Weightlifter Martin Dias: The One Man Team of British Guiana in 1964

British Guiana_Opening Ceremonies_Martin Dias
British Guiana marching in the Opening Ceremonies. Is Martin Dias the second man (holding the flag) or the third one? My guess is that the 2nd one is the weightlifter, and the third is a member of the NOC. (From the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964 – Kyodo News Agency)

The first medals won at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were in weightlifting, held in the first few days of the Games. On October 11, Aleksey Vakhonin of the Soviet Union won the bantamweight (56kg) title, lifting his left leg stork-like in his final lift, putting an exclamation mark in a thrilling finish.

But it was the eight-place finisher who may have lifted, figuratively, way above his weight. Martin Dias was the sole representative of his country, British Guiana, at that time, still a colony of Great Britain. As journalist, Roy Moor of the Daily Mail wrote in an article entitled “The One-Man Team,” Dias had to overcome significant obstacles in his home country and in Tokyo to get to eighth place.

In the early 1960s, British Guiana (today known as Guyana) was in the throes of socio-economic chaos – race riots, worker strikes – that created challenges for all citizens, as Moore explained, let alone those who were entertaining trifling thoughts of joining the Olympics.

They were anxious days in British Guiana in the months before the opening of the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Internal political differences had led to wide-spread sniping in the country, and athletes training to win places in their national Olympic team risked coming under fire if they ventured out on fitness runs. These were not ideal conditions for building world­ beaters for Tokyo-nor, for that matter, for raising funds to send athletes half-way across the world in search of Olympic glory. But the brave little British Guiana Olympic Commit­tee were determined not to let the internal upset stop their country from being represented in the Games. With the aid of a few sports socials, jumble sales and collecting boxes, they managed to raise sufficient money to send one competitor to Tokyo.

Dias was that one man. Known as the Mighty Midget, bantamweight weightlifter Dias won bronze at the 1962 Commonwealth Games, gold at the Central American and Pan American Games in 1963, and so was an easy choice amidst the number of world-class sportsmen able to train, let alone compete, during those challenging times in British Guiana.

According to this site, Dias was not arriving in Tokyo under ideal conditions. While most athletes would arrive at least a week in advance, giving themselves a chance to overcome jetlag, get accustomed to their surroundings and train in prep, Dias arrived on the day of the opening ceremonies after a series of flights that took him from NY, to San Francisco, to Honolulu and Tokyo, marched in the parade of athletes, and then had to get ready for his competition the next day.

The battle of the bantamweight weightlifting competition was really between Vakhonin, Imre Foldi of Hungary, and Shiro Ichinoseki of Japan, but Dias held his own, but not without drama. As Moor explained, Dias weighed in a half-pound overweight, so just before going into competition, he had to sit in a sauna to work off that weight. Drained somewhat from the rush to lose weight, generally uncomfortable in the cold of Tokyo compared to the heat of British Guiana, Dias still represented his nation well. Of 24 competitors, Dias ended up in 8th place. And Moor wrote that he could have finished as high as sixth, if not for some in-competition controversy, and a severe lack of funds.

Had it not been for an unfortunate experience at the start of the press series, Dias might well have finished in the top six. Judges refused his first press of 221 lbs. and coach Ronald Blackman wanted to protest, but had not the thousand Yen (£ 1 sterling) needed to make an official protest, and he could not find an interpreter in time to help him get the money. This so upset Dias that he was not at his best for the next attempt, and failed. But he succeeded with the lift at the third attempt – only to have it turned down again by the judges. This time coach Blackman had the money ready for an immediate protest. And the protest was upheld. The success of the appeal so heartened Dias that he went on the equal his personal best for the snatch with 225 lbs. and exceed his best jerk with 292 lbs.

It would take two more years before British Guiana would gain its independence, another 16 years before Guyana would celebrate its first and only Olympic medal – a bronze medal for Michael Anthony in boxing. But in 1964, according to Moor, Dias “had won the hearts of many sports lovers in Japan, and proved to the world how worth-while it is to send even a one-man team to the world’s greatest sporting festival-the Olympic Games.”