In 1964, freestyle Shunichi Kawano was banned from the Olympic Village. The head of Japanese wrestling okayed that act as Kawano showed “a lack of fighting spirit” in a match the day before. It didn’t help that the crown prince and princess were in the audience. His coach said his presence in the village would “adversely affect the morale of other athletes,” according to The Japan Times. He returned to the Village after shaving his head, although he said he did not agree with the assessment of his spirit.
For a few days after the Kawano incident, the press was filled with accounts of the mystery female Olympian who reportedly shaved her head bald in tears. It was finally reported that Soviet javelin thrower, Elvira Ozolina, had cut her shoulder-length chestnut hair completely off. Ozolina, who ended the javelin competition in fifth, was a favorite to win gold.
And then there was the poignant tale of Kokichi Tsuburaya, who ran a long 42 kilometers in the Tokyo Olympic marathon, entered the National Stadium to the roar of the crowd expecting their Japanese hero to win a silver medal in track, only to see UK’s Basil Heatley storm from behind, leaving Tsuburaya in third place. A disappointed Tsuburaya took accountability and said he would do better at the 1968. But injuries and a failed wedding engagement, both caused by a superior where he worked in the Japan Defense Forces, may have led to Tsuburaya’s decision to end his life in early 1968.
At all levels of competition, sports show us how people respond to pressure. At the Olympics, the pressure can be extreme. We expect Olympians who do not “win” to be grateful and graceful losers, but we also know that the drive and determination that got them to that point can also manifest itself in anger, frustration, fears and questions of self worth.
In this first week of Olympic competition, mental health is an emerging theme at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, journalists and spectators alike were less concerned about the psychological well being of athletes. But at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there appears to be a more sophisticated understanding of these issues.
Naomi Osaka may have laid the groundwork for that understanding. After the French Open had started, she announced she would not engage in press conferences in order to diminish what she said was battles with anxiety and depression. After some online parrying with organizers, she pulled out of the French Open. Then last week, she lost in the second round of the singles tennis Olympic competition, sparking questions of whether the stress of the constant attention had affected her.
On July 16, WNBA Las Vegas Aces star, Liz Cambage, announced she was leaving Australian national basketball team. Suffering from panic attacks, and unable to sleep, she admitted that she would be unable to perform to the best of her abilities.
“It’s no secret that in the past I’ve struggled with my mental health and recently I’ve been really worried about heading into a ‘bubble’ Olympics,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “No family. No friends. No fans. No support system outside of my team. It’s honestly terrifying for me.
Then on July 27, just after the start of the women’s gymnastics team competition, American gymnast Simone Biles suddenly announced she was no longer going to compete. The world media had already declared her Olympic champion years before the start of Tokyo 2020. She has been repeatedly called the GOAT (greatest of all time). But after a poor vault at the start of the competition, she realized that she had to put her mental health first. Here’s how she explained it to NPR:
It’s been really stressful, this Olympic Games. I think just as a whole, not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it. It’s been a long week, it’s been a long Olympic process, it’s been a long year. So just a lot of different variables, and I think we’re just a little bit too stressed out. But we should be out here having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case.
In the judo competition, Team Japan has had unprecedented success – out of 14 possible gold medals, they grabbed 9, as well as a silver and bronze.
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.
Stanley Clark Cole was a three-time Olympian who competed as a member of the United States water polo team. The Dover, Delaware native was a dominant scorer on the UCLA Bruins team, and went to his first Olympics in Tokyo in 1964. Cole went on to the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, scoring six of his 11 Olympic goals on the team that won bronze at the Munich Games. Serving as an officer in the US Navy, Cole was on the ship that picked up the famed astronauts of Apollo 13. Cole passed away on July 26, 2018, at the age of 72.
Valentina Rastvorova was a three-time Olympic fencer on the Soviet Union team, competing in Melbourne, Rome and Tokyo from 1956 to 1964. The Odessa native won gold in team foil, as well as silver in individual foil in 1960, as well as silver in team foil in 1964. She was married to a water polo player on the 1964 Soviet Union team, Boris Grishin, which won bronze in Tokyo. Their son, Yevgeny Grishin, won gold in Moscow and bronze in Seoul as a member of the Soviet water polo team. Rastvorova died on August 24, 2018 at the ate of 85.
