two days tracing and deciphering his illegible scrawl, and then rang the hotels and the Press House before finally discovering to whom they belonged.
Billy Mills, hero of the 10,000-meter event, also came in for some of Japan’s famous omotenashi (hospitality). As a Native-American subjected to his own share of suffering back home, he empathized with his hosts:
In Japan, I saw people who were so courteous and polite. I knew underneath there had to be this anger. I could relate to the pain. Almost a sacredness of the way they contained the pain, and the respect they showed. They were like the elders I knew, who controlled their pain, and still showed respect to others.
Mills and his wife, Pat, had plans to return to the United States a day before the end of the games and so would not be joining the USOC-arranged transport to the airport. When the USOC refused to make any special arrangements for Billy—an amateur with little discretionary cash in his pocket—he turned to his Japanese hosts, who expressed surprise that the Americans would not take care of a gold medal winner and one of their biggest stars.
They picked up our bags, and put them in the largest, widest limousine I had ever seen, with Japanese and Olympic flags up front and an American flag on the back. We took off with two motorcycles escorting us to the airport. We left Japan in style.
The XVIII Olympiad was Japan’s big test. And if they passed, they thought, the world would welcome them back with open arms. And they did indeed pass that test, thanks to a stunning alignment of purpose across government, corporations, educational institutions, and local neighborhoods. As Azuma Ryūtarō, Tokyo governor and member of both the IOC and Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee, wrote in 1965:
One of the intangible legacies of the Tokyo Olympics is that it gave Japanese people the opportunity to be united for the first time since World War II. Additionally, the Tokyo Olympics succeeded in playing a vital role in connecting the East and West in terms of worldwide peace and sports. As a result, the world began to show greater respect for Japan and its people.
In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the XVIII Olympiad, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”
In pursuit of a greater good, there is often sacrifice, both big and small. In a Japanese culture that prioritizes the group over the individual, keeping personal preferences and needs submerged in order to cater to the perceived interests of the neighborhood, classmates, team members, or colleagues at work are calculations of emotional and social intelligence that Japanese make every day.
To the Japanese, the sacrifices the individual must make to the group are most often seen as praiseworthy, symbolic of a powerful value in Japanese society.
At the 1964 Olympics, there were two sailors who came in eighteenth overall in a sailing category called the Flying Dutchman (FD) competition. But they came in first in the hearts of the Japanese.
On October 14, Stig Lennart Käll and his younger brother, Lars Gunnar Käll, in their boat Hayama, were sailing in the third race of seven in the FD-class competition when they saw a capsized boat ahead of them, and the two crew members floating in the middle of Sagami Bay.
Making a quick decision, the Käll brothers steered their way toward Australian sailor Ian Charles Winter, and plucked him out of the water. They then proceeded to the capsized Australian boat, Diablo, to rescue the second member of that crew, John Gregory Dawe, and pulled him into their boat as well. In addition to the Australians, six other boats failed to complete the race, which likely meant rough conditions. And yet, the Swedes, with two extra passengers, still managed to finish the heat.
The exploits of the Swedish crew were publicized nationally in the Japanese press. Fans from all over the country sent a barrage of letters and gifts of appreciation to the two Swedish sailors who were singled out for their sacrifice to the greater good.
It was also well publicized that the captain of the Japanese women’s volleyball team was making a sacrifice for the good of her volleyball team, as well as for the country. At the age of thirty-one, the team captain, Masae Kasai, was older by about six or seven years than most of her teammates. She had intended to retire from volleyball and get married after leading her team to Japan’s first World Championship in a victory over the Soviet Union in 1962. In fact, some felt that Kasai’s duty to Japanese society, as a woman, was to get married and have children, not to play volleyball. Kasai herself made it clear she wanted to move on and start a family.
But in the end, the call for gold and glory for Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was so strong that she decided to delay retirement, and thus surrender herself to two more years of long, punishing hours in the gym. Her sacrifice was eventually rewarded, however, as she did make it to the altar in a highly publicized wedding after the Games ended.
Another story was that of Takashi Ono, the legendary veteran gymnast from Akita, Japan, who had already garnered twelve medals (including four golds) from the 1952, 1956, and 1960 Olympiads. At thirty-three, Ono was the oldest member of the 1964 team.
Ono’s strongest discipline was the horizontal bar. It was vital he did his best to give his team a chance for gold. But Ono was in considerable pain due to a right shoulder injured in his preparations for the Olympics. To ease the discomfort, he was injected with an anesthetic, which resulted in the loss of feeling in his entire arm.
According to Rio Otomo, who wrote about the gymnast in her article, Narratives of the Body and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Ono’s injury was a major narrative of the Olympics, one also taken up by famed writer Yukio Mishima:
The horizontal bar had been cruelly attacking his shoulder for some time. His shoulder then became the enemy of the perfection that Ono was aiming to achieve. It was assaulting him from within, as if it had been a spy who sold his soul to the enemy camp.
