The Triumphant Tragedy of Marathoner Kokichi Tsuburaya Part 1: The Marathon Sprint that Broke the Hearts of the Japanese

Heatley Bikila Tsuburaya on medal stand 1964
Basil Heately, Abebe Bikila and Kokichi Tsuburaya on the medal stand

Abebe Bikila strolled into the National Stadium like he owned it. And he did. The lithe Ethiopian, a member of the Imperial Bodyguard of his nation, was about to meet expectations at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics – to become the first person to win marathons in two consecutive Olympics.

The first time Bikila did so, he was an unknown, and made headlines by running barefoot on the roads of Rome in 1960 to win marathon gold. When he crossed the finish line in Tokyo, amazingly over 4 minutes earlier than the second place finisher, the audience marveled at how fresh Bikila was – so fresh that he did calisthenics and jogged in place as if he were readying for the start of a marathon.

In other words, the actual competition in the marathon was for second. And in the race for second, Japan was ready to explode in celebration.

Like the Brits, with Brian Kilby and Basil Heatley, the Australian Ron Clarke, the other Ethiopian Demissie Wolde, as well as Americans Billy Mills and Buddy Edelen, the Japanese had a trio of strong marathoners in the competition, Toru Terasawa, Kenji Kimihara and Kokichi Tsuburaya.

As explained in this detailed article, at the 10K mark of the 42K race, Clarke was setting a pretty fast pace at 30:14, with Jim Hogan of Ireland and Bikila following. Around the 20k mark, Bikila took the lead and never looked back. The race for 2nd was on, with Clarke and Hogan about 5 seconds behind Bikila, and a second pack including Wolde, Tsuburaya, Jozsef Suto of Hungary and Antonio Ambu of Italy.

Kokichi_Tsuburaya 1964_adoring fans

With about 7 kilometers to go, Bikila, Hogan, Tsuburaya and Suto were in the lead, with Heatley rising to fifth. Amazingly, Hogan dropped out of the marathon despite being in position for a silver medal, leaving the Japanese from the self defense forces, Tsuburaya in second. Heatley and Kilby were coming on, passing Suto with only 2 kilometers to go.

Heatley was advancing and could envision a bronze-medal finish, but didn’t think he could pass Tsuburaya. “I didn’t expect to catch him,” Heatley recalls, “but he was a target.”

Bikila entered the National Stadium triumphantly, winning with an ease that both shocked and surprised the crowd. But the crowd went wild a few minutes later when Tsuburaya entered the stadium. At their home Olympics, Japan had medaled in wrestling, judo, boxing, weightlifting, gymnastics and swimming among others, but not in track and field. Tsuburaya was about to change that, in front of the biggest crowd possible.

And yet, soon after Tusburaya entered the stadium, so too did Heatley, only about 10 meters behind. Just before the final curve of the stadium’s cinder track, Heatley turned on the jets and sprinted by Tsuburaya. For a 2nd place battle that took over 2 hours and 16 minutes, Tsuburaya lost his chance for silver by four seconds.

Writer, Robert Whiting, was watching this match on the television, confident that Tsuburaya would make Japan proud with a silver medal only to see that expectation burst before the eyes of an entire nation, as he explained in this article.

The cheering for Tsuburaya was building to a crescendo when suddenly Great Britain’s Basil Heatley came into view and proceeded to put on one of Olympic track and field’s great all-time spurts. He steadily closed the gap in the last 100 meters, passing Tsuburaya shortly before the wire, turning the wild cheering in the coffee shop, and in the stadium, and no doubt in the rest of Japan, into one huge collective groan.

Bob Schul, who three days earlier, became the first American to win gold in the 5,000 meter race, watched the end of the marathon with some dismay.

Abebe entered the stadium to great applause. He finished and went into the infield and started doing exercises. Finally the second guy, Tsuburaya came, and the crowd roared. But so did Heathley of England. Sharon asked if Tsuburaya could hold on to 2nd place. I said I didn’t think so. Heatley caught him about 150 meters before the finish. And the crowd became very quiet. The Japanese guy was going to get third. And when he did finish, the stadium did erupt. And that was the only medal they won in track and field.

 

Heatley on the heels of Tsuburaya
Heatley hot on the heels of Tsuburaya

 

When Kokichi Tsuburaya was a boy in elementary school, he competed in an event common throughout Japan – a sports day, when children compete against each other in a variety of activities, like foot races. After one such race, Koshichi Tsuburaya, the young runner’s father, chewed him out for looking behind him during the race. “Why are you looking back during the race. Looking back is a bad thing. If you believe in yourself, you don’t need to do so.”

Many years later, with over 70,000 people screaming in the showcase event of the Olympics, people were yelling, “Tsuburaya, a runner is behind you! Look back! Look back! He’s close!” Was Tsuburaya recalling that childhood scolding from his father? Would it have made a difference if he did?

While Tsuburaya’s very public loss of the silver medal must have been the source of pain, not only for Tsuburaya, but also of the nation. But in the end, there were no hard feelings. After all, Tsuburaya won Japan’s only medal in Athletics, a bronze in the marathon, an achievement beyond the nation’s initial expectations. Writer Hitomi Yamaguchi wrote of this pain and pride in a 1964 article.

Tsuburaya tried so very hard. And his efforts resulted in the raising of the Japanese flag in the National Stadium. My chest hurt. I applauded so much I didn’t take any notes. Since the start of the Olympic Games, our national flag had not risen once in the National Stadium. At this last event, we were about to have a record of no medals in track and field. Kon Ishikawa’s film cameras were rolling, and newspaper reporters were watching. People were waiting and hoping. So when Tsubaraya crossed the finish line, we felt so fortunate! When I saw the Japanese flag raised freely into the air, it felt fantastic. Tsuburaya, thank you.

You can watch the dramatic second-place finish to the Tokyo Olympics marathon at the 5:38 mark of this video:

Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Marija Linartaite, for finding and translating the last quote.