The 1964 Tokyo Paralympic Games Part 1: Team USA Dominates and the Paralympic Movement Marches On

1964 Paralympics_wheelchair dash.jpg

On Sunday, November 8, 1964, 53 years ago today, commenced the 1964 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo. Held over a five-day period, the competition was dominated by the team from the United States, with 123 medals, including 50 gold. The team from Great Britain was a distant second with 61 medals, including 18 gold.

Ron Stein of O’Fallon, Illinois won 8 gold medals. Rosalie Hixson of Crystal Spring, Pennsylvania won six gold medals and a silver. And Tim Harris of Rockford, Illinois took home 11 medals, including 3 gold medals. The total of those three Americans alone would have placed them in sixth place if they were their own country.

Harris contracted polio when he was only 18 months old, but learned how to get around on a wheelchair and crutches so competently that he was competing in wheelchair athletics by the time he entered the University of Illinois. Competing in football, basketball, track and field, swimming, ping pong and archery, clearly Harris was a natural athlete.

Tim Harris_1964 Tokyo Paralympics.JPGBut at the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, Harris was repeatedly in the shadow of his University of Illinois teammate, Stein. Harris finished second to Stein in the men’s wheelchair dash, the shot put, the discus throw, the pentathlon, and third to Stein in the javelin and club throw. “Ron earned eight gold medals,” said Harris in a Morning Star article from November 20, 1964. “This was his meet. I certainly never expected to earn 11 medals. I would have been real happy to win just one.”

Harris competed internationally for eight years since his first at the Stoke Mandeville Games in in London in 1963, collecting over 30 gold medals and setting seven world records in his career. He would go on to marry Judy Webb, who won two medals at the third Paralympics held in 1968 in Israel.

The 1960s saw the blossoming of the international competition for disabled athletes. The success of the Tokyo Paralympics helped the general public and organizers alike understand that the disabled were not a helpless class to hide away. “Someone told me before I left (the United States for Japan) that the Japanese left handicapped people out in the cold, but that sure wasn’t the case this year,” said Harris in the Morning Star article. “They went all out for you. The hospitality was simply overwhelming.”

Of Hixson’s accomplishments in Tokyo, Governor Scranton said in this AP article of December 13, 1964, “she is a shining example of the fact that in our state today a handicapped person is not a person without opportunity. Her accomplishment in the Paralympics is a marvelous tribute to her stamina and determination, and it gives me great pride to take this opportunity to salute her as well as her teammates and classmates from the Johnstown Rehabilitation Center on behalf of all my fellow Pennsylvanians.”