Less known to the public were the apprehensions of Ono’s wife and teammate on the women’s gymnastics team. As Otomo wrote, Kiyoko Ono was concerned that attempting difficult maneuvers in the air with a damaged arm could result in a terrible fall, and so she whispered to her husband as he approached the bar, “Please do not die; we have children.”
Not only did Ono survive, the grit he showed that day helped lead his team to the gold medal.
In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the XVIII Olympiad, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”
While so many of the 5,000 athletes who came to Tokyo in 1964 did not expect to win a medal, they did not want to be humiliated either. But in one of the most memorable sports events of the Tokyo Olympics—the men’s 10,000-meter competition—a runner from Sri Lanka had placed himself in a most embarrassing situation.
Formerly a colony called British Ceylon, Sri Lanka had existed as an independent nation for only sixteen years prior to the 1964 Games, and no one from Sir Lanka was expected to win a medal. But if you weren’t paying attention, you might have thought that one of their runners was battling for victory in the 10k race.
With 150 meters to go, the lead pack was jockeying for position in the home stretch, each passing a runner with the number #67. In fact everybody was passing #67, who had gotten lapped several times!
Number 67 was a slight man named Ranatunga Koralage Jayasekara Karunananda who competed in both the 5k and 10k races in Tokyo. After getting lapped in the first 1,000 meters of the 10k race, he continued to fall off the pace. When the eventual winner flared wide and put on a burst of speed to win dramatically in the final meters, Karuananda had a perfect view, only meters behind.
But while the winner ended his race in elation, Karunananda crossed the finish line knowing he was last…with four more long laps to go. He could have stopped. If he did, he would have joined the nine others who did not finish, and no one would have noticed.
Instead, the officer in the Sri Lanka Army, known to friends as Karu, plodded on.
The spectators at first were bewildered. Wasn’t the race over? Why was this guy still running…and running…and running? And yet, as Karunananda ran, the crowd noise went from ambivalence to encouragement. With three laps to go, the crowd began cheering the lone competitor as he made his way around the stadium track.
The winner of the race wanted so much to take a victory lap around the stadium but was thwarted by a Japanese official who told him to stay put. After all, the race was still on. Instead of the gold medalist, here was the last place finisher bathing in the growing cheers of 70,000, who likely only minutes before learned that #67 was Karunananda of Sri Lanka.
And when Karunananda rounded the last turn, he sprinted down the straightaway, crossing the finish line to a standing ovation and a thunderous cheer, as if he had just snatched his island’s first medal.
It is said that Karunananda told reporters at the Olympic Village that he was only doing what was expected of an Olympian. “The Olympic spirit is not to win, but to take part. So I came here. I took part in the 10,000 meters and completed my rounds.”
Karu became an overnight star in Japan, his desire to complete the race a symbol of the core value of perseverance so central to Japan’s successful rise from the rubble. Karu represented every hardworking man and woman in Japan, and they loved him for that.
Jerry Shipp didn’t like to lose. He didn’t shake hands with opponents after games. He admitted that a basketball game to him was war, and in the heat of battle, he wasn’t a good sport. A shooting guard on the US men’s basketball team, Shipp had a chip on his shoulder, one that had grown since his days in an orphanage in Tipton, Oklahoma.
The two-meter tall shooting guard, whose unorthodox shooting form was often deadly from a distance, Shipp became the highest scorer ever for Southeastern State College (now known as Southeastern Oklahoma State University). Drafted by the New York Knicks in 1959, Shipp decided that he needed a steady job and higher pay than what he could get in the NBA. He opted for work at the oil company Phillips, which also had a team in the corporate league, the now-defunct National Industrial Basketball League (NIBL). He would go on to lead the Phillips 66ers to three consecutive championships in the NIBL, while also playing on the national men’s basketball squad.
In 1962, Shipp was on the US squad that played the Soviet national team in Lubbock, Texas, in an exhibition match. In contrast to the 1960 squad that featured future hall-of-famers Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Walt Bellamy, and Jerry Lucas, the 1962 team prepping for the Tokyo Games was considered a team of no-names, “a second-rate representative for Uncle Sam,” not only losing to the Soviets 66-63, but ending the game in unsportsmanlike fashion.
Sam Blair, a sports columnist from the Dallas Morning News, wrote that in the last moments of the game, the Soviet center, Alexsandr Petrov, and Shipp were fighting over possession of the ball when Shipp swung arms and elbows clipping Petrov across the chin and sending him to the hard court.
“It was a pretty shameful moment for the US for Shipp swung in a fit of anger after retreating madly to tie up Petrov, who had slipped free down court in the last hectic seconds to take a high-lob pass and was preparing to sink a simple layup. Fortunately, the Russian had a cooler temper or more self-discipline than Shipp did.” As Shipp recalled, famed sports columnist Blackie Sherrod wrote that he was trying to start World War III.