Helmudt was an engineer shipbuilder after his rowing career. He passed away at the age of 74 on September 7, 2018.
Ganpatrao Andalkar represented India in two different wrestling disciplines at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: as a middleweight in Greco-Roman and as a heavyweight in Freestyle competition.
Prior to Tokyo, Andalkar had captured gold and silver medals at the Jakarta Asian Games in 1962. Andalkar passed away on September 16, 2018 in Pune, India.
A four-time Olympian, fencer Győző Kulcsár of Hungary passed away on September 19, 2018. He was 77. The native of Budapest competed in the individual and team épée events at the 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976 Olympics, garnering a total of six medals, including four golds.
Kulcsár would go on to become the Secretary General of the Hungarian Fencing Association in 1979, as well as the head coach of the Hungarian fencing team from 1980 to 1988.
Sailing on the Dragon Boat, Serendipity, Joseph MacBrien, 39, teamed up with fellow Canadians Ed Botterell and Lynn Watters to compete at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the waters of Enoshima. A Toronto native, MacBrien served in the Royal Canadian Navy as an Officer Cadet, as well as on British and Australian warships in WWII. As a pilot, he also flew 66 combat missions for the US Navy in the Korean War, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross. MacBrien passed away on November 18, 2018 at the age of 94.
We all thought – what a party Tokyo2020 is going to be!
When a rugby team can carry the nation on its broad shoulders, what would it be like in Japan during the Olympics, when Japanese stars go for gold in track, tennis, gymnastics, badminton, wrestling, baseball, swimming and many other sports?
In 2019, we were months away from witnessing the greatest Olympics in history.
Tokyo2020 tickets were the hottest in the world. The ticket lottery in Japan was way oversubscribed. As I wrote in December, 2019, “in the latest round of the lottery for Tokyo 2020 Olympic tickets for residents in Japan, there were 23 million requests for tickets….chasing 1 million tickets.”
Volunteer registrations too were oversubscribed. More than 200,000 people applied to be volunteers for Tokyo2020, well over the target of 80,000.
In January of 2020, the Japan Tourism Agency announced that Japan had 31.9 million visitors from overseas in 2019, establishing new record for the 7th year in a row. The government was seeing such explosive growth in foreign tourists that they doubled their 2020 target from 20 million to 40 million in 2016.
The 2019 Rugby World Cup showed the world how impactful sports tourism can be in Japan. This EY Report on the economic impact of RWC2019 explained that 242,000 inbound tourists purchased 28% (approx 490,000) of all tickets in a tournament of 48 matches, all of which were essentially sold out. And they loved their experience in Japan – 75% of visiting foreigners who came to watch rugby replied they “absolutely want to come again.”
In 2019, we were anticipating that Tokyo2020 was going to be the cherry on top, the opportunity for Japan to subtly and outlandishly boast how wonderful a destination Japan is. The organizers were going to have an opportunity to hold up Tokyo2020 as an example of a Games in the mould of 1964 Tokyo or 1992 Barcelona – an Olympics that served the economy, not an economy that served the Olympics.
But then, the Diamond Princess entered the port of Yokohama on February 3, 2020, a daily reality program that introduced Japan to the fear of the unknown virus. On March 11, the NBA season ended suddenly, and Tom Hanks announced he and his wife had COVID-19. And finally, a day after Team Canada and Team Australia announced on March 23 they would not go to Tokyo that July, the Games were postponed for a year.
COVID-19 has upended the lives of billions of people around the world. The angst of whether to hold, postpone or cancel the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics should never be put on level of the horrible loss so many have experienced during the pandemic.
And yet, I do at moments, quietly lament the current state of the Games.
As it turned out, Harada (whose family name changed to Ikeda after marriage) simply didn’t have the athletic gifts to excel in track and field. And yet, the flame of high performance can be sparked in unexpected ways. Ikeda would go on to represent Japan at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics in individual épée fencing. Her life as an Olympian was 5 parts luck, and 5 parts determination.
