When Japan Air Self-Defence Force’s acrobat jet team, The Blue Impulse, flew across that beautiful blue sky on October 10, 1964, Japan ooh-ed and ah-ed.
It was a spectacular moment on a spectacular day as Japan welcomed the world to a country, not bowed and backward, but proud and modern.
Victor Warren, a member of the Canadian field hockey team, was on the filed during the 1964 Opening Ceremonies. “I’ll never forget,” he said. “It stuck in my mind – five jets in the air which drew the Olympic rings. It was magic. It was terrific. It was a beautiful start to a beautiful day.”
On July 23rd, a little bit before 1 pm, the organizers hoped to capture that magic again. I made my way to Harajuku, near the entrance to Meiji Shrine. As I got close to the intersection in front of the main train station, the sidewalk got more congested.
The place was packed. People filled the overpasses and the sidewalks, looking upwards, hoping to pick up telltale sounds of approaching jet engines. And then suddenly, there they appeared from the north, five jets in formation. Way up high amidst puffy white clouds and a light blue sky, the jets made a couple of passes. Their third time through, they flew in individually, spewing colored smoke.
In 1964, you could see the rings and their colors clearly. But the clouds seemed to get in the way in the 2021 version. People ooh-ed and ah-ed, but in an uncertain way. I could see the rings formed partially, but I never saw five fully formed rings in the sky.
The crowd applauded, politely.
More importantly, there was a crowd. And they were excited to connect to the spirit and energy of 1964.
Just watch this clip from the movie, “Always – Sunset on Third Street ’64.” This scene captures that moment in Japan perfectly.
As the protagonist in the film clip says, “and now, finally, it’s the Olympics!”
(For better pictures of the 2020 sky writing, go here.)
Seventeen-year-old Dick Roth, winner of the individual medley race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was thirteen years old when he first travelled with the US swim team to Japan in 1960. He remembers being treated like a celebrity. Toward the end of his stay, the team went to Nikko, the beautiful resort town not far from Tokyo. And while walking about the woods with the team, he saw something he clearly remembers today.
I wandered off on my own, which was a habit I have when I travel, skipping the handlers. I was walking back to the lodge and I came face to face with a group of eight to ten horribly disfigured children of my age, probably older. They were from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Later I talked with one of my handlers and asked about them. He said they were also on a tour. The organizers were trying to keep us apart. I was shocked and horrified. To think anyone could do anything so barbaric. I know we dropped the bomb to shorten the war. But it’s a visceral feeling I will never forget.
Back in Tokyo four years later, Roth also remembers the Opening Ceremonies when a sole torchbearer ran into the National Stadium. “The torchbearer came in and there was cheering and a kind of reverence. I don’t know what to call it. The attention was locked on this individual. I was stunned by the switch in the crowd. He got to the top and turned around. It was like another one of those moments that defies description. When he stood there and held the torch high, I was stunned.”
Roth was referring to Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day an atomic bomb was dropped on his city. “When he reached the bottom of the stairs he didn’t stop, just ran up the stairs in stride. He only paused at the top, turning to face the full stadium and the world. He then turned and lit the flame, causing an entire nation a collective moment of pride and sadness.”
It was a bold move. For a country that was trying desperately to erase from its collective memory the horrors of World War II, the Olympic organizers risked offending the United States of America by reminding the world that Japan was the first and only country to be attacked by nuclear weapons.
In fact, prominent Japanophile and translator of such classics as The Tale of Genji, American Edwin Seidensticker, said that the selection of Sakai as the final torchbearer was not “incidental,” and was “unpleasant to Americans.”
When G. D. Sondhi of India, a member of the International Olympic Committee who had just witnessed Sakai’s torch lighting at the opening ceremonies, was asked to comment on Seidensticker’s reaction, he replied, “He (Sakai) is good and I’m happy to see him do it so nicely. We must bring young people in the Olympics and let those old men just sit and help them.” Sondhi went on to say that he did not think Sakai’s selection to be political, and rather thought that Sakai represented “a big hope” for Japan, and that his was “the most touching of all Olympic ceremonies I ever saw.”
Still, it’s amazing that the organizers, on Japan’s biggest day, consciously chose to highlight Hiroshima via Sakai—whom the press dubbed “Atomic Bomb Boy”—a poke in the ribs of the United States.
The opening ceremony was fantastic! Spectacular! The reception was extremely good and clear. The pictures are very sharp all the way through, unbelievable! – letter from Sayoko to Thomas Tomizawa on October 10, 1964
The above reviewer, my mother, was clearly biased. Sayoko was a Japanese native of Tochigi who met a 2nd generation Japanese-American named Thomas in Tokyo in 1958, got married, and moved to the United States. Thomas was in Tokyo during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, working for NBC News, which broadcasted the Summer Games to America.
