Yoshiyuki Tsuruta: First Japanese Olympian to Win Gold Two Olympics in a Row

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Yoshiyuki Tsuruta winning gold in the 200 meter breaststroke at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

We think of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as Japan’s debut on the international sports scene, as the time when Japan told the world “We are here!” But the first time the world caught attention of Japan as a sporting power was the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. Mikio Oda won the triple jump competition, becoming the first Japanese to ever win a gold medal. Hitomi Kinue became the first Japanese woman to win a medal, taking second in the 800-meter finals. And Yoshiyuki Tsuruta also won gold, winning the 200-meter breaststroke, starting a long proud Japanese swimming tradition.

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At the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.

Tsuruta was the second of 12 children, born in Kagoshima, Japan. As a member of the Imperial Japanese Navy, he may have had opportunity to train as a swimmer, emerging as the best breaststroker in Japan, consequently being selected for the 1928 Japanese Olympic squad.

According to John P. Lohn, in his book, They Ruled the Pool: The 100 Greatest Swimmers in History, Tsuruta deserves recognition as one of the all-time greats.

Tsuruta captured the most prestigious medal of his career at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. In one of the most anticipated races of the early Olympic movement, Tsuruta battled Germany’s Erich Rademacher, the world-record holder. Ultimately, Tsuruta produced a comfortable victory, defeating his rival by nearly two seconds. Tsuruta and Rademacher were so far ahead of the rest of the world that the bronze medal was won with a time more than five seconds slower than Rademacher.

Like his fellow Olympians from Amsterdam, Tsuruta returned to Japan with little fanfare. He enrolled in Meiji University and went about becoming an even better swimmer, going on to set a world record in a competition in Kyoto in 1929. In 1932, he defeated his fellow countryman, Reizo Koike, in the 200-meter breaststroke at the Los Angeles Olympics to become the first Japanese to win back-to-back gold medals in consecutive Olympics.

As the International Swimming Hall of Fame put it when they inducted Tsuruta into their hall in 1968, “In the history of the modern Olympic Games, since 1896, only one man has repeated as gold medal winner in the 200 meter breaststroke.” Kosuke Kitajima went on to match that feat, not only in the 200-meters, but also in the 100-meter breaststroke in 2004 and 2008.

But Kitajima doesn’t have a bronze statue. In a park in Tsuruta’s hometown stands a symbol of one of Japan’s earliest international sports heroes. And like all heroic symbols, there is a plaque that includes a poem that reflects Tsuruta’s philosophy, a powerful reflection of Japanese values.

It’s not suffering.

It’s evidence you have yet to push yourself.

Doing so, it becomes second nature, an afterthought.

True suffering is just the beginning of knowing who you are.

苦しいうちはダメ

鍛錬不足の証拠

くるしさに慣れ、平気になって

本当の苦しさ探究が始まる

 

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Yoshiyuki Tsuruta’s statue in Kagoshima