To many Japanese, so much was riding on the success of the 1964 Olympic Games, particularly the need to avoid shame, and to project the image that Japan can run a global event flawlessly, in a first class fashion. And for the most part, they did. The Japanese were justifiably proud that their country pulled off the first Olympic Games in Asia.
So on Saturday, October 24 (exactly 51 years ago today), the final day of the 1964 Olympic Games, after everything had proceeded to near perfection, the Closing Ceremony was to be the icing on the cake. And to many it was…except that the athletes did not behave exactly as they were supposed to.
According to the procedures of the Olympic Organizing Committee, the objective was to “carry out all the ceremonies in a well-defined and orderly manner.” The athletes were relieved and ready to celebrate after months of preparation and a few weeks of intense pressure and competition. The officials and supporting staff were also likely very relieved that everything was working to plan. So it’s possible that during the closing ceremony, inhibitions as well as the will to police them crumbled.
“We were told we had to stay in line,” US gymnast Rusty Mitchell told me. “That lasted 5 minutes as we all started taking pictures, exchanging pins. It was disorderly and fun.”
For whatever reason, the athletes came into the stadium arm in arm with athletes from different countries, whether friendships had been struck up during the two weeks of competition, or right then and there. And there was plenty of horsing around, in ways that ordinarily would not have been permitted in rule-rigid Japan.
The ceremony was invaded by a non-athlete who just jumped into the mix, the mysterious number 351 on his shirt. As AP explained, a citizen from Sierra Leone named Arnold Gordon, jumped on the track as the athletes were marching in. “Normally, a cordon of police would have swooped down and gobbled him up before he had taken more than a dozen steps. Instead, the Japanese officials acted as if he did not exist. The crowd, stunned at first by this interruption of the show, soon accepted it as a big joke, laughed and waved as the volunteer pranced around the 400-meter oval, waving in reply to every cheer. ‘It was a just a gag,’ he said afterward. ‘I did a television commercial in this suit, and decided to pull this stunt for the fun of it.’ Emperor Hirohito, graying, bespectacled and nattily attired in a business suit, showed little emotion during this and the more serious proceedings.”
According to Stars and Stripes, “a group of New Zealand athletes made a gallant – if not successful – bid to be the star attraction during the Olympic Games closing ceremonies Saturday night. The Kiwis, before a packed audiences in National Stadium, stopped in front of the Imperial Box and bowed low several times to Emperor Hirohito and Empress Michiko. Then distance runner Bill Baille drew cheers and applause when he threw a kiss at the emperor, Hirohito acknowledged by waving his hat. Baille was completely out of the medal picture. He placed sixth in the 5,000-meter run – and they didn’t strike any medals for the 50-meter kiss throw.”
But then, all good things must come to an end, and Japan bid farewell in the dying light of the dusk, and offered their best wishes to the city that would next host the Olympiad – Mexico City.
As John McBryde, captain of the Australian field hockey team told me, “what really made it special, (the closing ceremony) took place as dusk was approaching. By that time were all strolling in, in a very leisurely fashion, it had become dark. And when the flame was extinguished, it was suddenly gone. There was no light. And then, up popped the sign for Mexico city. Everybody was in tears.”