In another letter a week later, my mother wrote to my father, “I have seen the Olympic show tonight 5~7 pm. I see your name every other day. Miura-san’s sister’s friends are watching the show every night. Yoko-san said ‘Tomizawa-san no go-shujin no namae ga deruwa yo!’ (Tomizawa-san’s name is coming up on the credits!)”
My mother, who passed away in May of this year, wrote several letters to her husband while he was working in Tokyo. She wrote about the errands she ran: buying replacement light bulbs for the refrigerator at Woolworths, setting a dentist’s appointment for her 5-year-old, Mike, picking up the daily newspaper for her husband, paying the phone bill.
She worried about an ongoing school bus strike that was inconveniencing all the parents. She complained that Mike’s teacher was giving too much candy to the kids. And she bemoaned the fact that her son, Roy, was crying so often she couldn’t take any decent pictures to send her husband.
I had turned one years old at the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And while I had no idea what the Olympics were then, I have a pretty good idea now. (See book.)
If 1964 were a French dessert, it was a splendid Millefeuille with airy, flaky layers sandwiching luscious cream and fresh strawberries. 2020 was a deflated Soufflé.
It was this time 7 years ago when I started researching the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
My vision was clear: write the definitive book in English on a defining moment in modern Japanese history, meet amazing people, be a talking head during Tokyo2020, and have total access to the Games.
My dream was vivid: sit in the stands with Olympians I interviewed, watching the 2020 Olympics and reminiscing about the 1964 Olympics.
Much of my vision was realized. My dream was not.
COVID-19 was simply a hurdle too high. With over 5 million deaths globally, and unfathomable heartbreak, the pandemic made a mockery of our pre-COVID priorities.
Had the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics been scheduled for Rio or Paris or LA, I believe the Games would have been cancelled: local political will would have wilted in the tired face of surging infection and death rates.
The Games Must Go On
Japan was different.
There were no lock downs in Japan. In fact, in the months from May to June of this year, infection rates in Tokyo were decreasing as athlete training was accelerating. There were great expectations that Japan would live up to its reputation as a “safe pair of hands,” hands that would ensure the health, safety and fair competition for athletes from around the world.
And under those tremulous conditions, the Government of Japan and the organizers summoned up enough political will to continue to say, “the show must go on.”
The Olympics and Paralympics, after a year’s postponement, did take place. The greatest compromise the organizers made with the circumstances was to ban spectators from sporting events and greatly restrict the movement of foreign athletes, coaches, officials, support staff and press – a move that furthered dampened the spirits of those anticipating the Games.
In the days just prior to the start of the Olympic Games, there were protests calling for the cancelation of the Games. Only one day before the Olympics opening ceremony, Ariake, the man-made islands where much of the Tokyo2020 competition would take place, was like a ghost town.
But on the afternoon of Friday, July 23, 2021, hours before the start of the Olympics, the aerial acrobatic jet team called The Blue Impulse flew over the center of Tokyo painting the Olympic rings in the sky to the delight of growing crowds, just as they did on October 10, 1964.
People began buzzing about the stadium, fighting for photo ops in front of the Olympic rings, and setting up camp for the evening. They wouldn’t be allowed in the stadium. But they knew they could watch the ceremony fireworks and drone show from anywhere around the stadium. And despite the occasional shout of protest, no one was going to stop them from joining the fun.
Over the course of the Olympics and Paralympics, the news cycle in Japan featured more stories about Team Japan and its historic Olympic medal rush (58 total, 27 gold) than the number of infections in Tokyo (which happened to peak at the exact same time as the Olympics and Paralympics). Japanese women, in fact, shined more brightly than the men.
It’s the Journey
I did not attend any Tokyo2020 sporting events, despite holding a great number of tickets. But I met friends and acquaintances from overseas here and there. And thanks to my book, I appeared on CBS and NBC in the US, CBC in Canada, NHK in Japan, countless times on BBC radio in the UK, as well as Danish and Brazilian television.
The highlight of these Olympics for me was when I organized and hosted, on behalf of the World Olympians Association, a panel of athletes who competed at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games, walking with them down memory lane, recalling the historic enormity of that Olympiad, the magical moments of competition, and the graciousness of their Japanese hosts. (See video below.)
When I started this journey nearly 7 years ago, I did not achieve everything I had hoped for at Tokyo2020. Nobody could under the circumstances.
But I remind myself of this age-old adage: it is not the destination. It is the journey.
Along this journey, I have met hundreds of athletes, coaches, Olympic and Paralympic committee administrators, sports marketers, journalists and academics – people who have enriched my understanding of the world, and of humanity.
The protests were never huge, but they seemed to be omnipresent. Groups of placard holders could be seen in front of train stations, at torch relay events, wherever there were crowds.
Their protests are symbolic of the seriousness with which people in Japan are taking the COVID-19 virus and its variants.
