In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the XVIII Olympiad, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”
Ann Packer was a 400-meter sprinter who was narrowly beaten by Australian Betty Cuthbert in the 400-meter finals. She was happy with her silver medal and ready to enjoy carefree moments shopping in the Ginza. As far as she was concerned, her Olympiad was over. Her fiancé and captain of the British athletics team, Robbie Brightwell, was astounded about how casual Ann was, and explained in his autobiography that she had a chance at history if she could hold off the urge to shop.
“Do you think I should run in the 800-meter heats tomorrow?” she asked. “Maybe I should call it a day and go shopping.” I gaped in astonishment. “Shopping? You must be mad! Shopping? This is the Olympic games, not the Moulsford Village sports!”
“I know, but I’m hardly likely to better a silver medal, am I? And I need to buy some presents for the folks back home.”
“Come off it!” I exploded. “Think about the British girls back home who would have given their eyeteeth to be here in your place!”
She smiled sheepishly. “OK I’ll run. Not that it’ll make much difference. I’m bound to get eliminated in the heats, and then I can go shopping.”
As it turns out, Packer and perhaps even her fiancé Brightwell were missing the telltale signs of potential success. While Packer hoped just to remain respectable, others saw a form and ease that would translate easily to victory. As Packer prepared for the finals, after essentially just making the cuts in the heats, two people of considerable experience and respect came up to Packer with powerfully motivating words. Again, here is how Brightwell explains it in his autobiography:
Milkha Singh jogged past with his 1,600-meter relay squad. Espying her, he dashed over, taking both hands and staring stern-faced into her eyes. “Ann Packer, listen to me. You will win!” She giggled self-conscientiously, flashing me an amused smile. Shaking her hands emphatically, he repeated his message.
You’re not listening, Ann Packer! Yesterday, I watched your semi-final. You were coasting! After the race, you come and show me your gold medal.
She nodded respectfully. No sooner he departed than Percy Cerutty, Betty Cuthbert’s coach, rushed up. Even though they had never been introduced, Percy wasn’t a man for social ceremonies. “This,” he said, wagging a finger in front of her face, “is the finger of experience. And it’s standing to attention. Listen! Betty and I’ve been talking. Stay with them until the end, and you will hammer them. Understand?”
Astonished, Ann nodded dumbly. Mission completed, Percy disappeared as quickly as he’d appeared.
When Packer won her race, right away she steered to the stands and into the arms of Brightwell. Milkha Singh was there as well, smiling with the satisfaction of clairvoyance proved correct. “Did I not say your woman would win? You didn’t believe me! I was right! Hee, hee, hee! Brightwell, you never listen to me!”
Packer had little experience in the 800 meters. But that was true for all the other competitors. For the first half of the twentieth century, the IOC believed they were protecting women from competing in what they believed to be overly strenuous competitions for the fair sex. Thus, after 1928, women didn’t run as far as 800 meters in the Olympics until 1960.
As a result, very few women were experienced at this distance. Packer had no preconceptions about how to run the race. But being naïve, and being a sprinter, was Packer’s advantage. Packer was at the back of the pack for most of the race. But in the final 200 meters, she climbed to third, and in a burst sprinted out a dominating finish. A world record finish, in fact. As she later said, “Ignorance proved to be bliss.”
Japan, as an emerging economy in 1964, was similar to Packer in the 800. Any new goal was a new challenge without any preconceptions about how to get things done. If they had a problem to solve, they tried anything and everything, leveraging what resources were available and learning from the world.
Toyota’s famed just-in-time (JIT) lean manufacturing methodology has been recognized the world over as a superior process to maximize both quality and efficiency, leading to the transformation of the auto industry by the Japanese. Instead of stocking large inventories of doors that sat in a warehouse unused for weeks and exposed to potential damage, as was the case with large American manufacturers in Detroit, the Japanese engineers improvised.
With little capital available during those lean postwar years, they could not “waste” money on one or two months of stock. So parts were built only when they were going to be used—just in time. Capital was used efficiently, parts were not damaged while sitting for weeks, and everyone on an assembly line was charged with the mandate to innovate in any way that eliminated waste and improved quality.
And so, even in 1964, to the surprise of visiting Olympians, Japanese products were not cheap and low quality. They were cutting edge.
Packer and Brightwell flew to Tokyo with their fellow Olympians on British Overseas Airways Comet, the world’s first commercial jet airliner. They had the opportunity to visit the cockpit and talk with the pilot. They asked about Japan, and Brightwell asked the well-travelled pilot whether he had any recommendations for things to buy there.
He said, “Yeah, Seiko watches. They make fantastic watches. Get a movie camera. Get a tape recorder. You got to get one of those transistor radios. And a camera. Oh, I see you’re wearing glasses. Go and get contact lenses.” So I did see the optician one day in Tokyo. And got them the next day! The Japanese were already making gas-permeable contact lenses. They were brilliant. For my first race, I could actually see the track.
We were very impressed. We knew about Japanese engineering in heavy industry, but we didn’t know anything about their use of American transistors and computers in Japan. We could see they were moving to higher-value, technologically intense products.
Brightwell was friendly with members of the British press, including BBC sports star commentator and presenter, David Coleman. Brightwell said that his conversations with Coleman in Tokyo were often about how many things he had learned about the innovative way Japan was televising the Games—that these Games would be the first to be globally broadcast by satellite; that there were dozens of movie cameras in the National Stadium, when the BBC might employ two; that the media in the Press section had events results provided to them by computers; that the Games were going to be seen in color in many homes in Japan, while most in England had to settle for black and white.
“Relatively speaking,” said Brightwell, “we were still on steam locomotives.”