French fencers Jean-Claude Magnan and Cathérine Rousselet-Ceretti on bicycles_Bi to Chikara
French fencers Jean-Claude Magnan and Cathérine Rousselet-Ceretti on bicycles, from the book Bi to Chikara

The bicycles of the Olympic Village were the invaluable commodity of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Olympians scrambled to find or keep a bicycle so that they were ensured of easy transport around the vast grounds of the Village.

But bicycles, even in the hands of the best athletes in the world, were sometimes considered an accident waiting to happen.

American gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto told me of one night in an area that was so dark, he ended up “running (my bicycle) into a three-foot pond”. Gold medalist distance runner, Bob Schul, explained in his autobiography, In the Long Run, that the bicycles were not exactly one size fit all, which could be dangerous to the big athletes.

The bikes didn’t last long, however, as the rate of breakdowns was very high. On one occasion we witnessed a comical sight involving just such a “breakdown!” A Russian weight lifter, who weighed close to 300 pounds, attempted to ride a bike. To top it off he placed his friend on this shoulders. Almost immediately the bike broke in two pieces with this huge man and his friend tangled among the works. Fortunately no one was hurt, but this was one bicycle that would not be ridden again during the Olympiad.

Dawn Fraser on a bicycle_The Olympic CEntury XVIII Olympiad
Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser on a bicycle, from the book The Olympic Century XVIII Olympiad

According to an October 19, 1964 UPI report, US swimmers were banned from using the bicycles for fear of injury.

None of the athletes cycling about the Olympic Village – on the more than 700 available bicycles – are U.S. swimmers. Bicycle riding, the most popular form of transportation among Olympic sportsmen and women, is strictly forbidden to American swimmers – at least until after they have competed in the games. The no bicycling edict came from the team’s swimming coaches, who claim that bicycling tightens up a swimmer’s muscles instead of relaxing them for competition.

I doubt the US swimmers heeded that ban. But marathon legend, Abebe Akila, may have wished his coach banned him from bicycles. In a biography about Bikila, the barefoot champion of the 1960 Rome Olympics, who went on to repeat his golden performance at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, would get around on the bicycles like everyone else. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a very experienced cyclist. Here’s how Tim Judah explained, in his book, Bikila – Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian, how a bicycle caused the marathoner more grief than he needed.

Abebe Bikila on a bicycle_Bi to Chikara
Marathoner Abebe Bikila on a bicycle, from the book Bi to Chikara

Bikila, not used to riding one, tried one out and the experience almost ended in disaster. On the second day Bikila came in with a bandaged hand. He had fallen while bicycling. He had gone to the hospital where he had been spotted by some journalists. Terrified, Bikila had not dared ask the hospital to take care of his knee, which was more seriously hurt, and so he had hidden the injury until he could get Niskanen (his coach) to look at it.

In the meantime, vastly exaggerated reports of Bikila’s condition were flashed around the world, prompting a telegram from Addis Ababa, expressing concern, Niskanen wrote. “They had made a mountain out of a molehill. There was no more cycling for Abebe. It was bad enough getting over his appendix operation.” In the days that followed there was no let up in the pressure. Bikila was a world sporting celebrity and Niskanen had to fight hard to give him space.

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Abebe Bikila in Rome
Abebe Bikila running barefoot in Rome.

Running in Vibram FiveFingers Bikila EVO Shoes is like running barefoot. And running barefoot can, it is said, return you to a better, injury-free way of running.

That’s the whole point of the Vibram experience – to reproduce what it is like to walk or run barefoot. And who better to name a running shoe that replicates the barefoot experience than Abebe Bikila, the famed two-time gold medalist who famously came out of nowhere to win the 1960 Rome Olympics marathon…sans socks and shoes.

The shoe manufacturer, Vibram, has marketed shoes called the Vibram Bikila, trademarking the name of the famous Ethiopian athlete in 2010. In February, 2015, Teferi Bikila, the son of Abebe, filed a lawsuit against Vibram to cease using the Bikila name as the family never granted permission.