The climbing infection rates in Tokyo on the eve of the Games are like darkening clouds over the city. After a visit on Thursday, July 22, to the Tokyo Bay Ariake area where so many of the Olympic arenas are located, you might think the Games had already ended, there were so few people, and so little energy.
However, if on the afternoon of Friday, July 23 you visited Harajuku, minutes away from the National Stadium, you would have heard the constant buzz of a beehive in anticipation. Around 12:45 pm, thousands of people congested the intersection in front of Meiji Shrine, waiting in the hot sun for the roar of jet engines.
And suddenly, they were rewarded as the Air Self Defense Force air acrobat team called the Blue Impulse roared overhead. Cameras and phone pointed skyward as the jets formed the Olympic rings in the sky, an act harking back to the Opening Ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
A 15-minute walk takes you to the National Olympic Stadium, where crowds line the street. It’s only 1pm and it may be too early for the arrival of the athletes, but Japanese were happy to see the National Stadium in full regalia, albeit behind fences to keep us out.
And when you get to the Olympic rings in front of the Olympic Museum and across the street from the National Stadium, the need to socially distance was totally forgotten. Anything to get a picture in front of the rings.
Yesterday, in my walk through Ariake, I was worried for the patient. But today, as I walked through the heart of the Tokyo Olympics, I felt a pulse.
It is time to remember Olympians who participated at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and passed away in 2020. I’ve been able to identify 37 such Olympians, a few I knew personally. They were medalists and participants from all parts of the world, and a wide variety of sport. And in this annus horribilis, several were victims to coronavirus. They will be missed.
Here they are, in alphabetical order by last name.
Csaba Ali swam for team Hungary at the 1964 Toyo Olympics, in the men’s 4×200 meter freestyle relay as well as the 400 meter individual medley. He passed away on December 27, 2020 at the age of 74.
Fernando Atzori won the gold medal in flyweight boxing at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. From a small town called Ales in Sardinia, Italy. Atzori taught himself boxing, went on to be an Olympic champion as well as a European flyweight champion as a professional in 1967, defending his championship nine times before losing it in 1972. After a long illness, Atzori died on November 9, 2020 at the age of 78.
Kazim Ayvaz, three-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler from Turkey, died on January 18, 2020 in Heisingborg, Sweden. A native of Rize, Ayvaz won the gold medal in lightweight Greco-Roman wrestling for Turkey at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He also competed at the 1960 and 1968 Summer Olympics. Ayvaz continued to wrestle until 1969 and was inducted into the FILA International Wrestling Hall of Fame in September 2011. He was 81.
Cliff Bertrand was a sprinter from Trinidad and Tobago, and he was a fellow New Yorker, running track at New York University, where he got his master’s degree. He got his Doctor of Education degree from Columbia University, as well as a law degree at Queens College. Bertrand ran in the men’s 200 meters and 4×400 meters relay team for Trinidad and Tobago at both the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Bertrand died in Long Island City, NY on November 28, 2020.
Heinfried Birlenbach was a shot putter from West Germany, a three-time Olympian who competed at the Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich Summer Olympics. According to his profile, Birlenbach was “an educated draftsman, then gas station attendant, petrol station owner, owner of a sauna company, and eventually became an insurance businessman,” in addition to being an “avid discus thrower and weightlifter.” The man who was born in the city of Birlenbach, died there on November 11, 2020, a few weeks from turning 80.
Tony Blue was a member of the Australian track and field team, competing in the 800 meters at the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. He also competed in the 4×400 meters relay in Tokyo. He would go on to get his medical degree and practice medicine in Brisbane. The doctor from Dubbo died on October 1, 2020. He was 84 years old.
Miguelina Cobián of Cuba passed away on December 1, 2019 in Havana. She was 77 years old. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, she was the first Cuban ever to reach an Olympic sprint final, finishing fifth in the 100 meters. She was also on the Cuban 4×100 meter relay team that took silver behind the United States at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. It is said that the great Czech runner, Emil Zátopek discovered her, and actually trained her early in her career.
Ernesto Contreras was a cyclist representing Argentina, who raced in three Olympics, from 1960 to 1968. Competing in the 4000 meter Team Pursuit in all three Olympiads, as well as the 100 kilometer Team Time Trial in 1968. Contreras was one of Argentina’s best known cyclists. He was born in Medrano, and died in Mendoza on October 25, 2020. He was 83.
Manuel da Costa was a competitor in the 50-meter rifle, prone, representing Portugal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He was a 44-year-old Olympian, who didn’t start shooting until he was 41 years old. He died on April 20, 2020, 93 years young.
Osvaldo Cochrane Filho was a member of the Brazilian water polo team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Born in Vitoria, Brazil, Filho passed away at the age of 87 on December 9, 2020 from the effects of COVID-19.
Armando “Chaparro” Herrera was the captain of the Mexican national basketball team who led his team at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics. The man from Juarez passed away on October 14, 2020, at the age of 89.