No US team had ever lost a basketball game in the Olympics through 1960. And yet, just as the Tokyo Olympics were about to start, the US press was predicting that the streak would end. And if any team was going to do it, it would have to be the Soviet team, runners-up to the US in the previous three Olympics.
The coach of the US men’s basketball team was Hank Iba, a basketball legend. He coached teams to NCAA championships in 1945 and 1946, and to medals in the Olympics in 1964, 1968, and 1972. And yet, even legends get criticized. “The 12 men selected yesterday for the October duty in Tokyo have the best chance in history to lose one,” wrote columnist George Meyers.
Iba knew he didn’t have the firepower of the 1960 team. “Our big problem is that we have no one man who’ll get us twenty points every game,” he pointed out. “So it has to be a team effort. But when a team has played together as short a time as this one has, it’s bound to get sloppy at times.”21 Sloppy, yes, but it did not bode well that the team lost its last two exhibition games in the United States prior to shipping off to Hawaii for a training camp just before the Olympics.
Fortunately, Coach Iba was one of the toughest, most well-prepared coaches of his time. Center Luke Jackson said that the team was constantly practicing. “Coach Iba wouldn’t let up. When we first came in the locker room, he gave each of us a notepad and said, ‘I want you to learn these plays. Those who don’t learn, won’t play.’ And then he walked out of the room. We practiced those plays. And those who didn’t learn them, didn’t play.”
“Those five-hour practices a day—those were tough,” recalled forward Jeff Mullins. “He had his Iba-isms. If you had a turnover he would say in his raspy voice, ‘Can’t have that, boys. Can’t have that.'”
The US team crushed the team from South Korea 116-50 in one of the early contests of the Tokyo Olympics. Jackson said that after the game, “Iba took us to practice and worked us until our feet fell off. He said that we didn’t rebound well. He was just putting it on our mind that every game was important. You have to do things the same way every time. I’m sure we were hot-dogging against the Koreans. And we realized that this guy was serious.”
Prior to the finals, the American men’s team didn’t lose, despite what many had predicted. And so, the USSR and the USA teams both went into the gold medal round undefeated, playing for geopolitical bragging rights and Olympic glory at the beautiful Kenzo Tange-designed Gymnasium Annex in Yoyogi.
In the first eight minutes, the Americans played sluggishly as the Soviets jumped to a lead. Iba admitted jitters. “I’ve been in this business a long time,” he said to reporters after the game. “I know if you get so sure you’re going to win, you usually get knocked on your bottom. But we never talked about it.”
Toward the middle of the first half, Jackson woke up, grabbing rebounds and sinking baskets. And then, the rest of the team got going. Joe Caldwell started pouring in points. He was joined by Bill Bradley (he of Princeton, the Knicks, and the US Senate), Larry Brown (he of the countless university and pro coaching roles), Walt Hazzard, and Shipp, who led the US team in scoring average in the tournament and did not cause World War III.
In the end, the US men’s team continued its dominance, defeating the Soviet Union 73-59, and registering its forty-seventh straight victory since basketball became an Olympic sport at the 1936 Berlin Games. It was one of the last of the USA’s thirty-five total gold medals gathered at the Tokyo Olympics and marked the first time that the US won more gold medals than the Soviet Union since the powerful communist nation was allowed into the Olympics in 1952.
But the Cold War was not on Shipp’s mind when the gold medal was placed around his neck. Shipp had played countless times against the Soviets, knew them inside out, and would have run through a brick wall to defeat them. But it was not triumph over the Russians that caused his breath to shorten or his heart to tremor. It was the realization that the long climb out of his childhood, one filled with hurt, insecurity, and loneliness, was over.
As he stood on the medal stand, waiting for his gold medal, memories of the orphanage where he grew up and the school he attended flooded his mind’s eye. He remembered his high school algebra teacher, Miss Maynard, who, instead of nurturing him, told him he was never going to learn anything. Out of frustration, Shipp once completed an algebra test by putting a zero on it, and submitting it as is. The teacher told him, “You will never amount to anything. You’ll be in jail one day.”
And so, at the moment the twenty-seven-year-old bent at the waist to receive his gold medal, the volcano at the pit of his stomach, roiling with the bilious lava of his youth, erupted.
I straightened up and I saw the camera pointing at me with the red light on, and I shouted, “Old Lady Maynard, I hope you’re watching, ‘cause I made something out of myself!” I never forgot it. I was still angry. My teammate, George Wilson, was standing next to me and asked me what that was all about. But I never told him.
I now realize that Lotus Maynard played such a big part in my life. I just got to thinking that my anger was hurting nobody but me. I realized, in fact, that she drove me to success. Now I go back and I say, “Mrs. Maynard, thank you.”
