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.”
While so many of the 5,000 athletes who came to Tokyo in 1964 did not expect to win a medal, they did not want to be humiliated either. But in one of the most memorable sports events of the Tokyo Olympics—the men’s 10,000-meter competition—a runner from Sri Lanka had placed himself in a most embarrassing situation.
Formerly a colony called British Ceylon, Sri Lanka had existed as an independent nation for only sixteen years prior to the 1964 Games, and no one from Sir Lanka was expected to win a medal. But if you weren’t paying attention, you might have thought that one of their runners was battling for victory in the 10k race.
With 150 meters to go, the lead pack was jockeying for position in the home stretch, each passing a runner with the number #67. In fact everybody was passing #67, who had gotten lapped several times!
Number 67 was a slight man named Ranatunga Koralage Jayasekara Karunananda who competed in both the 5k and 10k races in Tokyo. After getting lapped in the first 1,000 meters of the 10k race, he continued to fall off the pace. When the eventual winner flared wide and put on a burst of speed to win dramatically in the final meters, Karuananda had a perfect view, only meters behind.
But while the winner ended his race in elation, Karunananda crossed the finish line knowing he was last…with four more long laps to go. He could have stopped. If he did, he would have joined the nine others who did not finish, and no one would have noticed.
Instead, the officer in the Sri Lanka Army, known to friends as Karu, plodded on.
The spectators at first were bewildered. Wasn’t the race over? Why was this guy still running…and running…and running? And yet, as Karunananda ran, the crowd noise went from ambivalence to encouragement. With three laps to go, the crowd began cheering the lone competitor as he made his way around the stadium track.
The winner of the race wanted so much to take a victory lap around the stadium but was thwarted by a Japanese official who told him to stay put. After all, the race was still on. Instead of the gold medalist, here was the last place finisher bathing in the growing cheers of 70,000, who likely only minutes before learned that #67 was Karunananda of Sri Lanka.
And when Karunananda rounded the last turn, he sprinted down the straightaway, crossing the finish line to a standing ovation and a thunderous cheer, as if he had just snatched his island’s first medal.
It is said that Karunananda told reporters at the Olympic Village that he was only doing what was expected of an Olympian. “The Olympic spirit is not to win, but to take part. So I came here. I took part in the 10,000 meters and completed my rounds.”
Karu became an overnight star in Japan, his desire to complete the race a symbol of the core value of perseverance so central to Japan’s successful rise from the rubble. Karu represented every hardworking man and woman in Japan, and they loved him for that.