William Hill was one of 39 members of the Hong Kong team that went to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Hill ran in the men’s 200 and 400 meter sprints, and also had the honor of carrying the Olympic torch as it made its way through Asia into Hong Kong. He was 75 years old when he passed away on July 27, 2020 in Wong Chuk Hang, Hong Kong.
Wolfgang Hoffmann won the silver medal in the middleweight division of judo for Germany, when that sport debuted at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Hoffmann studied in Japan and taught judo for many years, publishing a book, Judo – Basics of TachiWaza and Ne-Waza, which he co-wrote with judoka Mahito Ohgo. Hoffmann died on March 12, 2020 in his hometown of Cologne, Germany, a couple of weeks shy of his 79th birthday.
The greatest athlete in the world in 1964 was Willi Holdorf, who won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The native of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, Holdorf was a humble man who led a powerful German team that took 3 of the top 6 spots in the decathlon, overcoming the favorite from Taiwan, C. K. Yang, as explained in my blog post here. Holdorf passed away on July 5, 2020, at the age of 80.
Mariya Itkina competed on the Soviet Union women’s track and field team in three Olympics from 1956 to 1964. As stated in her profile, she “has the unfortunate distinction of having placed fourth at the Olympics the most times of any athlete, four, without ever winning a medal.” She did so in the 4×100 meter relay at the Melbourne Games, in the 100-meter, 200-meter races as well as the 4×100 meter relay at the Rome Olympics. Itkina died on December 1, 2020 in Minsk, Belarus at the age of 88.
Alexander Ivanitsky won the gold medal in the heavyweight freestyle wrestling competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. After retiring from wrestling, Ivanitsky was a sports journalist until 1991, ending his career as chief sports editor for the USSR State Committee on Television and Radio. He oversaw the broadcast of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It is said he died on July 22, 2020 after he went into a forest to forage for mushrooms. He was 82.
György Kárpáti of Budapest, Hungary was a four-time Olympian, winning three gold medals as a member of the powerhouse Hungarian men’s water polo team, including the infamous “Blood-in-the-Water” finals when Hungary defeated the USSR in the finals at the 1956 Melbourne Games. Kárpáti won his third gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, after which he also got his coaching degree. As coach, he helped lead Hungary to a gold medal the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Kárpáti died on June 23, 2020, a week before turning 85.
Dr. István Kausz, a two-time Olympian who won the gold medal in men’s team épée for Hungary at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. After obtaining his medial degree, he went on to become the team doctor for the Hungarian swim team and assisting as a member of the medical team for the Hungarian aquatic team from the 1972 to the 2012 Olympiads. Kausz passed away on June 3, 2020 in Budapest at the age of 87.
Alfred Kucharczyk was a Polish gymnast who competed at the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Representing the Radlin Gymnastic Club, Kucharczyk was an active coach and tutor to other gymnasts, including 2008 Olympic vault champion Leszek Blanik. The native of Radlin died on December 2, 2020, at the age of 87.
Gergely Kulcsár was Hungary’s greatest javelin thrower, winning a silver and 2 bronze medals over four Olympiads from 1960 to 1972. Kulcsár was Hungary’s flagbearer in the opening ceremonies in Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich. He continued to coach until 1980, seeing one of his athletes, Miklós Németh win gold in the javelin throw at the 1976 Montreal Games. Kulcsár died on August 12, 2020 at the age of 84.
Matti Laakso was a three-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler from Iimajoki, Finland. A welterweight, Laakso competed at the 1960, 1964 and 1972 Olympiads. His brother, Martti Laakso, was a two-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler, and they competed together at the 1972 Munich Olympics. A police officer throughout his career, Laakso was one of the most dominant wrestlers in Finland, winning 24 Finnish titles. He died on November 3, 2020. He was 81 years old.
Jānis Lūsis of Jelgava, Latvia passed away on April 29, 2020 in Riga. He was 80. The top men’s javelin thrower in the world in the 60’s and 70’s, Lūsis was a four-time Olympian from 1964 to 1976, winning bronze, gold and silver at the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympics respectively for the USSR. A world record holder in the javelin toss, Lūsis was married to Elivira Ozolina, who competed in the women’s javelin at the 1960 (gold) and 1964 Olympics. Their son, Voldemārs Lūsis, was an Olympic javelin thrower as well, competing at the2000 and 2004 Olympics for Latvia.
Dick Lyon was a member of the Lake Washington Rowing Club and a two-time Olympian. He was in the boat for the US men’s coxless fours that competed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and won the bronze medal despite overcoming near disaster In the heats. The native Californian, Lyon passed away on July 8, 2020, a month before he would have turned 80. I had the great honor of interviewing Dick for my book on the Tokyo Olympics, and I wrote about his passing here. I am so sorry he is no longer with us.