Yamagata is as far from the world of fencing as you can get. But one day, a teacher in her high school came up to her and said, “You’re a tall one! You should try fencing!” Ikeda knew nothing about fencing. But she thought she’d give it a try, and so joined 19 other boys and girls on the school fencing team. And when one of the boys a couple of years ahead of her won a national high school tournament, she knew that her teacher could get results.
Ikeda, whom I interviewed on Zoom, is such a pleasant person, all smiles and joy. She put on her full fencing uniform to surprise me. She giggles as she explains the amount of gear a fencer has to wear. But the story she tells in such a lighthearted fashion is one of pure determination.
When Ikeda was in her final year of high school, she told her parents she wanted to move to Tokyo, continue to fence, and then compete in the Olympics. Her parents were bewildered. She had to go to university and get a real job, not waste money on fencing. Going to the Olympics is “impossible,” they told her.
Ikeda always had the support of her parents, but when she was told her dream was impossible, the high school girl stood her ground. She had developed such a powerful image of making the Olympics that giving up on the dream so quickly was hurtful. Giving up without trying was unthinkable.
She pushed back. She fought with her parents for two months until she decided to lay out her plan and her vision of the Olympics in a formal presentation to her parents: what goals she would have to achieve in her four years in university, including making the national team, and becoming national champion by her junior year.
The eighteen year old closed the presentation by saying that if she did not achieve those goals, she’d return home to Yamagata and pursue a normal life. But if she did make those goals, she would try to make the Olympics, and then go on to graduate school. Her parents finally gave in, and allowed their daughter to move to Tokyo to pursue her dream.
Ikeda moved to Tokyo and made the national team by her junior year. Unfortunately she suffered a knee injury, upending any chance of going to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In 2002, she graduated from university, and then began a second push for the Olympics.
If you’re a world-class volleyball, basketball or baseball player in Japan, you are likely in a corporate or professional team. If you’re in a prominent sport like swimming, track and field, wrestling or judo in Japan, your sports association likely funds the training of the best athletes. But if you’re an adult in a lesser known sport, you are not going to get all that much financial support. According to Ikeda, the Japan Fencing Federation at the time was not financially strong, and provided no support.
In fact, Ikeda worked a variety of part-time jobs – at restaurants, bookstores, printing factories, delivery companies – so she could fund her dream. With no support from anyone, she planned to move to Europe where she could train at one of the meccas of fencing – Budapest, Hungary – so that she could travel easily to many of the épée world cups scheduled in Europe.
She knew the reigning Olympic champion in women’s individual épée, Timea Nagy, was based in Budapest.
Did Ikeda know her? No.
Did she know anyone in Hungary? No.
Ikeda took to the internet, identified a Japanese person living in Budapest, and convinced her to help. With the help of her new friend, a detailed plan emerged. On a budget of 2 million yen (or about USD18,700 in 2003), Ikeda was going to rent an apartment in Budapest, train at a nearby fencing club and compete at tournaments in Europe.
Thanks to her Japanese friend in Budapest, she was able to train at the club where Nagy trained. “To get really good, really quickly, it’s better to train with the champion, right,” she told me.
During the weekdays, she trained with the best fencers in Hungary. Then she took the night train to Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Russia, to compete in épée world cups on the weekend. Ikeda got better. She accumulated points. And at the 2004 World Cup in Thessaloniki, Greece she had enough points to qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics and represent Japan.
Her parents, who objected so fiercely to her “impossible” dream, sat proudly in the stands when their daughter entered the stadium in Athens at the opening ceremony, as an Olympian.
Ikeda would lose in the second round to the Italian Cristiana Cascioli, who nearly toppled eventual champion, Nagy in the third round. And Ikeda represented Japan again in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, only to fall to silver medalist Ana Brânză of Romania in the second round.
Today, Ikeda supports the Olympic movement with her work in the Japan Anti-Doping Association (JADA) educating athletes and the parents of athletes on the issues of doping, how to prepare for drug testing, and what medication and supplements to avoid. She also believes it’s important to get these messages across to the top athletes, the “influencers” of the next generation of athletes.
In the end, it is always about influencing and inspiring the next generation.
In 1964, Ikeda’s father was a teenager when the torch relay passed through her hometown of Nanyo. He didn’t carry the torch, but he was part of a team of kids who would jog behind the torchbearer as they brought the sacred Olympic flame closer to Tokyo.
