Hayes Jones was in Japan for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He had been to Japan before, but he had not quite mastered the local language. According to Sports Illustrated, he was getting food in one of the dining areas of the Olympic Village, and said to the Japanese working behind the counter one of the few words he had mastered.
Why Jones, the winner of the gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles at those ’64 Games, was saying “yes” in order to get served, is unclear. But since he wasn’t getting served, he doubled down.
As SI told it, “the Japanese responded immediately to this new American game. He laughed and said, ‘Hat! Hai!’ The two stood there shouting hais at each other over the counter until Jones finally said, ‘Hey, man, come on. Give me some salad!’ Instantly he was provided with enough lettuce and tomatoes for 10 men, which occasioned another round of hais, a few bows and a perplexed look on the part of the American.”
There is no dishonesty in saying that in Japan in 1964 the number of people who could speak English was relatively low. Organizers knew that in 1963, in the aftermath of the so-called “pre-Olympics”, a week-long rehearsal in preparation of the real Olympiad to be held exactly a year later. The feedback regarding the interpreters available was harsh.
Apparently, the organizers of the officially named Tokyo International Sports Week (TISW) had recruited interpreters from local universities and overestimated their abilities. The fact that the organizers provided the students with little training also contributed to the lack of readiness. This was particularly true regarding the students understanding of specialized sports jargon. Another issue was that the organizers limited their search to students who spoke either English or French, when in fact the athletes at Sports Week needed to be understood in Russian, German, French, Spanish or Italian for example.
As a result of this feedback post-Sports Week, the organizing committee made a few changes:
- They recruited an additional 140 interpreters who spoke Spanish, German and Russian.
- They expanded their talent pool beyond universities, openly recruiting interpreters from the general public via examination. Seven thousand five hundred people applied in the ten-day registration period.
- They ensured that 750 interpreters of the now five core languages of English, French, Spanish, German and Russian would be allocated to the Olympic Village, particularly in the transportation waiting areas and reception areas.
- As national olympic committees (NOC) expressed a desire to bring their own interpreters, particularly of those languages not in the five core languages, the organizers decided to create a new category called auxiliary interpreters. They allowed an NOC to bring in one local language interpreter for every 30 athletes on the team. Over 200 auxiliary interpreters from 65 countries were given credentials for the ’64 Games.
- In such a multi-lingual environment as the Olympics, people who spoke three or more languages were highly valued. The organizers did not have to recruit these specialists as apparently requests to volunteer poured into the office after the end of the 1960 Rome Olympics. The organizers ended up inviting 13 foreign multi-linguist interpreters, people who did not speak Japanese, but eventually were found to be very helpful in the press center and the Olympic Village.
Were there language issues at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics? Of course. Were these issues disruptive? Absolutely not, thanks to the efforts and preparation of the organizers and the diligence of the interpreters. Here is how the organizers summarized the performance of the interpreters at the XVIII Olympiad in their report, “The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 – The Official Report of the Organizing Committee“:
The preparation of the interpreters was completed early September, one month before the commencement of the Games. Beginning on 15th September, the day of the opening of the Olympic Village, 1,230 interpreters began their activities at their designated posts, whenever they were needed. Both men and women were uniformed differently from other personnel, in distinctive black doeskin blazer with white hemming, so that they might be easily recognized. There were perhaps occasions when the original plans and the practical results did not precisely coincide. As a whole, however, the young amateur interpreters recognized well the significance of the Olympic Games as a festival of youth, and was convinced that each one of them was in fact an ‘ambassador of goodwill’. With this conviction they made up for any linguistic efficiency. They laboured long hours day and night, they performed their duties well, without any incident worthy of mention.
Theirs was a significant role in the of the Olympic Games in Tokyo. The expenses defrayed by the Organizing Committee for the recruitment, training, and management of the services of the interpreters amounted to 150 million yen (US$416,666).