The Perfectionist’s Dilemma: The All-or-Nothing Life of Hurdler Ikuko Yoda

Ikuko Yoda_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha 1
Ikuko Yoda, from the magazine Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha
Ikuko Yoda (依田郁子) did not make the team to go to the Rome Olympic Games in 1960. So she went to Lake Sagami near Mt Fuji, took a large amount of sleeping pills, and attempted to end her life. However, she did not succeed.

Running the hurdles had become her life, and competing and winning in the Olympics was perhaps a way to make her complete. Recovering from the pain of Rome, she may have seen redemption in Tokyo, and recovered enough from her suicide attempt to begin training again. Over that 4-year period, Yoda set and re-set the Japan record for the 80-meter hurdles 12 times, becoming a powerful track and field hope for Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

During the Tokyo Games, photographers tracked her every move. The famed director, Kon Ichikawa, had his movie cameras focused on Yoda more than other competitors for the film, Tokyo Olympiad. And Yoda ran excellently, easily making the cut in the first round of heats, running a personal best 10.7 seconds. In the semis, she again ran the course in 10.7 seconds and made it to the final 8.

In one of the closest finals in any Olympic foot race ever, Karin Balzer of Germany and Teresa Cieply of Poland finished the 8-meter race in 10.5 seconds, although Balzer was declared the winner. Pam Kilborn of Australia finished third with a time of 10.6 seconds. With a time of 10.7 seconds, Yoda finished fifth.

No doubt, this was a fantastic time and finish. In fact, she’s still the only Japanese female to enter the finals of any individual short-distance race in the history of international competition.

But she could not outrun her demons.

Ikuko Yoda_Asahi Graf_Oct 23
Ikuko Yoda, from the magazine Asahi Graf_Oct 23
After the 1964 Olympics, Yoda married. She had children. And as she entered her forties, she began to suffer from health issues. In 1983 she entered the hospital for knee and heart issues. And on October 14 of that year, nearly 19 years to the day when she fought but came in fifth in the 80-meter hurdles at the Tokyo Games, she hung herself in her own home.

She left no note. But she suffered from depression, and apparently had problems reconciling her images of perfection in whatever she was doing, and the reality around her. Here is how Robin Kietlinski, the author of Japanese Women and Sport explained it.

In spite of the paper-thin difference separating Yoda’s finishing time from those of the three medal winners, she had an incredibly difficult time handling the fact that she had trained so hard and did not come away with a medal. She was frequently described as a perfectionist (kanzenshugisha, kanpekishugisha) who could not bear when things did not go exactly as she planned. At a press conference immediately following the conclusion of the Tokyo Olympics, Yoda caused quite a stir when she reported that ‘I do not want to go through the pain of racing a second time. I will be retiring now. I do not even want to look at a track again.’ Shortly thereafter, she married a professor at the Tokyo University of Education (now Tsukuba University) and fully devoted herself to being a good housewife and later a caring mother to her children. According to her husband, she was as much a perfectionist when it came to running the household as she had been during her running career.