This year, the Olympian Ikeda was scheduled to run in the Tokyo2020 torch relay on March 24 this year, if not for the CoronaVirus pandemic. But she hopes that the torch relay is revived in 2021. And she hopes she can convince her father to run with her.
Imagine you have a sport growing in popularity, growing so quickly that it takes roots in countries all over the world, developing at different speeds, with slightly different rules depending on where it was played. When judo first began holding international competitions, a rift occurred between the rules that dictate judo in its birthplace, Japan, and the rest of the world.
Judo-ka in Japan were traditionally not classified by weight classes, so you would have a 90 kg judoka face off against a 60 kg judoka. International bodies believed that fairness could be better achieved by having people of similar weight compete, as has been done with success in boxing.
Who makes the rules? Who decides who goes to a national or an international competition? In the case of the Olympics in the post-war years in America, when money began to be invested in the development of sportsmen and women, it was the Amateur Athletic Union, otherwise known as the AAU, which emerged as the national governing body for many sports disciplines, including track and field, gymnastics, wrestling, basketball and many others.
According to the book, “History of the United States Wrestling Federation / USA Wrestling” by Werner Holzer, the AAU had become a very powerful entity, frustrating coaches and athletes alike due to perceived lack of funding and support. This frustration was particular true in the “smaller” disciplines of wrestling and gymnastics where AAU mindshare appeared much greater in track and field.
Top of the list of complaints was the perceived AAU disregard for the views and expertise of the coaches to identify and select athletes for major competitions. Holzer explained that “the 1964 Olympic Games selection process personified the problem of the AAU being the ruling body for the sports of gymnastics. The AAU gymnastics chairman, George Gulack, selected the internationally inexperienced Vannie Edwards as the women’s 1964 Olympic Team coach. He appointed his wife, Fay Gulack, who was incapable and unknowledgeable about gymnastics, as the team manager. It was an arrangement destined for disaster!”
Ron Barak, a member of the 1964 men’s Olympic Gymnastics team, and today a practicing lawyer and novelist, first met George Gulack in 1962, when Barak was a sophomore at USC. Barak competed in that year’s National AAU Championships which served as the trials to select the U.S. men’s team that would represent the U.S. in the 1962 World Gymnastics Championships. Natural grade inflation in subjectively graded sports such as gymnastics, diving and figure skating favored the more established veterans in those sports. It’s just the way it was, according to Barak. This was Barak’s first appearance on the national scene, he told me, and he personally had no expectations of making the 1962 World Gymnastics Team and so he felt he was there to pay his dues and gain experience for what he was really after, a chance to make the 1964 Olympic Team.
But something strange happened over the three-day trials. For the first two days, Barak said he flew under the radar, largely unnoticed. He recalled that he was performing well and scoring well, and yet still felt more like a spectator than a competitor. However, after two days, he found himself in serious contention to make the 1962 World Games Team. He began to believe that all he had to do was perform at the same level on the last day and score at the same level, and he would make the World Games Team. Barak said he performed even better on the third day than on the first two days, but strangely, he told me, his scores plummeted, and he missed the team by a slim margin.
Barak said that Gulack came up to him after the competition was over and said “Don’t worry about it, Ron, your time will come. Just be patient.” Barak wasn’t sure what to make of Gulack’s words. Literally, they were nothing more than innocent words of encouragement. But Gulack, Barak said, presided over that three-day competition like it was his personal fiefdom and he was calling all the shots. Gulack was used to having his own way. He could occasionally be pleasant, Barak recalled, but more often he was a bully, if not an outright tyrant. Did Gulack’s words to Barak signify something more than their plain meaning? Lots of innuendo but no way to know.
Come 1964, Barak won the NCAA All Around Championships and finished high enough in the 1964 Olympic Trials to make the team . “Gulack continued to act as if he were making all the decisions, but the fact was that the seven U.S. gymnasts who made the U.S. men’s Olympic team in 1964 were the seven best male gymnasts in the country that year. No one made that team who didn’t earn it and no one not on that team deserved to be there.”
Barak suspected that because the male gymnasts on the whole were a veteran team, most of whom would not continue to compete much after 1964, Gulack had little to threaten them with even if he could.