Vibram Bikila shoes

“He won the Rome marathon with bare feet, and nobody did it before then or since then,” Bikila, 45, said in this AP article. “It’s important that his legacy be respected.”

Unfortunately for the Bikilas, there is apparently a time limit on respect. A judge of the U. S. District Court in Tacoma, Washington dismissed the lawsuit in November, 2016, citing that the Bikila’s were aware of the Bikila shoe brand in 2011 but did not act until 2015, and thus “it would have been unfair to Vibram to allow the lawsuit to go forward after such a delay, when Vibram had been investing in and marketing the products for years.”

“The Bikilas unreasonably delayed in seeking to enforce their rights, and this unreasonable delay prejudiced Vibram,” wrote Judge Ronald Leighton.

In other words, the other shoe dropped.

Abebe Bikila winning gold in the marathon in Rome in 1960.
Abebe Bikila winning gold in the marathon in Rome in 1960.

He ran into the night along the Appian Way, torches held by Italian soldiers lighting the way, the only sound the onlookers would notice is the pidder padder of his barefeet on the road.

A complete unknown, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, won the marathon at the Rome Olympics in 1960. He was a member of the Imperial Bodyguard in Ethiopia, a country where people got around by running, commonly without shoes. When Bikila arrived in Rome, he tried on various pairs of shoes, but he could not find a pair that did not hurt and cause blisters.

Bikila and his fellow runner Abebe Wakjira decided to run barefoot. This was a decision that embarrassed them. They felt people were laughing at the poor Ethiopians who could not afford shoes, so they stayed hidden in their tent until the marathon began.

But Bikila’s triumph had a tremendous ripple effect over the decades. Not only was Bikila a victory for Ethiopia, he was a symbol of pride and achievement for all of Africa. Bikila became the role model so important to sparking the imagination of other would-be long-distance runners in impoverished Africa.

Wrote David Maraniss in his book Rome 1960, “as the first black African to win a gold medal, Abebe Bikila paved the way for what would become a long and illustrious line of East African distance runners. Many were from Ethiopia but even more hailed from Kenya, led by the brilliant Kipchoge Keino, who won the metric mile at Mexico City, outpacing the American Jim Ryun, and took home the steeplechase gold four years later in Munich.”

Here we are, decades later, at the recent IAAF Track and Field Championships in Beijing, it was Kenya that topped the medal tables, with Ethiopia in the fifth rank.

Maraniss cited a poem published in The Ethiopian Herald on the death of Bikila.

He made our flag to fly
Right above
Dead and gone Mussolini
Then and then
Abebe led, Mamo followed
Ethiopia led, Kenya followed

Here is the video of Bikila’s triumph in Rome.

Kihachiro Onitsuka with Abebe Bikila at that fateful meeting.
Kihachiro Onitsuka with Abebe Bikila at that fateful meeting.

After the Rome Olympics in 1960, there was probably no athlete more well known than Abebe Bikila, the barefoot marathon champion.

So when Bikila arrived in Japan in 1961 for the Mainichi Marathon in Osaka, he was treated like a rock star. Everyone wanted to take a picture of him. Everyone wanted to meet him. In particular, a businessman named Kihachiro Onitsuka, who ran a shoe company, wanted to meet Bikila, and more than anything, hold his feet in his hands.

Bikila’s coach, Onni Niskanen, was concerned as the roads in Osaka were in parts made of gravel and other parts poorly conditioned tarmac. He explained that “I didn’t dare take the risk of bruised feet. Wami (Biratu) had to run barefoot as he had never run with shoes on.”

