At the Tokyo International Sports Week, the organizers saw this rehearsal of the XVIII Olympiad a year later as an opportunity, not only to see what operational issues existed, but also to provide Japanese athletes with a chance to compete in a high-pressure event with international stars with world-beating expectations.
Of the approximately 4,000 athletes invited to participate in this competition of 20 events, the same ones that would be held at the Olympics in 1964, over 3,400 were Japanese, including some 1,300 who were expected to compete a year later. For the Japanese athlete, rare was the opportunity to compete in international events.
But that was also true for some of the visiting foreign athletes. More importantly, it was an opportunity for several hundred foreign athletes and officials to see what Japan and its sporting facilities were like in advance of thousands of other competitors who would come to Japan for the first time in 1964.
And in the case of the United States men’s eight rowing crew, who all came from the Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, their participation in the Tokyo International Sports Week was an opportunity to gain crucial intelligence about the rowing course.
The Toda Rowing Course in Saitama Prefecture was actually constructed in the 1930s in preparation of the 1940 Tokyo Olympics. Due to the impending issues of world war at the time, the organizers despite working so hard to win the right to host the Olympics, decided to decline. The IOC failed to organize a Games, not only in 1940, but also 1944.
But in 1963, the Toda Rowing Course was open for competition. And when the coach of the US men’s eight team, Allen Rosenberg, got a close look at the course, he gleaned a bit of intelligence that would shape the training and the makeup of the team over the course of the year. According to Bill Stowe, in his book, All Together, about the victorious Vesper 8, that intelligence would help the team build a psychological edge over their chief competitors of the Ratzeburg Rowing Club, the men’s eight team from Germany who were the reigning champions of the Rome Olympics.
Rowing in Tokyo gave Rosenberg and Rose the opportunity to study the rowing course which proved invaluable a year later. For the most part the European rowing courses are laid out to take advantage of prevailing tailwinds and the Ratzeburg style of rowing is short in the water and a high stroking cadence, both advantageous with a tailwind. However, the Toda course did not seem to have a prevailing wind and headwinds were not uncommon. This early knowledge of the anticipated conditions for 1964 helped Vesper to design both a crew and a style that could present an advantage over the Germans on that knowledge alone.
A year later, on October 15, 1964, six teams line up in the dimming light of early evening. As Rosenberg had anticipated and prepared for, a strong headwind was blowing. His team was built for headwinds and power, and whether the Americans had an advantage or not was less important than whether they believed it was an advantage. Stowe believed it was.
The headwind provides an advantage to longer stroking, and also to the bigger oarsmen whose weighty momentum and extra strength propel the shell into the wind. Lighter crews tend to drag when their oars are not in the water because of the wind resistance on the blades. High stroking crews are at some disadvantage as well because the oars are out of the water more often, the headwind pushing against them. At least that’s the theory and I am not about to argue that point.
As night descended, America’s eight rose, in rhythm, pulling away and earning the gold.