Ann Packer was a 400-meter sprinter who was narrowly beaten by Australian Betty Cuthbert in the 400-meter finals. She was happy with her silver medal and ready to enjoy carefree moments shopping in the Ginza. As far as she was concerned, her Olympiad was over. Her fiancé and captain of the British athletics team, Robbie Brightwell, was astounded about how casual Ann was, and explained in his autobiography that she had a chance at history if she could hold off the urge to shop.
“Do you think I should run in the 800-meter heats tomorrow?” she asked. “Maybe I should call it a day and go shopping.” I gaped in astonishment. “Shopping? You must be mad! Shopping? This is the Olympic games, not the Moulsford Village sports!”
“I know, but I’m hardly likely to better a silver medal, am I? And I need to buy some presents for the folks back home.”
“Come off it!” I exploded. “Think about the British girls back home who would have given their eyeteeth to be here in your place!”
She smiled sheepishly. “OK I’ll run. Not that it’ll make much difference. I’m bound to get eliminated in the heats, and then I can go shopping.”
As it turns out, Packer and perhaps even her fiancé Brightwell were missing the telltale signs of potential success. While Packer hoped just to remain respectable, others saw a form and ease that would translate easily to victory. As Packer prepared for the finals, after essentially just making the cuts in the heats, two people of considerable experience and respect came up to Packer with powerfully motivating words. Again, here is how Brightwell explains it in his autobiography:
Milkha Singh jogged past with his 1,600-meter relay squad. Espying her, he dashed over, taking both hands and staring stern-faced into her eyes. “Ann Packer, listen to me. You will win!” She giggled self-conscientiously, flashing me an amused smile. Shaking her hands emphatically, he repeated his message.
You’re not listening, Ann Packer! Yesterday, I watched your semi-final. You were coasting! After the race, you come and show me your gold medal.
She nodded respectfully. No sooner he departed than Percy Cerutty, Betty Cuthbert’s coach, rushed up. Even though they had never been introduced, Percy wasn’t a man for social ceremonies. “This,” he said, wagging a finger in front of her face, “is the finger of experience. And it’s standing to attention. Listen! Betty and I’ve been talking. Stay with them until the end, and you will hammer them. Understand?”
Astonished, Ann nodded dumbly. Mission completed, Percy disappeared as quickly as he’d appeared.
When Packer won her race, right away she steered to the stands and into the arms of Brightwell. Milkha Singh was there as well, smiling with the satisfaction of clairvoyance proved correct. “Did I not say your woman would win? You didn’t believe me! I was right! Hee, hee, hee! Brightwell, you never listen to me!”
Packer had little experience in the 800 meters. But that was true for all the other competitors. For the first half of the twentieth century, the IOC believed they were protecting women from competing in what they believed to be overly strenuous competitions for the fair sex. Thus, after 1928, women didn’t run as far as 800 meters in the Olympics until 1960.
As a result, very few women were experienced at this distance. Packer had no preconceptions about how to run the race. But being naïve, and being a sprinter, was Packer’s advantage. Packer was at the back of the pack for most of the race. But in the final 200 meters, she climbed to third, and in a burst sprinted out a dominating finish. A world record finish, in fact. As she later said, “Ignorance proved to be bliss.”
Japan, as an emerging economy in 1964, was similar to Packer in the 800. Any new goal was a new challenge without any preconceptions about how to get things done. If they had a problem to solve, they tried anything and everything, leveraging what resources were available and learning from the world.
Toyota’s famed just-in-time (JIT) lean manufacturing methodology has been recognized the world over as a superior process to maximize both quality and efficiency, leading to the transformation of the auto industry by the Japanese. Instead of stocking large inventories of doors that sat in a warehouse unused for weeks and exposed to potential damage, as was the case with large American manufacturers in Detroit, the Japanese engineers improvised.
With little capital available during those lean postwar years, they could not “waste” money on one or two months of stock. So parts were built only when they were going to be used—just in time. Capital was used efficiently, parts were not damaged while sitting for weeks, and everyone on an assembly line was charged with the mandate to innovate in any way that eliminated waste and improved quality.
And so, even in 1964, to the surprise of visiting Olympians, Japanese products were not cheap and low quality. They were cutting edge.
Packer and Brightwell flew to Tokyo with their fellow Olympians on British Overseas Airways Comet, the world’s first commercial jet airliner. They had the opportunity to visit the cockpit and talk with the pilot. They asked about Japan, and Brightwell asked the well-travelled pilot whether he had any recommendations for things to buy there.
He said, “Yeah, Seiko watches. They make fantastic watches. Get a movie camera. Get a tape recorder. You got to get one of those transistor radios. And a camera. Oh, I see you’re wearing glasses. Go and get contact lenses.” So I did see the optician one day in Tokyo. And got them the next day! The Japanese were already making gas-permeable contact lenses. They were brilliant. For my first race, I could actually see the track.