So as fate has it, the desire of one met the needs of another, thanks to the introduction of Kohei Murakuso, 5 and 10 thousand runner in the Berlin Olympics, Kihachiro Onitsuka was brought to the room of Abebe Bikila. As related in the book, Bikila – Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian, by Tim Judah, Onitsuka really tried to impress Bikila with the possibility of injury, as well as the benefit of a shoe that grips the road. Here is how Onitsuka remembers the conversation:

Onitsuka: I am here to support you and supply you with shoes. I hope you will win this race with my shoes!
Bikila: I have always run barefoot and I have won many times. I don’t need shoes.
Onitsuka: The roads in Japan are very rough and that’s why you should wear shoes.
Bikila: The roads may be rough but I don’t need shoes.
Onitsuka: Your bare feet are excellent, they are like cat’s paws. But still, shoes could improve your records.

Despite Bikila’s resistance, Niskanen weighed in with the view that shoes might be a good idea on this terrain, and Bikila gave in to the word of his coach. Bikila did indeed win the marathon fairly handily, and it was reported that

Marathon turning point
A turn at the halfway point int he marathon shows Ethiopia’s Demissie Wolde leading Japan’s Kokichi Tsuburaya, the eventual third-place finisher. Wolde would fade to 10th. From the book, The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad, p48

It’s nestled in a nook in the sidewalk in Tobitakyu, Chofu, a town in Western Tokyo – a dove with massive wings perched on a pillar.

The dove generally signifies the peaceful intentions of the Olympic Games, but this dove in particular signifies the turning point of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Marathon competition. Today, the statue is hidden and nondescript, a footnote for a busy suburban area where there’s  a busy road, a major stadium (Ajinomoto Stadium, home of J League’s FC Tokyo soccer team) as well as a major arena (Musashino Forest Sports Plaza where Olympic and Paralympic events will be held) nearby.

Marathon turning point 4

But on October 21, 1964, it was a quiet residential area that drew the attention of the world. Nearly 55 years before, Abebe Bikila, the barefoot champion from Ethiopia arrived at the point near that dove statue, made the turn around a very large cone that read “ori-kaeshi-ten,” (or turning point) and headed back into central Tokyo continuing to build a lead so insurmountable that he ended up breaking the world record and winning gold handily for the second Olympics in a row.

Unlike the legendary marathon of the ancient Olympic Games, as well as at the 2004 Athens Games, when the marathon was a point-to-point race from a town called Marathon to Athens, most other Summer Olympics have designed marathon routes where the start and finish are the same point – at the main stadium. This was the case in 1964, and the organizers chose a route of straightforward simplicity – out of the National Stadium in Yoyogi  and then due West, through Shinjuku 3-chome and onto the Koshu-kaido (Koshu Highway).

1964 marathon route_google maps
The route from the National Olympic Stadium to Tobitakyu in Chofu.

The marathon was very popular. NHK rolled out the latest technology with a mobile relay van complete with vibration-proof cameras, helicopters with cameras, as well as UHF antennas sprinkled throughout the course which enabled for the first time in history the live broadcast of the entire marathon race, in color, to millions, according to the final report issued by the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. For approximately 1,200,000 people who lined the route, twice the size of any previous marathon in Japan, watching the athletes run by you trumped the latest in broadcast technology.

Marathon turning point 3
The road sign indicating that this point on the Koshu Highway is where the marathoners turned around and headed back into town.

The marathon was an event for the people, who did not need a ticket to line the road from early in the morning to settle in to catch a glimpse of their heroes, Kokichi Tsuburaya, Kenji Kimihara and Toru Terasawa, as well as one of the most famous athletes of that time – Abebe Bikila. The turning point at Tobitakyu is celebrated as the turning point of the marathon, in an Olympics that was a turning point for Japan.

Marathon turning point_Abebe
Abebe Bekila at the halfway point of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic marathon.
Soya Skobtsova autographs
Businesslike Zoya Skobtsova signs autographs for kids at Russian camp outside Tokyo_Sports Illustrated, October 19, 1964

It’s days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and Olympic fever in Tokyo is rising. Athletes from all over the world were arriving days if not weeks in advance, filing off of planes and ships and filling the Olympic villages in Yoyogi, Enoshima and Lake Sagami.

