Mikio Oda: The First Japanese Olympic Champion

Mikio Oda competing at AmsterdamMikio Oda (織田 幹雄) is the first Japanese (in fact, Asian) to win a medal, taking gold in the triple jump in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Oda first competed in the Olympics in Paris in 1924, where he finished sixth in the triple jump. Hopping, skipping and jumping to a personal best of 14.35 meters gave Oda the motivation to try again in 1928.

When he took off for Amsterdam, he joined his fellow members of the Waseda University track team and spent two weeks on the Trans-Siberian railway to make their way through Europe. Oda was disappointed with the food, finding it expensive and not to his taste, and bored with the long trip particularly because he couldn’t train on the train.

Oda portrait Asahi

Oda eventually made it to Amsterdam, and was one of the favorites in a field of 24 competitors. It appears that Oda was a confident person. Part of the reason was because he was the Far East Champion through much of the 1920s. Another reason was that on the day of the competition, the track team supervisor, a man named Takeuchi said out loud, “Today is a lucky day.” As Oda explained in an interview conducted likely in the 1990s, “this utterance was quite suggestive for me and I could be confident that I can win.”

His first jump was strong at 15.13 meters, and Oda was particularly confident since the two people he thought were his major competitors, Ville Tuulos of Finland and Nick Winter of Australia, fouled in their first attempt. Oda said that he believed the soft grounds due to rain had made Tuulos and Winter nervous. Oda eventually achieved a competition best 15.21 meters, doing so three times, while Lee Casey, the silver medalist from the United States could only come as close as 15.17 meters.

While Oda’s achievement was the first time the Olympic Games became known to the Japanese, Oda was not celebrated when he returned from Amsterdam.

“Japanese people at the time were not overly interested in the Olympics,” said Oda. “Therefore I was lucky. I didn’t have to be nervous. Interest to Olympics grew after the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, and to its highest at Berlin in 1936. When I won, I didn’t become a star. Newspaper issued a special edition. There was no TV and instant communication systems of today were not yet developed yet. There was no homecoming party. Waseda University also held no party. I think that was just the natures of sports in the public’s mind at that time. The only welcoming party was at my birthplace Kaitaichi-machi in Hiroshima.”

After Amsterdam, Oda graduated from Waseda and joined the Asahi Shimbun in 1931. That same year, Oda continued to amaze, establishing the world record in the triple jump at 15.58 meters. At the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, Oda served as coach and captain of the Japanese athletics team.

At the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, Oda was recognized in significant ways for his pathbreaking achievements. The 400-meter running track in Yoyogi that athletes commonly used for training during the Tokyo Games was called Oda Field. And when the Olympic flag was presented in the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Games, the flag was placed on the flagpole and raised exactly 15.21 meters, Oda’s gold-medal winning distance in the triple jump in 1928.

Oda passed away in 1998. But in 2000, he was selected posthumously as the best Asian athlete of the century.

Oda Field (3)
Oda Field during the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.