We were very impressed. We knew about Japanese engineering in heavy industry, but we didn’t know anything about their use of American transistors and computers in Japan. We could see they were moving to higher-value, technologically intense products.
Brightwell was friendly with members of the British press, including BBC sports star commentator and presenter, David Coleman. Brightwell said that his conversations with Coleman in Tokyo were often about how many things he had learned about the innovative way Japan was televising the Games—that these Games would be the first to be globally broadcast by satellite; that there were dozens of movie cameras in the National Stadium, when the BBC might employ two; that the media in the Press section had events results provided to them by computers; that the Games were going to be seen in color in many homes in Japan, while most in England had to settle for black and white.
“Relatively speaking,” said Brightwell, “we were still on steam locomotives.”
Seventeen-year-old Dick Roth, winner of the individual medley race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was thirteen years old when he first travelled with the US swim team to Japan in 1960. He remembers being treated like a celebrity. Toward the end of his stay, the team went to Nikko, the beautiful resort town not far from Tokyo. And while walking about the woods with the team, he saw something he clearly remembers today.
I wandered off on my own, which was a habit I have when I travel, skipping the handlers. I was walking back to the lodge and I came face to face with a group of eight to ten horribly disfigured children of my age, probably older. They were from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Later I talked with one of my handlers and asked about them. He said they were also on a tour. The organizers were trying to keep us apart. I was shocked and horrified. To think anyone could do anything so barbaric. I know we dropped the bomb to shorten the war. But it’s a visceral feeling I will never forget.
Back in Tokyo four years later, Roth also remembers the Opening Ceremonies when a sole torchbearer ran into the National Stadium. “The torchbearer came in and there was cheering and a kind of reverence. I don’t know what to call it. The attention was locked on this individual. I was stunned by the switch in the crowd. He got to the top and turned around. It was like another one of those moments that defies description. When he stood there and held the torch high, I was stunned.”
Roth was referring to Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day an atomic bomb was dropped on his city. “When he reached the bottom of the stairs he didn’t stop, just ran up the stairs in stride. He only paused at the top, turning to face the full stadium and the world. He then turned and lit the flame, causing an entire nation a collective moment of pride and sadness.”
It was a bold move. For a country that was trying desperately to erase from its collective memory the horrors of World War II, the Olympic organizers risked offending the United States of America by reminding the world that Japan was the first and only country to be attacked by nuclear weapons.
In fact, prominent Japanophile and translator of such classics as The Tale of Genji, American Edwin Seidensticker, said that the selection of Sakai as the final torchbearer was not “incidental,” and was “unpleasant to Americans.”
When G. D. Sondhi of India, a member of the International Olympic Committee who had just witnessed Sakai’s torch lighting at the opening ceremonies, was asked to comment on Seidensticker’s reaction, he replied, “He (Sakai) is good and I’m happy to see him do it so nicely. We must bring young people in the Olympics and let those old men just sit and help them.” Sondhi went on to say that he did not think Sakai’s selection to be political, and rather thought that Sakai represented “a big hope” for Japan, and that his was “the most touching of all Olympic ceremonies I ever saw.”
Still, it’s amazing that the organizers, on Japan’s biggest day, consciously chose to highlight Hiroshima via Sakai—whom the press dubbed “Atomic Bomb Boy”—a poke in the ribs of the United States.
In Japan, you can emphasize ownership over something by placing the English phrase “my” in front of it. Thus when people dream of expensive purchases, they dream about buying “My car,” or “My home.” This summer, I dreamed about buying “My torch.”
And so I got one.
“My torch” is from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Scars of spent fuel are wrapped in ribbons around the silver cylinder of “My torch,” which protrudes from a black aluminum holder, also sporting stains of fiery remains. “My torch” is a handsome reminder that someone in Japan proudly held the Olympic flame aloft with this torch, while running amidst spectators cheering along the sides of some small town road.
“My torch” was the amalgamation of two Japanese businesses: Showa Kaseihin and the acclaimed designer, Sori Yanagi.
The Cylinder: The gauntlet was thrown down the by the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee: create a torch that would “absolutely not go out, even in the rain.” The job to develop the cylinder and the fuel to sustain a fire was given to defense contractor, Showa Kaseihin in early 1964. The cylinder, from the tip of which flames would fly, is 55 centimeters long, 3 centimeters in diameter, and 54 grams in weight. Inside the stainless steel cylinder, Showa Kaseihin (which is now called Nippon Koki) packed a chemical amalgam into the cylinder of red phosphorus, manganese dioxide and magnesium. The flare-like flame that emerged when the amalgam was lit would last up to 14 minutes come rain or shine, while creating a billowy trail of smoke that can be seen from afar.