A legend of long-distance walking, Paul Nihil, passed away on December 15, 2020 in Gillingham, England. The native of Colchester became Great Britain’s first male track and field athlete to compete in four Olympiads when he raced in the 20-km walk at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Twelve years earlier at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Nihil took the silver medal in the 50-kilometer walk. A man who race walked into his seventies, Nihil died at the age of 81 after contracting COVID-19.
Leonid Osipov was a three-time Olympic water polo athlete who won bronze, silver and gold respectively at the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympiads on the team from the Soviet Union. He was 77 when he died on November 5, 2020.
Maria Ilwicka-Chojnacka-Piątkowska was a three-time Olympian who represented Poland in Athletics at the 1952, 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Multi-talented, Piatkowska competed in the 4×100 meters relay at all three Olymmpiads, as well as the long jump in Helsinki and Rome and the 80-meter hurdles at the Tokyo Games. Piatkowski fell victim to COVID-19 and passed away on December 19, 2020 at the age of 88.
Gunter Pfaff was a four-time Olympic canoeist, who won a bronze medal for Austria in the kayak doubles with Gerhard Seibold. He rowed kayaks in singles, doubles and fours from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and served as the flagbearer for Team Austria during the opening ceremonies of the Montreal Games. Pfaff died on November 10 in Garsten, Austria on November 10. He was 81 years old.
Doug Rogers won the silver medal in judo’s heavyweight class in the Olympic debut of that sport at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. A Canadian from Truro, Nova Scotia, he moved to Japan when he was 19 to learn the martial arts among the best, studying under legendary judoka, Masahiko Kimura. His life in Japan is portrayed in a short film called “Judoka.” Rogers competed again at the 1972 Munich Games when judo resumed as an Olympic sport. I never interviewed Rogers, although I enjoyed exchanging emails with him. I really wished I had met him. Rogers passed away on July 20, 2020 at the age of 79.
Huba Rozsnyai was a sprinter on the Hungarian men’s track team, and ran in the 100 meter individual as well as the 4×100 meters relay competitions. On December 4, 2020, Rozsnvai passed away from the effects of COVID-19. He was 77.
Haydar Shonjani represented Iran as a swimmer in the men’s 100 meter freestyle at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first ever Iranian to compete as a swimmer in the Olympics. He returned to the Games in 1976 on the Iranian water polo team. Shonjani passed away on November 8, 2020 at the age of 74.
Balbir Singh was on the field hockey team that restored golden glory back to India at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Singh also competed on the 1968 team that took bronze. The man from Sansarpur, Punjab was a member of the Punjab Police, rising to Deputy Superintendent of Police, and retiring as Deputy Inspector General in 2001. Singh died on February 28, 2020 in his hometown at the age of 77.
I interviewed Janell Smith Carson for my book. She was 17 when she ran in the women’s 400-meter competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Although she ran an American record of 53.7 seconds in the Olympics, she could not get to the finals. Born in Texas, she grew up in Kansas where she set the world record for the indoor 400 meters and got on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She told me that she was recruited by famed track coach Ed Temple to run for Tennessee State, but Smith did not want to leave home. Smith passed away on July 25, 2020 after a long battle with cancer. She was 73.
Three-time Olympian, Per Svensson won the silver medal in light-heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The native of Sollefteå, Svensson would go on to represent Sweden at the 1968 and 1972 Summer Olympics. He passed away in Sundsvall on December 17, 2020 at the age of 77.
Kinuko Tanida Idogawa was a member of Japan’s historic gold-medal winning women’s volleyball team that defeated the Soviet team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first time volleyball was an Olympic sport. That match was one of the most watched sporting events in Japanese history. One of the famed “Witches of the Orient,” Tanida was known for her strong spikes, and contributed greatly to the team’s gold-medal victory. A native of Osaka, Tanida passed away on December 4, 2020 at the age of 81. I was proud to share the screen with her in the History Channel documentary, Tokyo Legacy, which covers the history of Tokyo since the end of the war to 2020.
Juan Torruella sailed in four straight Olympiads, from 1964 to 1976, representing Puerto Rico. A graduate of the Boston University law school, Torruella served associate judge of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico before serving as US federal judge for over forty years since President Gerald Ford appointed him as a federal judge to the district court in Puerto Rico. As stated in his profile, “his most publicized case came when Torruella ruled on the appeal of 2013 Boston Marathon bomber and murderer Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, which overturned his death sentence.” Torruella died on October 26, 2020 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the age of 87.
Wojciech Zablocki completed in four Olympiads as a fencer for Poland. After capturing silver medals on the Men’s sabre team at the 1956 and 1960 Summer Games, he ended his Olympic career at Tokyo with a bronze medal on the Polish sabre team. Zablocki was an architect who designed sports facilities as well as a watercolor artist, and married a well-known actress and activist, Alina Janowska, who passed away in 2017. Zablocki died on December 5, 2020 a day before his 90th birthday.
