When József Sütő lined up for the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Hungarian didn’t know any of the other 67 competitors in the race, except for the then-world record holder, American Buddy Edelen, and the reigning Olympic champion from Ethiopia, Abebe Bikila.
When Sütő hit the halfway point in the marathon, Bikila was indeed firmly in the lead. Slightly behind him was Jim Hogan of Ireland. Ron Clarke of Australia was third, but pressing hard on Clarke were Sütő, Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan, and Demissie Wolde of Ethiopia.
“Mr. Tsuburaya was in this group, but I did not know at the time who he was,” Sütő explained in an interview with me. “I saw of course that he is Japanese but I did not know more.”
And yet, it was that race that established a life-long tie between those two runners, who never met except in that single competition on October 21, 1964. Fifty years later, Sütő would return to Japan and pay respects to the Japanese marathoner who won the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, and then subsequently and sadly took his own life four years later.
At this own expense, Sütő flew out to Japan to attend the 32nd Tsuburaya Memorial Meet, an annual series of running events held in the city of Sukagawa, Fukushima, the hometown of Kokichi Tsuburaya. This was October, 2014, which meant that he would be running in the memorial only two days before the 50th anniversary of the marathon of the Tokyo Olympics.
As explained in this article, Sütő ran in the 5k race, and at the age of 78, ran it in a respectable 27 minutes and 8 seconds. More importantly, he ran it in the race with teenage boys, aged 13 to 15. Sütő understands symbolism, the importance of being a role model, which is why he ran with the boys. When Sütő was growing up in Hungary, his hero was Sándor Iharos, one of the best distance runners in the world in the mid-1950s, a world record holder in the 1500-, 2,000- and 5,000-meter distances.
But Sütő also understands how he represents history, and his linkage to Japan and the 1964 Olympics, one of the defining moments of its history in the 20th century, as well as to the marathon itself. He had arrived in Tokyo on October 18th and was immediately whisked north to Sukagawa. He ran the race on October 19th. On October 20th, he attended a tour of the museum dedicated to the memory of Kokichi Tsuburaya, and then returned to Tokyo for a meeting with representatives of Japan’s National Olympic Committee on October 21st.
The meeting began at 3pm, and exactly 17 minutes into the meeting, Sütő interrupted the conversation by saying “Gentlemen, 50 years ago on this date and at this moment I was taking the turn into the Olympic stadium….and I’ll cross the finish line in a moment!”
I’ve only had the opportunity to exchange emails through an intermediary/translator named Rajzó-Kontor Kornélia, who kindly offered to assist me in communicating with Sütő . Through Rajzó-Kontor’s help, as well as the brilliant articles she wrote on Sütő’s visit to Japan in 2014, I can see that Sütő appreciates the enormity of Japan’s moment in 1964, and as he learned after leaving the Tokyo Olympics, the physical and mental trials Tsuburaya endured after the Tokyo Games. Sütő never met Tsuburaya, but he knows him, and likely wishes he could embrace him.
After completing his race at the Tsuburaya Memorial Meet that beautiful October day, he revealed his thoughts to reporters, as explained by Rajzó-Kontor:
Sütő told the local television viewers the same thing he had said in the cemetery the day before; that he had been thinking of Tsuburaya and thanking him as he ran. Sütő said he believed he would have run the distance “hand in hand” with Tsuburaya, were he still alive.
NOTE: Many, many thanks to Rajzó-Kontor Kornélia for the time she took to translate my questions from English to Hungarian, personally meet with József Sütő, and then translate his responses from Hungarian back to English.