The Holder: Sori Yanagi is one of Japan’s most famous industrial designers of the 20th century, who helped put Japan on the map with his globally recognized furniture and kitchenware. (Maybe you’ve seen his famous butterfly or elephant stools in a MOMA exhibit.) His father, Soetsu Yanagi started the Japanese folk craft movement, passed the torch to his son, Sori. In a case of symbolic justice, Sori Yanagi was asked to create the receptacle for the cylinder of the Olympic torch. Crafted from a metal alloy composed primarily of aluminum, the holder is simple and elegant, with a clean black finish. The words “XVIII OLYMPIAD TOKYO 1964” are etched into the surface of the holder’s face, along with the Olympic rings.
The product of this collaboration is an Olympic torch which fits nicely in one’s palm, its heft equal to its gravitas, its lines simple and striking. This is a torch that spread the word throughout Asia that the world was coming to Japan, and brought hundreds if not thousands running to see the flame, born of the sun in Greece, destined for Tokyo and the commencement of the Olympics, and a new chapter in Japanese history.
Superheroes often emerge from intense pain and suffering, according to their origin stories.
Jean-Baptiste Alaize was three years old when he witnessed the slaughter of his Tutsi mother at the hands of Hutus during the Burundi Civil War, and he himself fell to four machete blows that resulted in the loss of a leg.
Bebe Vio was eleven years old when she fell in a coma induced by a battle with meningitis, a condition akin to “imploding inside.” A budding fencing star and a ball of energy, the Italian pre-teen had to make the horrible decision to amputate both arms and legs to thwart the advance of the disease.
Tatyana McFadden was born in the Soviet Union with a congenital disorder which paralyzed her from the waist down at birth, in a country that did not officially recognize the existence of disabled people.
However, these three and many others profiled in a recently released Netflix documentary found redemption and achievement in sport. The film, Rising Phoenix, is an impassioned introduction to the Paralympic movement. Layering on top of the powerful theme of Channel 4’s marketing of the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Paralympics – We’re the Superhumans! – Rising Phoenix gives Para athletes the Hollywood superhero treatment.
The production values of Rising Phoenix can be described as lavish. Aussie swimmer Ellie Cole is shot dancing under water, rays of light piercing the dark waters. Alaize sits open and relaxed on a spacious couch in an ornate French Baroque setting. South African sprinter Ntandu Mahlangu is interviewed with an actual cheetah in repose at his own cheetah blades. And Vio is filmed lovingly in slow motion, strapped to a wheelchair, lunging and gyrating to angelic music.
And yet when it comes to recognizing the disabled, Rising Phoenix is the exception. Every superhero has a weakness. For Superman, it is kryptonite. For Para athletes, and people with disabilities, it is apathy.
Rising Phoenix is a tale of Two Paralympics, nearly the best of times and the worst of times for the paramount global event for athletes with disabilities. The 2012 London Paralympics were a triumph of the organizers, an event that packed the stadiums and arenas, energized a city, and inspired the world. The 2016 Rio Olympics, as we learn in the film, nearly ended the Paralympic movement.
Seven weeks before the start of the 2016 Rio Paralympics, then president of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee. Andrew Parsons was given terrible news by the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games – they did not have enough money to run the Paralympic Games.
“Fµ©≤ing hell,” said Sir Philip Craven, then president of the International Paralympic Committee. “There was no money.”
“They are not telling you, we can do that, or we can do that,” said Xavier Gonzalez, CEO of the IPC at that time. “They are telling you we cannot organize the games. I couldn’t at that moment see how we could fix it. And that was scary.”
And as potential Rio Paralympians began to understand that the rumors were true, they had that sinking, familiar feeling from childhood, their teenage years, and still today: unfairness, humiliation, helplessness. Said two-time T-44 men’s 100-meter sprint champion, Jonnie Peacock of Team GB, “you just feel like these people don’t view the Paralympics as anything.”
Parsons explained in exasperation how he could not give clear answers to the national Paralympic committees who worried whether the Games would happen or not. But he and the filmmakers were explicit in explaining who was to blame. Speaking over images of the Rio Olympic Organizing Committee, including chairman Carlos Nuzman, who was subsequently arrested for corruption and bribery, Parsons said, “forget about these guys, the leadership, because they won’t help.”
Rising Phoenix goes on to tell the nail-biting story of how IPC leadership, Parsons, Craven and Gonzalez, convinced the Brazilian government and skeptical authorities to keep this dream alive not only for over 4,300 Para athletes, but also for 24 million persons of disability in Brazil.
The 2012 London Paralympics is held up as the gold standard for awakening the world to the incredible athletic abilities of Para athletes. But it is the 2016 Rio Paralympics that may have saved the movement. Said Craven, “We’d have really broken the cycle. Confidence wouldn’t have been there in the future. It would (have been) the extinguishing of that Paralympic flame.”
Changing the World
Instead, the flame burns brightly today. Rising Phoenix brings alive the power of the movement, and the dreams of these superheroes.