Slaven Zambata was the captain of the Yugoslavia football team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Although his team finished sixth in the tournament, the man from Sinj starred with Dinamo Zagreb, leading them to four Yugslav Cups. One of the most prolific scorers in his country’s football history, Zambata died on October 29, 2020 in Zagreb, at the age of 80.
Wherever they went, they drew huge, enthusiastic crowds.
It was the summer of 1964. Young men and women wearing white tops with the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Emblem, looking something akin to the Japanese flag, ran through the streets, calling to the crowds that the Olympics were coming to Asia.
This was only 19 years after a time when Japanese troops carried their nation’s flag in battlefields of Asia.
Akiko Kuno was a 24-year old Japanese woman working in the Olympic Organizing Committee’s public relations department, and was selected as a member of the Overseas Olympic Torch Relay Mission. This relay wended its way through Okinawa and then Japan, before ending at the Opening Ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics in the National Stadium.
Kuno, who joined the mission from India, was concerned about the reception the Japanese would get in South East Asia.
The young runners, in cities like Yangon (then Rangoon) and Bangkok ran with a uniform that had the hinomaruon it. At the airport, when we parted I can’t forget what they said. They told me proudly that this was going to be Asia’s first Olympics. They said their hope was that Japan, which lost a war but recovered, can be a model of success, so that one day their own country could one day host an Olympics. “That is the dream that this torch relay gives us,” they told me.
Kuno was one of the few Japanese present to witness a near perfect execution of geopolitical “soft power” in a time when the phrase didn’t exist. She was part of a team of roughly 40, members of the Olympic Organizing Committee (OOC), a JAL crew of pilots, engineers and a stewardess, as well as the Japanese media. They journeyed together for 40 days during the international torch relay that started in Greece on August 21, and passed through Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, India, Myanmar (then Burma), Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Okinawa.
A Dream Job
It was March, 1964 and Kuno had graduated from Keio University. While most of her friends got married after graduation, Kuno wanted to be part of the Olympics. She had good English skills, having studied at Stanford University in California as well as Hope College in Michigan. Equally important, her father was a good friend of Kazushige Hirasawa, a diplomat and an influential senior journalist with NHK, who helped Japan land the 1959 bid for the 1964 Olympics with an inspiring speech.
With Hirasawa’s help, Kuno became a staff member of the Olympic Organizing Committee, which was located in the Akasaka Rikyu Palace, the residence of the Crown Prince before the war. She was assigned to the public relations department, which was located in the study of the Crown Prince.
Kuno had several duties. She took visiting International Olympic Committee (IOC) and National Olympic Committee officials on tours of the various venues that workers were rushing to complete in time for the Games. She coordinated with the international news agencies. For nations that were sending athletes but did not have diplomatic relations with or embassies in Japan, she sourced English-speaking Japanese men who belonged to the Junior Chamber International Japan, people who had the time and means to assist the people from those countries.
And she was asked to take care of the most senior person in the Olympic movement – Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee. Kuno said she was routinely asked to take dictation and type up documents for him, not an easy task for a famous taskmaster.
He said type this and that, and there were a lot of mistakes. I was so scared. I never worked as a secretary. Brundage had a warm heart but he did not smile and he had a short temper.
Of course, when Brundage flawlessly delivered his speech, in Japanese, soliciting the Emperor of Japan to open the Tokyo Olympics, he thanked Kuno for her support in making sure his pronunciation was well practiced.
The Sacred Mission
One day in July, 1964, her role suddenly expanded. Kuno’s supervisor came up to give her an order – that she would be assigned to the overseas torch relay mission. Her only thought? “YAY!”
The Japanese mission that oversaw the operations of the international torch relay traveled together with the sacred Olympic flame, their journey spanning 12 countries and about 16,000 kilometers. This meant that they had to journey by plane. They flew on a DC-6B, a prop plane called “City of Tokyo,” which was outfitted with special safety measures to carry two specially designed containers filled with kerosene and modeled on the design of a coal-mine safety lamp.
Kuno was one of two English interpreters on the team. The first one traveled with the team from Greece to India. Kuno relieved her in Calcutta, India and took responsibility for the second half of the international torch relay. She explained the daily plan.
The City of Tokyo arrives in the destination’s airport.
Fumio Takashima, the OOC chairman of the Olympic Torch Relay Committee, lights a torch from the flame of the safety lamp.
A local dignitary or the NOC Head waits with an unlit torch and Takashima lights his torch.
Then he passes the flame to the first actual local runner.
The runners follow a route to the national stadium of that country, or a city hall or a large public space with a big stand.
The evening included a reception where members of the torch relay mission dined and mingled with the local dignitaries. (Kuno translated for Takashima during these events.)
The next day was the process in reverse, where runners followed the same route back to the airport. According to Kuno, on average, there were about 15 runners one way, and another 15 on the return, although there were also official runners who accompanied the torch bearer.