For most Japanese, the Olympic villages were pop-up mini United Nations, places of such diversity to shock the mono-culture of Japan. They were drawn to the villages with the hopes of seeing the wide variety of shapes, colors and sizes of the world population, to shake hands with the foreigners, take pictures with them, and of course, get their autographs.

Certainly, to get the autograph of swimming siren Kiki Caron from France, or the amazing barefoot runner from Ethiopia Abebe Bikila, or the 218 cm giant center on the USSR basketball team, Janis Krumins would be a coup. But apparently, the Japanese would rush up to anyone who looked like a foreigner and ask for their autograph.

Hayes Jones was not just anyone – he was the 110-meter hurdles gold medalist. But when he wrote down his name “Hayes,” he would cause a ruckus beyond his expectation:

When I was going into town after the winning the gold in Tokyo, I was leaving the village to see my wife, and these Japanese kids were outside with the autograph pads and they saw me call me out, and this kid put my pen and paper in front of me. I started signing my sign, “Hayes”. …they started shouting “Bob Hayes” is here. I didn’t have the nerve to write “Hayes Jones”.

The “fanaticism” of the Japanese to get autographs was apparently wearing thin on athletes and officials alike, even before the Olympics opened, so much so that the press had words of caution for their readers. As you can read in the Yomiuri article of October 5, 1964 below, athletes were “outraged,” at risk of “writer’s cramp”! To be honest, it’s hard to tell whether the article was preaching, or teasing….

Some athletes have become so outraged that whenever they see these “fanatics” they raise their voices, yelling them to go away.

The great majority of the determined pack of autograph hounds consist of people assigned to the village. These are mostly defense force servicemen, interpreters and assorted workers who often show utter disregard for the time, place or mood of athletes in asking for autographs.

If this trend remains unchecked, many athletes will end up having writer’s cramp before they leave for home.

Autograph Hounds_Yomiuri_5Oct64
The Yomiuri, October 5, 1964

 

emil-zatopek-and-frank-sando-at-helsinki-olympics_circled
While legendary Emil Zatopek leads the pack in the 10,000 meter race at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Frank Sando, with only a sock on his left foot, ended up fifth.

 

It was 1952, at the Helsinki Olympics, there was no brighter star than Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia. But sharing a part of the shade under the towering figure of Zatopek was a Brit named Frank Sando. Somewhere early in the 10,000-meter race (at the end of the first or third lap depending on which report you read), Sando was spiked by a trailing runner and lost his left shoe. Sando kept running.

In fact, Sando ran nearly the entire 29-minute race, with bare left foot. And he incredibly came in fifth, running steadily in one of the more grueling of Olympic competitions, breaking the British record and coming within 3.6 seconds of a bronze medal.

It was 1960 when a man from Ethiopia topped that feat (as it were). Abebe Bikila became the first black African to win a gold medal, winning the marathon in Olympic record time….shoeless.

Abebe Bikila in Rome
Abebe Bikila winning gold in the marathon in Rome in 1960.

There have been many other cases of runners losing a shoe in a race, but usually the loss of the shoe impacts the performance of the runner negatively. When someone prepares hundreds of hours for a particular running competition, it is with the understanding that the shoes will hold up. There is no training without shoes. And when an athlete is suddenly without a shoe, it will be painful. The soft skin of the bottom of the foot will peel away. The tendons and muscles that support the ankles and calfs and hamstrings will feel the effects of a suddenly altered running style, one instinctively designed to avoid pain.

But there are also people who, today, run barefoot regularly, who believe that un-shod approach is the natural way to ambulate, and better for a body that did not evolve over the millenia with Nike’s or Adidas shoes on foot. (See Barefoot Runners Society.) Barefoot runners not only enjoy barefoot running, they believe it improves their overall foot and leg condition and diminishes arthritic pain.