- The incredible story of the movement’s founder, Ludwig Guttman
- The reunification of mother and child as summer Paralympian, Tatyana McFadden wins cross-country silver in the Winter Paralympics in her country of birth, Russia.
- The dramatic and stirring gold medal victory of ebullient Bebe Vio in wheelchair fencing, who carries you on her shoulders in waves of joy.
“No one stays the same after watching the movie,” said Parsons in a recent interview with 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan. “If ten people watch the movie, ten people will be changed. If ten million people watch the movie, ten million people will be changed. I want the entire world to watch this movie.”
So do I.
Note: All film poster images shared with permission of the IPC.
“I was supposed to be in Tokyo today, rehearsing my opening speech,” said Andrew Parsons wistfully.
It was a little after 8pm on Monday, August 24, 2020 Japan time. Parsons, the President of the International Paralympics Committee (IPC), was addressing members of 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan in a Zoom meeting. The event marked one year to go for the Tokyo2020 Paralympics.
The Paralympics would have kicked off in Japan on Tuesday, August 25, 2020 if not for the devastating and global impact of COVID-19 virus. It was March 24, 2020 when the fateful decision was made to postpone both the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics for a year. “That decision was not taken lightly, but it was the right one,” said Parsons. “Had the games been tomorrow, there’s no chance they would have happened.”
Putting the Puzzle Back Together
March 24 brought devastating news to the organizers in Japan. Yasushi Yamawaki, IPC Governing Board Member at Large and Tokyo 2020 Vice President said they were more than surprised.
“When the decision was made to postpone the games, most of the staff and partners, were very much shocked. They had spent seven years putting together the biggest and most complicated jigsaw puzzle. And with a few pieces to go, they were told to start over again.”
There are dozens of major sponsors, over 180 National Paralympic Committees, dozens of international sports federations, and thousands of athletes who had questions. But for the IPC, a huge question that had to be answered was how to ensure funding for Tokyo2020 in 2021. As Craig Spence, IPC Chief Brand & Communications Officer, explained, it was critical to re-do the contracts with the broadcasters first.
“From an IPC point of view, we had to review 300 contracts in the space of two weeks. We have TV contracts with 165 broadcasters. Each contract needed to be reviewed. And each contract impacted the cash flow of the IPC for 2020 because we were due money this year, but the TV contract was then moved to next year.”
And Parsons reminded everybody that this incredibly complex and urgent work had to be done in the challenging environment of a pandemic. “We had to manage our cash flow,” said Parsons. “But we also needed to work with our staff all over the world, many of whom were living away from their families during the most demanding period ever for the IPC.”
Parsons is hopeful, but he is realistic. He said that everything that can be done, that can be controlled, will be. Planning will continue through the end of September. The IPC will focus on countermeasures to COVID-19 in the last quarter of 2020, and then will enter operational readiness in the first quarter of 2021. After that, important decisions will have to be made.
“We still have one year to go. We will follow the development of the pandemic. Unfortunately, none of us have a crystal ball. We have to work as if the Games are going ahead. This is the tricky part – how to work towards something you don’t know 100% is going ahead or not. But at the moment we are working full speed ahead preparing for the Games as if they are happening.”
The postponement resulted in a re-planning process that prioritized two things: the safety and health of the athletes and an approach to budgeting only what is necessary, a sustainability mindset that can be applied to future Paralympics, something that Parsons calls the Principles. “In these principles, the safety of athletes Is the number 1 priority for us,” said Parsons. “Everything that is not fundamental for the Games will be downscaled or cut.”
No Question of the Tokyo2020 Legacy
The Paralympics were postponed for a year. But Tokyo2020 is already establishing a legacy in Japan. Yamawaki explained that Tokyo is one of the most accessible cities in the world for the disabled, and that the media showcases the capabilities and personalities of the Para athletes almost on a daily basis.
Spence shared comparative data showing the impact of the run-up to the Games.
“In the build up to London 2012 with 18 months to go, less than 1% of the British population could name a Paralympian, and everyone sees London as the benchmark. In Tokyo last year, 45% of the Japanese population could recognize Shingo Kunieda, the wheelchair tennis player. So that shows the real difference in interest. In terms of accessible transport, I think when Tokyo won the right to stage the Games, around 75% of the city’s metro stations were accessible. By the time the Games happen next year, that’s going to be at 99%. That would never have happened had it not been for the Paralympics coming to Tokyo. The legacies are going to be tremendous.”
Yamawaki oversees the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center, which is driving a groundbreaking education program in Japan’s school system. The IPC’s “I’mPossible” program – a toolkit of resources designed to engage 6-12 year old students about the Paralympic movement – is being pioneered in Japan with great success. Yamawaki said that this program has been delivered to 36,000 primary and secondary schools across Japan.