According to others, Gulack appeared to exercise significant influence in the selection of the women’s gymnastics team. During the Olympic Games, several weeks after the official trials had ended in the United States and the women’s gymnastics team roster had been set, Gulack re-set the team roster in an unscheduled competition.
Members of the women’s team were rankled, and itching to push back. A rebellion was brewing and would come to a head in Tokyo in October of 1964.
A picture, they say, tells a thousand words. You could also say, it tells it in a thousand languages as well.
In 1964, as organizers were preparing for the arrival of tens of thousands of foreigners for the Tokyo Olympics, the Japanese were concerned with how to direct people to the right places and the right events with the least amount of error, particularly in a country where foreign language proficiency was poor.
The decision was to use symbols to show people where various places were, like the toilets, the water fountain, first aid and the phone. Symbols were also used to identify the 20+ sporting events on the schedule for the Tokyo Olympics. Due to this particular cultural concern, the 18th Olympiad in Japan was the first time that pictograms were specifically designed for the Games.
Over 50 years later, the symbols have become de rigeur for presentation in Olympic collaterols and signage.
On March 12, 2019, the day when officials announced that there were only 500 days to go to the commemcementof the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, they introduced the pictograms designed for the 2020 Games.
“I was thrilled with being able to participate in the history of Olympics,” said Masaaki Hiromura in this Asahi Shimbun article, a Tokyo graphic designer who designed the pictograms for the 2020 Games. “I was able to make them in which we can be proud of as the country of origin that first made pictograms for the Games.”
At the top of the post is a comparison of the symbols designed by Yoshiro Yamashita in 1964 (in gray), and the symbols designed by Himomura (in blue).
Japan had high hopes for wrestling at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And in fact, Japanese wrestlers won five gold medals, becoming overnight heroes for Japan.
But one of the least well-known of the overnight heroes was Yojiro Uetake, who moved to the United States in 1963 and competed for Oklahoma State University. Uetake wasn’t asked to come back to Japan to compete for the Olympic team, so he paid his way back to Tokyo in the early summer of 1964. When he arrived at the training camp to select wrestlers to represent Japan in the Olympics, Uetake said he was an unknown and made others uncomfortable.
The selection process was to wrestle the seven wrestlers competing in the bantam weight division. And the competition was strong: Hiroshi Ikeda (1963 bantamweight world champion), Tomiaki Fukuda (1965 bantamweight world champion), Masaaki Kaneko (1966 featherweight world champion), Takeo Morita (1969 featherweight world champion). But the Japanese from Oklahoma swept through the competition and finished 6-0, sealing his selection to the 1964 Olympics.
At the start of the Tokyo Olympics, the wrestler from the Soviet Union, Aydin Ibrahimov, was considered a strong favorite to win gold in the bantamweight class of the freestyle wrestling competition in 1964. As it turned out, Uetake met Ibrahimov in the semi-finals of the bantamweight championships. In the heat of the battle, Uetake’s left shoulder popped out of its socket. His coach pressed hard on Uetake’s arm and popped his shoulder back in. “I didn’t feel anything,” Uetake told me, but he went on to tackle Ibrahimov twice to win 2-0. “When you are in the Olympics, tension is very high. I was simply so excited I don’t feel any pain. Of course, after it was all done, it hurt a lot!”
Uetake had plowed through the competition to this point. But to win the gold, Uetake had to defeat Huseyin Akbas of Turkey, the reigning 1962 World Wrestling Champion. And to that day, no Japanese had ever beat him. Uetake told me that he only needed a tie to win the gold medal, and in such cases, a wrestler could become passive.
Uetake wanted to take Akbas down by grabbing his left leg, but was cautious because Akbar was fast and was known for turning that attack to his advantage and flipping his opponent. It seemed to Uetake that Akbas was staying away while Uetake was trying to find the right opening. In the second round, the referee briefly stopped the fight to warn Uetake to attack, and gave Akbar a point. That was the only point Uetake gave up in his Tokyo Olympic competition.