According to this siteAccording to this site, these are the potential benefits if you take up barefoot running regularly:

  • May strengthen the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the foot and allow one to develop a more natural gait.
  • By removing the heel lift in most shoes, it will help stretch and strengthen the Achilles tendon and calf muscle which may reduce injuries, such as calf strains or Achilles tendinitis.
  • Runners will learn to land on the forefoot rather than the heel. The heel strike during running was developed due to the excessive padding of running shoes, but research shows this isn’t the most effective natural running stride. Landing on the heel causes unnecessary braking on every stride. The most efficient runners land on the mid-foot and keep their strides smooth and fluid. Landing on the forefoot also allows your arches to act as natural shock absorbers.
  • It may improve balance and proprioception. Going barefoot activates the smaller muscles in the feet, ankles, legs, and hips that are responsible for better balance and coordination.
  • Running barefoot helps one improve balance, but it also helps them stay grounded and connected with your environment. A person can learn to spread their toes and expand the foot while it becomes a more solid and connected base that supports all movements.

And for the competitor, there is a potential benefit regarding increased speed, perhaps one of the more important factors for a competitive runner. According to this article in Runner’s World, research has shown that the simple matter of reducing the weight your feet and legs have to carry can have a significant impact on your running speed. This article quotes long-distance runner, Bruce Tulloh, who cites the research of Dr Griffith Pugh. Dr Pugh’s huge claim to fame was to be the doctor to the team that first climbed Mt Everest.

zola-budd
The South African long-distance runner, Zola Budd, who ran barefoot under the British flag in the 3,000-meter race at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

“Dr. Pugh had me run repetition miles, to compare the effect of bare feet, shoes, and shoes with added weight. He collected breath samples. It showed a straight-line relationship between weight of shoes and oxygen cost. At sub-5:00 mile pace, the gain in efficiency with bare feet is 1 percent, which means a 100m advantage in a 10,000m. In actual racing, I found another advantage is that you can accelerate more quickly,” Tulloh said.

But if you’re not dealing with pain in your feet or legs, and you have never trained in barefoot, there is no real great advantage to start doing so. When you first run barefoot, as most of us can clearly imagine, it will hurt. The bottom of your feet will be chocked by the impact, particularly the moment you step on a pebble, a thorn, or a piece of glass. In addition to punctures and lacerations, the chance of achilles tendonitis, calf strain and plantar fasciitis are high. Then there’s the frostbite if you run in the cold….

My intent is not to pull your leg, or put my foot down on the merits of running unshod. If you have itchy feet and yearn to feel the dirt and grass as it caresses and cushions your overly protected puppies, then perhaps it’s time to stop dragging your feet. Go ahead, dig in your heels and put your best foot forward.

My Onitsuka Tiger Mexico City sneakers

I love my Onitsuka Tiger sneakers. I bought white high tops last year, but this year, I bought Made-in-Japan Mexico 66, red leather with golden Onitsuka stripes – they fit like a glove and look great!

When a young accountant and middle-distance runner named Phil Knight put on a pair of Onitsuka Tigers, so many years ago, he must have loved them too. In those early years of the Sneaker Wars, that primarily pit German brands Puma and Adidas against each other, this recent Stanford grad still had his MBA thesis paper in his head – “Can Japanese Sports Shoes Do to German Sports Shoes What Japanese Cameras Did to German Cameras?”

On a trip to Japan in 1962, Knight made it a point to meet Kihachiro Onitsuka, whose company made the Tigers. As Barbara Smit wrote in her landmark book, Sneaker Wars, Knight fast talked his way into a distributorship.

Although he didn’t have any business to his name, Knight cheekily introduced himself as an American distributor, instantly making up Blue Ribbon Sports as a company name. He bluffed so convincingly that Onitsuka gave him an exclusive deal to sell Tiger in the United States.

Onitsuka and Bikila
Kihachiro Onitsuka with Abebe Bikila at that fateful meeting.

