Judoka James Bregman Part 3: The Rainbow Team of the 1964 Olympics

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From the “United States Olympic Book”

The pictures are the first two pages of photo profiles of Americans on the US Olympic squad, from the summary report of American performance at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. As you can see and likely understand, America at the time demographically was generally perceived to be white. But it was changing, as minority groups, be they black, latino or Asian for example, were growing in size. Consequently, their representation in American Olympic squads were also growing.

But this was 1964, and race relations were beginning to brew, and get attention. In fact, it was October 14, 1964, the fifth day of the Tokyo Olympics, when the powers that be in Norway awarded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Note James Bregman’s head shot in the upper right-hand corner

In 1964, diversity and inclusion were not buzzwords in corporate America. They were in some ways an alien concept, something that you might only visualize if you happen to be passing through the United Nations when it was in session. But there was one shining example of that on Team USA in 1964 – the Judo team – represented by a Caucasian Jew (James Bregman), a person of Native American Indian descent (Ben Nighthorse Campbell), a Japanese-American (Paul Maruyama) and an African American (George Harris).

Judo is not a team sport. It is very much mano-a-mano, and while you learn from others, training can be done independently. In other words, in the case of the 1964 Team USA judo squad, their diverse make up did not necessarily contribute to their actual performance beyond the fact that they were all good friends, four of the few foreigners who ventured to the mecca of judo in Tokyo to live and train.

 

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L to R: George Harris, James  Bregman, Yoshihiro Uchida, Paul Maruyama, Ben Nighthorse Campbell

 

But for James Bregman, who won a bronze medal in the middleweight class at the 1964 Games, the “rainbow team” was an inspiration to him.

“I grew up in a black ghetto,” Bregman told me. “I was a Jewish kid with white skin who was picked on by black kids who were brutes. I actually experienced segregation. My father had a grocery store in Green Valley, Virginia, and we lived above it on the second floor. Behind our store was Drew Elementary School, only two blocks away. I could play basketball with the other kids there, but in the 1950s I couldn’t go to that school. Instead, they bussed me out to Fairlington Elementary School in a white neighborhood 30 minutes away.”

Bregman didn’t object to being bussed out – he said he really wasn’t conscious of the socio-economic context of race relations at that time. But he did know that he was beat up in his neighborhood. Very often the bullies would be black, but Bregman told me that he was brought up not to judge, that he should be respectful to everybody and that a few bad guys did not represent an entire group.

And yet, he was getting beat up nonetheless.

Bregman was a small boy, often sick, dealing with bronchitis and asthma as a child. His parents thought that keeping him active indoors would help, so he got lessons in baton twirling, tap dancing, gymnastics, acrobatics as a kid. But one day, his parents learned of a judo club in the officers’ athletic club at the Pentagon in Washington D. C. that also was open to the public. Bregman’s parents took him to the club and suddenly, he was hooked on judo. And the officer’s club was also eye opening, the closest he would come to being inside the United Nations.

Although the Officer’s Athletic Club was located in Virginia, it was not segregated since the Pentagon was the Federal Government’s military headquarters. You had black, whites, hispanics, Japanese, Chinese, people from embassies all over the world. The club membership was multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious. From the time I was 13 years old, those were the people I hung out with. Maybe it was subliminal, but it gave me an understanding that hatred based on these externalities was ridiculous.

In fact, what Bregman understood, as did his teammates on the US judo team, what brought them together was far more substantial than what set them apart. Harris, Campbell, Maruyama and Bregman had all trained together in Japan for 3 or 4 years, their tight friendship forged in the common experience of two-a-day training – relentless, punishing and exhausting training. According to Bregman, they were more interested in becoming waza-shi, or highly proficient in judo technique, than winning competitions.

Bregman felt that his team was the representation of an ideal America, a team built on merit and performance, not race or religion. “Being on the rainbow team had a tremendous impact on me personally. This team represented America, not the one I grew up in, but one I wanted to live in.”

Judoka James Bregman Part 1: To Be a Waza-shi

Judoka James Bregman Part 2: The Stoic Professionalism of Judo