All the runners were young men and women, their uniforms and the torches donated to them by the Tokyo OOC.
During the course of the relay, the roads were filled with spectators hoping to get a glimpse of the Olympic flame. The organizers escorted the runners with cars preceding and following the torch bearer. Kuno, who was always in the car behind, was particularly anxious during those times.
The fuel within the torch, a mixture of red phosphorus, manganese dioxide and magnesium burned a flare-like red for only 6 minutes. Kuno’s mission was to make sure that the runner got to the next runner within 6 minutes. Having the sacred flame fizzle out in front of thousands would have been humiliating. It wasn’t going to happen on her watch.
The crowd came out onto the road. My job was open the window say in English, “GET AWAY!” And when that didn’t work, I shouted in Japanese, “DOITE!” That got their attention. And the flame never died out.
Kuno remarked that every member of the mission felt it was imperative that the flame never go out during the relay. She said that the President of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, Yasukawa Daigoro, took exceptional risk management measures. After the flame was ignited by the sun in a ceremony in Olympia, Greece, he made sure that he got a part of that flame, which he kept on his person.
In those days, Japanese would keep warm on cold evenings with metal mini-heaters the size of a lighter called kairo, which contained a piece of heated charcoal. According to Kuno, Yasukawa, who did not accompany the international tour, ignited a flame for his kairo, and put it in his pocket…just in case the DC-6 City of Tokyo crashed.
Kuno said she was saddened to see the flame go out twice in Fukushima during the start of the Tokyo2020 Torch Relay. For her, the flame represents a powerful symbol for humanity that should never go out.
While working as a part of the torch relay mission, I was so occupied with my responsibility to not let the flame die out. I remember I was so moved to see all these excited people on the streets. I think they saw the flame as a symbol of eternal peace and hope. Throughout the relay, I felt that Asian people were united with the same hope and dream – that war will never happen again.
When he arrived in Tokyo on May 1, 2021, he felt fine – ready to compete in the race of his life, to determine whether he was coming back to Tokyo for the Olympics in July. And since his times in the single sculls were good to enough qualify, he felt he had a shot to do well at this Asia and Oceania rowing qualifier, to become the first rower from Saudi Arabia to compete in the Olympics.
But on May 2, he felt a slight pain. “It’s a sore ab,” thought Husein Alireza, so not a worry. But then it was May 5, time to race, and Alireza was in significant pain. The doctor there told him he had a stress fracture of the rib, and he probably shouldn’t race. To Alireza, there was no question – he raced.
And then Husein went back to the UK, where scans revealed his left lung had collapsed during the race and needed to have surgery, in fact fairly invasive lung surgery in early June, with painful post-op recovery. Then began the negotiation with the doctor, who told him he had to rest for two months. Not being able to train for two months would mean no trip to Tokyo, so doctor and patient got it down to 2 weeks.
Husein’s dream to compete in Tokyo was still alive.
As for the question of qualification, he had to wait. Olympic qualification in rowing is a complex process predominantly dependent on the qualifier results, as well as on the boat selection of other nations. The process took about two weeks. Two nail-biting weeks.
Husein’s coach Bill Barry is a veteran rowing coach, a member of the Great Britain coxless four rowing team that took silver at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Qualification for Tokyo 2020 would mean Barry would be the first person ever to attend the Olympics in the same city as an athlete and a coach.
Alireza would be the first Olympic rower in his nation – a critical step to increasing the popularity of rowing in not only Saudi Arabia, but across the Middle East where rowing is an unknown sport. After all, the Arabian Desert, 2.3 million square miles of sand, covers almost the entirety of Saudi Arabia. There is plenty of space to play football, but not to row.
So, when the final rankings were confirmed and the phone call came in late May that Alireza had qualified and was going to the Olympics, he realized he was no longer in injury recovery mode, but in training mode.
Every effort had to be made so that he could perform his best at the Olympics. But with the injury, the surgery and the reduced lung capacity, Husein realized that he wouldn’t be able to do his best. He could, however, overcome the challenges and represent, not just to bring meaning to his seemingly endless and exhaustive training, but also to his family and his country.
“Competing at the Olympics would be historic for my country while also honoring my family who’ve done so much for me,” Alireza told me. “It means the world. There is no greater honor than to represent your country on the biggest spectacle of all. It’s a moment I wish I could’ve shared with my late mother, Salma.”
“It’s very exciting being at the forefront of a new sport in the Kingdom,” he continued. “When I went back home last year, we organized an indoor rowing championship. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of youngsters in both genders asking so many questions and showing interest.”
As if to emphasize the impact Husein is having, he recently learned he would be the flag bearer for Team Saudi Arabia during the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo2020 Olympics.
Alireza realizes he has an opportunity to grow a sport not just in Saudi but in the Middle East Region. He knows he must raise funds, which means he has to educate people in the Saudi Olympic Committee and other relevant agencies. The funds are needed firstly to create a place where people can train in Saudi Arabia.