So in January, 1964, Knight and his friend, the famed track coach of the University of Oregon, Bill Bowerman, officially formed the company, Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS), and became the exclusive distributor for Onitsuka Tiger athletic shoes. For close to a decade, BRS made Onitsuka Tiger sneakers available to American consumers, as well as Bowerman’s own track team members, including Kenny Moore who wrote the book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. One day Moore was in the middle of a casual 20-mile run when he felt pain in his right foot. When Bowerman told Moore to show him his shoe, it was a Tiger model TG-22. After ripping the shoe apart with his hands, he said “If you set out to engineer a shjoe to bend metatarsals until they snap you couldn’t do much better than this,” he said. “Not only that, the outer sole rubber wears away like cornbread. This is not a shit shoe, it’s a double-shit shoe.”

As it turns out, BRS unwittingly marketed the TG-22 as a running shoe, when actually it was a high-jump shoe. Regardless, this shoe autopsy led to a spark of ingenuity in Bowerman – a prototype of a new running shoe: “The outer sole was industrial belting. A cushiony innersole ran the entire length of the shoe, under a shock-absorbing arch support.” Moore explained that he ran thousands of miles in these prototypes, which continuously got tweaked, until finally BRS and Ontisuka decided to mass produce in 1966.

They wanted to call the new shoe, The Aztec, in honor of the coming 1968 Mexico City. Unfortunately, Adidas had already began selling the Azteca Gold. Then Knight had an epiphany – to use the name of the conqueror of the Aztecs. And thus was born the iconic running shoe, The Tiger Cortez.

Blue Ribbon Store Front_onitsuka

The Cortez made BRS a viable company. John Jaquar, who would join the board of directors, would recall the many times Nike tried to discontinue the Cortez. “But people kept wanting them, so they making them,” he would say. “It was the first stable, cushioned shoe for the roads, a comfortable shoe, and so many people liked it that it was the first shoe that made running shoes acceptable in fashion.”

The Cortez helped drive growth for BRS and Onitsuka Tiger in the mid-1960s, proving that the relatively quick decision for Kihachiro Onitsuka to sign Phil Knight up as US distributor was indeed a good one. And yet that decision, eventually led to conflict, and the birth of the world’s dominant sneaker brand – Nike.

Heatley Bikila Tsuburaya on medal stand 1964
Basil Heately, Abebe Bikila and Kokichi Tsuburaya on the medal stand

Abebe Bikila strolled into the National Stadium like he owned it. And he did. The lithe Ethiopian, a member of the Imperial Bodyguard of his nation, was about to meet expectations at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics – to become the first person to win marathons in two consecutive Olympics.

The first time Bikila did so, he was an unknown, and made headlines by running barefoot on the roads of Rome in 1960 to win marathon gold. When he crossed the finish line in Tokyo, amazingly over 4 minutes earlier than the second place finisher, the audience marveled at how fresh Bikila was – so fresh that he did calisthenics and jogged in place as if he were readying for the start of a marathon.

In other words, the actual competition in the marathon was for second. And in the race for second, Japan was ready to explode in celebration.

Like the Brits, with Brian Kilby and Basil Heatley, the Australian Ron Clarke, the other Ethiopian Demissie Wolde, as well as Americans Billy Mills and Buddy Edelen, the Japanese had a trio of strong marathoners in the competition, Toru Terasawa, Kenji Kimihara and Kokichi Tsuburaya.

As explained in this detailed article, at the 10K mark of the 42K race, Clarke was setting a pretty fast pace at 30:14, with Jim Hogan of Ireland and Bikila following. Around the 20k mark, Bikila took the lead and never looked back. The race for 2nd was on, with Clarke and Hogan about 5 seconds behind Bikila, and a second pack including Wolde, Tsuburaya, Jozsef Suto of Hungary and Antonio Ambu of Italy.

Kokichi_Tsuburaya 1964_adoring fans

With about 7 kilometers to go, Bikila, Hogan, Tsuburaya and Suto were in the lead, with Heatley rising to fifth. Amazingly, Hogan dropped out of the marathon despite being in position for a silver medal, leaving the Japanese from the self defense forces, Tsuburaya in second. Heatley and Kilby were coming on, passing Suto with only 2 kilometers to go.