“My mindset was to never lose a point,” Uetake told me. “I would never ever let an opponent touch my leg. I’d always be looking at the opponent’s eyes and prevent any
He chats with me with a casual ease, talking about his life growing up in his home town of Oura, Gunma, while overlooking the training of high school wrestlers. Suddenly, his eyes sharpen, he shouts out words of encouragement, and then returns to the reminiscing.
Yojiro Uetake Obata, bantamweight freestyle gold medalist at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics, has returned to his hometown to coach at Tatebayashi High School in Gunma. This is where he tried to find his way with judo, but was believed to be too light to compete against competitors of all weights. Wrestling, which divides competitors into weight classes, allowed Uetake to find his life sport. Before long, Uetake was a national high school wrestling champion. Little did he know that wrestling would take him to a far off land called Stillwater.
While teenage Uetake was dreaming of going to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the commissioner of the Japanese Wrestling Federation, Ichiro Hatta, was working on fulfilling a promise to Myron Roderick, American Olympian at the 1956 Melbourne Games and in the 1960s, and head coach of the Oklahoma State University wrestling team that would dominate NCAA wrestling in the United States throughout the remainder of the 20th century. After sending a strong Japanese wrestler to the United States in order to compete for Roderick at OSU, the wrestler went to Brigham Young University instead after being heavily recruited. According to the OSU sports magazine, Posse, “It made Mr. Hatta mad and he told Myron not to worry, that he would send him a better wrestler; that’s when Yojiro showed up.”
Yojiro, or Yojo, as the Americans called him did not really want to move to the US. After all, he couldn’t speak English at all. But at least Stillwater, Oklahoma had the small town feel he was familiar with in Gunma – people were friendly. And he liked the food – particular hamburger steaks and gravy, fried chicken and ice cream!
Fortunately, Uetake know how to control his weight so he could compete for the Oklahoma State University Cowboys. And compete he did, like no other Cowboy in its hallowed history. Yojiro Uetake never lost a match, winning three straight individual Big 8 and NCAA wrestling championships from 1963-1965, going an incredible 58 – 0 in collegiate competition. In between, he also picked up a gold medal for Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
What was the secret to his success?
Uetake had a great relationship with his coach, Myron Roderick. “He was a very strong wrestler,” Uetake told me. “He was passionate, strong in fundamentals and technique, and I really liked his focus on getting take downs. ‘Take ’em down and let ’em go’, he would say about how to get two points quickly.” The admiration was mutual. Roderick’s wife Jo Ann was quoted as saying, “Myron always said that Yojiro had natural talent, and was by far the best wrestler he ever saw or coached.”
Uetake also had a great relationship with the OSU football team, taking health and physical education courses with them, including future Dallas Cowboy star fullback, Walt Garrison. “He was one of the greatest athletes I ever saw,” Garrison said in this article. And apparently Garrison and his teammates saw a lot of Uetake because the coach not only allowed him in the practices, he allowed him to practice with them. Uetake credits football training, like running inside ropes, hitting tackling dummies in quick succession, moving side to side, fast-paced push-ups and sit-ups. “Tackling from a squat is great for wrestling as we are in the same stance, where we need to be ready to attack, hit, and get back and get ready again,” Uetake told me.
Living in America had a profound effect on Uetake. Not only was he coached by Roderick, and taken under the wing of the OSU football team, he learned how to build his own style of training. At the time, the NCAA did not allow coaches to train their wrestlers during the summer season. Instead, Uetake had to work to supplement his meager funds. “I would go to the Delta and Grand Junction in the Colorado mountains, which was like a desert. I worked on building irrigation pipes. And to keep in shape, I’d come up with ways to train.” Uetake told me that he would have to lift very heavy hay, but he’d do it in a way to work on specific muscles. He also maintained his feel for combat by actually tackling trees.
If he was in Japan, Uetake Obata told me he would be wrestling all the time, and following the directions of his coach. And he would never have developed his own way of training, and never really learn how to best take advantage of their own body and physical gifts. “I did this myself,” he said. “Roderick taught me how to focus, but I learned a lot on my own.”
On Monday, August 3, 2015, Yojiro “Yojo” Uetake Obata was finally inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame. As he said in his acceptance speech, nothing gives him more pride. “I have always loved Oklahoma. Every time I come back to Oklahoma I look