Fortunately, the Saudi Rowing Federation found a narrow strip of water located in a housing development in the northern part of the city Jeddah and is getting approval for its use as a rowing facility. “It’s close to the city, it is a perfect 2k rowing course, and that’s where the center of Saudi rowing will be.”
But first things first. Alireza has to get ready for the Olympics.
Barry said, “you need to understand that rowing is the toughest of all sports. It requires the most training to get aerobic conditioning and strength. People on the rowing team train 11 months of the year, 3 times a day, at least 4 days a week. A typical day might be sculling 16k in a boat, 16k on the rowing machine, one and half hours on weights. That’s a typical day. Scientifically, rowers breathe more oxygen in one minute than in any other sport.”
Alireza broke down how much effort went into that one race – a 2-kilometer sprint which takes a little over 7 minutes. “I rowed 30,000 kilometers,” said Alireza. “Eight hours of training went into every one second of my qualification race, which equals 15 kilometers for every 1 meter. In other words, the race was rehearsed 15,000 times.”
And when you row in a single scull for a country that has no rowing tradition, it is not just painful, it’s lonely, and Alireza wants to make sure that future generations of Saudi rowers feel strength in numbers.
“When I travel to an international race,” he told me. “In front of me I can see the Thai team, or the Japan team, having a great time together. Team spirit and camaraderie is a powerful thing, while I do my warm ups alone in silence envisioning coming back with a Saudi team one day.”
Barry, who is making history himself by being one of the very few to be credentialed for the two Olympics in the same host city (1964 and 2020), understands the importance of Husein Alireza.
“Husein is putting rowing on the map in Saudi Arabia.”
Imagine it’s October 9, 1964 and you have this ticket to the Opening Ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on the next day.
This is the day over 5,000 athletes and the entire population of Japan has been waiting for – the start of a new Japan.
And by the looks of it, your ticket is in a prime location – Q-57, 5 UPP. I’m not 100% sure where that seat is on the map provided on the back of the ticket, but my guess is the area I highlighted in blue.
If it is indeed that section, you are in an honored section. Since the design of this ticket is different from the tickets generally sold, these may be for special guests, as indicated by the word “SPECIAL” written on the ticket’s map.
Special perhaps because in 5 UPP, Q-57, you will be seated very near the center of the stadium, almost directly opposite the Olympic cauldron, where a teenager from Hiroshima, born on the day an atomic bomb was dropped on his city, would climb the steps and light the Olympic flame.
Less than 50 meters in front and below you will be seated Emperor Hirohito, who will launch the Games.
And thousands of the world’s best athletes will march into the stadium by your seat, as if they are marching for you.
Don’t lose that ticket. It’s going to be quite a show.
It was minutes before the commencement of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the flags of 93 nations rising into a clear blue sky. The above photo was snapped and compiled into a set of photos by Fuji Film commemorating the XVIII Olympiad’s opening ceremony, which began at 2pm on Saturday, October 10, 1964, 53 years ago today.
The athletes would have to deal with cold and wet conditions for much of the Tokyo Olympics, but that day, the 5,500 athletes marched into the National Stadium under perfect conditions. As tradition has it, the host nation’s team marches into the Stadium last. Expectations were high for Team Japan, with a goal set of 15 gold medals. They actually achieved 16, third best after the US and USSR.
The President of the Organizing Committee for the Games, Daigoro Yasukawa, can be seen above introducing the International Olympic Committee President, Avery Brundage. In the official report which offered a post mortem of the Games from an operational perspective, Yasukawa expresses gratitude to the people of Japan.
…it was because Japanese in all walks and interests of life worked together in close and harmonious cooperation—all with one basic goal—that these Games might be an unqualified success. This spirit permeated into the Organizing Committee, and was to be found also in the sports associations and the many cooperating organizations involved. This surely is the only factor that enabled success in our organization efforts.
At the end of the Second World War, in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Emperor’s voice was heard over the radio for the first time by his Japanese subjects. The Emperor asked his people to surrender, to “bear the unbearable, and endure the unendurable.” Nineteen years later, the Emperor is presiding over the Olympics, an event symbolizing peace and unity, in a city that was unrecognizable from its bombed-out shell in 1945. As noticed in this Japan Times article, the scene depicted in this photo may have been striking to many Japanese as the only person standing in the stadium was the Emperor – a role reversal of sorts in a very different time.
After the Emperor declared the XVIII Olympiad open, the Olympic Flag was brought into the stadium by Japanese self-defense forces, the embroidered satin flag initially brought in by the Mayor of Rome, the site of the XVII Olympiad. The flag was raised exactly 15.21 meters into the air. That was the distance Mikio Oda hopped, skipped and jumped to win the gold medal in the triple jump at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, Japan’s first ever gold medal.