Heatley was advancing and could envision a bronze-medal finish, but didn’t think he could pass Tsuburaya. “I didn’t expect to catch him,” Heatley recalls, “but he was a target.”

Bikila entered the National Stadium triumphantly, winning with an ease that both shocked and surprised the crowd. But the crowd went wild a few minutes later when Tsuburaya entered the stadium. At their home Olympics, Japan had medaled in wrestling, judo, boxing, weightlifting, gymnastics and swimming among others, but not in track and field. Tsuburaya was about to change that, in front of the biggest crowd possible.

And yet, soon after Tusburaya entered the stadium, so too did Heatley, only about 10 meters behind. Just before the final curve of the stadium’s cinder track, Heatley turned on the jets and sprinted by Tsuburaya. For a 2nd place battle that took over 2 hours and 16 minutes, Tsuburaya lost his chance for silver by four seconds.

Writer, Robert Whiting, was watching this match on the television, confident that Tsuburaya would make Japan proud with a silver medal only to see that expectation burst before the eyes of an entire nation, as he explained in this article.

The cheering for Tsuburaya was building to a crescendo when suddenly Great Britain’s Basil Heatley came into view and proceeded to put on one of Olympic track and field’s great all-time spurts. He steadily closed the gap in the last 100 meters, passing Tsuburaya shortly before the wire, turning the wild cheering in the coffee shop, and in the stadium, and no doubt in the rest of Japan, into one huge collective groan.

Bob Schul, who three days earlier, became the first American to win gold in the 5,000 meter race, watched the end of the marathon with some dismay.

Abebe entered the stadium to great applause. He finished and went into the infield and started doing exercises. Finally the second guy, Tsuburaya came, and the crowd roared. But so did Heathley of England. Sharon asked if Tsuburaya could hold on to 2nd place. I said I didn’t think so. Heatley caught him about 150 meters before the finish. And the crowd became very quiet. The Japanese guy was going to get third. And when he did finish, the stadium did erupt. And that was the only medal they won in track and field.

 

Heatley on the heels of Tsuburaya
Heatley hot on the heels of Tsuburaya

 

When Kokichi Tsuburaya was a boy in elementary school, he competed in an event common throughout Japan – a sports day, when children compete against each other in a variety of activities, like foot races. After one such race, Koshichi Tsuburaya, the young runner’s father, chewed him out for looking behind him during the race. “Why are you looking back during the race. Looking back is a bad thing. If you believe in yourself, you don’t need to do so.”

Many years later, with over 70,000 people screaming in the showcase event of the Olympics, people were yelling, “Tsuburaya, a runner is behind you! Look back! Look back! He’s close!” Was Tsuburaya recalling that childhood scolding from his father? Would it have made a difference if he did?

While Tsuburaya’s very public loss of the silver medal must have been the source of pain, not only for Tsuburaya, but also of the nation. But in the end, there were no hard feelings. After all, Tsuburaya won Japan’s only medal in Athletics, a bronze in the marathon, an achievement beyond the nation’s initial expectations. Writer Hitomi Yamaguchi wrote of this pain and pride in a 1964 article.

Tsuburaya tried so very hard. And his efforts resulted in the raising of the Japanese flag in the National Stadium. My chest hurt. I applauded so much I didn’t take any notes. Since the start of the Olympic Games, our national flag had not risen once in the National Stadium. At this last event, we were about to have a record of no medals in track and field. Kon Ishikawa’s film cameras were rolling, and newspaper reporters were watching. People were waiting and hoping. So when Tsubaraya crossed the finish line, we felt so fortunate! When I saw the Japanese flag raised freely into the air, it felt fantastic. Tsuburaya, thank you.

You can watch the dramatic second-place finish to the Tokyo Olympics marathon at the 5:38 mark of this video:

Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Marija Linartaite, for finding and translating the last quote.