Children can learn from this unique learning opportunity,” said Yamawaki. “They will become future leaders in creating an inclusive society in this country after the Paralympics are over. It’s going to be one of the biggest legacies. Usually the parents teach the children, but in the I’mPossible program, kids teach the parents. This will increase parents’ awareness of the Paralympic Games and Paralympic sports. That’s the biggest impact we’re seeing.”
What You Can Do
Here are a few suggestions from IPC leaders on what we all can do to support the Paralympics broadly, and people with disabilities specifically.
Employ Persons with Disabilities: If your company does not employ persons with disabilities, it should. If your office is not set up to deal with people in wheelchairs, put in ramps. If you have a restaurant or a canteen, make your menus available in braille, or put your information on the internet so that people with disabilities can more easily access the information.
See the Opportunity: As Spence explained, before he joined the IPC, he didn’t realize people with disabilities are such great problem solvers.
“People with disabilities face challenges on a daily basis. They don’t tend to moan. They don’t just sit around thinking I can’t get around this. They always find innovative ways to get around and beat the challenge. They can bring a whole new creativity and new outlook to your business.”
Go See the Games: Seeing the Para athletes in action will change your attitude for life. Get as many people around you to see the Games.
“There’s very few people in the world who can run 100 meters in under 10.5 seconds,” said Spence. “Yet we have athletes with prosthetic legs and running blades who can do it in 10.4 seconds. It really does challenge perceptions towards disability.”
See my review for Rising Phoenix.
Rising Phoenix: The Stirring Netflix Documentary on the Paralympic Movement that Seeks to Change the World
The photographer’s eye was keen, often captured by the person at work.
- The woman shining shoes in front of a bank.
- The man patching up the entrance of an old lady’s abode.
- A man on his bike after making deliveries.
- The proprietors of a tea house.
- Men and women of the office entering a busy train station after a day’s work.
Dick Lyon was in Japan for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and bought a Bronica camera. In his quiet walks around the Olympic Village, he was drawn to the working person, which might not come as a surprise to those who knew him.
“For work ethic, no one topped Dick, ever,” said Kent Mitchell, two-time Olympian, who won gold with Ed Ferry and Conn Findlay in the coxed pair at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. “Meticulous in everything was his mantra. For years I have kept a copy of Dick’s daily handwritten workout logs in my briefcase wherever I go. I don’t know why I carry it around. It exhausts me even to read it. I can’t imagine what Dick and Larry went through to do all those things day after day.”
Mitchell recalled that Lyon and his partner in the coxless pairs, Larry Hough, would get in shape for the 1972 Munich Olympics by running up and down stadium steps. “In 1972, he and his pair partner, Larry Hough, in their run up to the 1972 Munich Olympics in a two-man boat, both set records for running up and down ten sets of 88 stairs in Stanford’s Football Stadium. Their record still stands.”
“Pound for pound toughest oarsman I know,” said Ed Ferry, who won gold with Conn Findlay in the coxed pair at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Lyon, a native of San Fernando, California, was a rower at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Along with his teammates Ted Nash, Phil Durbrow, Geoff Picard and Theo Mittet, his boat won the bronze medal in the coxless fours competition, in dramatic fashion.
“I spent hundreds of hours looking at the back of Dick’s head,” said Mittet. “His perfect rowing form was like his life…always striving, always gentle, always on center and always reliable.”
Like Mitchell, Lyon was a graduate of Stanford, who double majored in electrical and mechanical engineering. At the US Olympic trials in 1964, he rigged a double-steering mechanism so that both the stroke and the bow could steer if necessary…because he could. In his life outside of rowing, Lyon worked in the burgeoning IT world of Silicon Valley, many years in Hewlett Packard.
“I have many very smart friends, but Dick’s mind was unique among them,” said Mittet.
Richard Avery “Dick” Lyon died on July 8, 2019. After decades winning boatloads of medals in Masters rowing competitions, he was taking it easy on a sailboat on Huntington Lake with his wife, Marilyn. The boat flipped, and in the course of pulling the boat back to shore, Lyon had a heart attack and passed away soon after.
Mittet was close to Lyon, and appreciated his intellect and his empathy. “He was always objectively focused, soft spoken and an engaged listener without the appearance of effort.”
You can see the desire to tell the story of the everyday person in his pictures. He wrote to me a few years ago about how he enjoyed watching the Olympics on television because he knew the effort and challenges Olympians – famous or not – had to overcome just to get to the Games. And he appreciated them all for that.
The truth, of course, reveals that every elite athlete has a story, full of obstacles they have found their way around or over on the way to their goal. When you train and compete as an athlete at the highest levels, even if you don’t come out the winner, you are forced to learn more about who you are deep down. I have often thought of this as I watch Olympic Games on TV. The commentator goes into depth about a number of particular Olympians, but how much could so many untold stories reveal?