Ed Caruthers with picture of silve jump

Tommie Smith was in Tokyo for the 1967 World University Games. A Japanese reporter came up to him and asked him, “Were Negroes now equal to the whites in the way they were treated?”

According to Richard Hoffer and his brilliant book about the 1968 Mexico City Games, Something in the Air, Smith said that they were not. Then Smith was asked if a boycott of the Mexico City Games was a possibility. Smith replied “you cannot rule out the possibility.” Since there was absolutely no talk of boycotts up to that point, Smith’s comment to the Japanese press spread to the international press, and by the time the 200-meter sprinter returned to American and to San Jose State College, otherwise known as “Speed City” for those on the sprint team, he was deluged with requests for interviews.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith
John Carlos and Tommie Smith

By the end of 1967, a sociology professor at San Jose State named Harry Edwards began building a consensus among university administrators and athlete, finding his voice on the issues of black inequality in America. He had formed an organization called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). On Thanksgiving Day that year, the OPHR via Edwards called for a boycott of the 1968 Olympics. This was soon followed by a list of demands, including

a boycott of all New York Athletic Club events (a logical move since the club maintained indefensible admission policies), It was also demanding the exclusion of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia from the Olympics, integration of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and, as a bonus, the return of Muhammad Ali’s championship crown. Edwards let it be known that they wouldn’t mind if Avery Brundage, “a devout anti-Semitic and anti-Negro personality,” be replaced as head of the IOC.”

In 1967, Ed Caruthers was the best high jumper in the world. After having tasted a bit of what competition with the best in the world was like at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Caruthers was determined to return to Mexico City and win the gold medal. He told me that his track and field teammates in Tokyo, like Mel Pender and Willie Davenport, were committed and working hard to return to the Olympics and redeem themselves of the disappointment they faced in Tokyo. So when confronted with the possibility of a boycott, the initial reaction of these Black American athletes was different from others like Tommie Smith and John Carlos – they did not believe that a boycott was the right play.

“When Dr Martin Luther King was killed on April 4, 1968, there were a lot of things going on in my mind,” Caruthers told me. “What was I going to do? What is this country going to be like? There were a lot of issues that weighed on me. In the end, I was not in favor of the boycott, and I told those guys. I told them we had to run our asses off and win, which could give us more of a voice, more of an ability to throw light on these issues. You don’t get the best audience if you boycott.”

Ed Caruthers and Dick Fosbury

In the end, the desire to compete and to take advantage of the massive audience tuning into the Olympics won over those who considered a boycott. As Smith teammate, John Carlos said in this Orange County Register interview, “I strongly thought boycotting. For many of us, it as a childhood dream to compete in the Olympics. For Ed (Caruthers), it was a double-whammy because he’d been before, gotten a taste and he wanted to go and shine.

As the world saw, Smith and Carlos saw a non-violent way to protest the state of Blacks in America, by famously donning a black glove and raising their fists in the air while bowing their heads as they stood on the winners’ podium and listened to the American national anthem. They had won the gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-meter sprint, but they were suspended from the rest of the Games for their actions.

As written in that Orange County Register article, Caruthers is still close to Smith and Carlos. A statue dedicated to the two sprinters was placed at their alma mater, San Jose State, remembering that time when they silently but powerfully spoke out for equal rights.

“If they’d boycotted the Games, nobody would remember them,” Caruthers said. “But now, here we are 40 years later, and people are still talking about it.”

Lew Alcindor and Coach John Wooden
Lew Alcindor and Coach John Wooden

The 1964 US men’s basketball team had a chip on its shoulder because it was feared they would be the first American team to lose a game in the Olympics, even with NBA champions Bill Bradley, Walt Hazzard, Mel Counts, Luke Jackson and Jeff Mullins, as well as famed coach, Larry Brown. USA took gold fairly handily at the Tokyo Games.

But one could argue, in retrospect, that the 1968 US men’s basketball team had even less star power and a greater chance of losing a game. There were future NBA champions Jo Jo White and Spencer Haywood, but the rest were a collection of (certainly) great athletes, many of whom ended up bouncing around the American Basketball Association.

The person who could have been the center of attention on the team was the UCLA star, Lew Alcindor. Alcindor, who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, led his high school to three straight NYC Catholic championships, and then, from 1967 to 1969, three straight NCAA championships with UCLA.

Abdul-Jabbar was in his collegiate prime, but declined to go to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. In fact, he boycotted the Olympics to protest what he believed to be injustice for black Americans. The now NBA hall of famer and 6-time NBA champion published a book entitled “Coach Wooden and Me“, and explained his rationale, as excerpted in this article from NBC Sports. He wrote that while he wanted to go to Mexico City and play against the world’s best, he felt that it was more important to raise his social activist voice:

…the idea of going to Mexico to have fun seemed so selfish in light of the racial violence that was facing the country. The previous summer had seen two major riots, one in Newark that had lasted five days, and one in Detroit that had lasted eight days. And on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated. White America seemed ready to do anything necessary to stop the progress of civil rights, and I thought that going to Mexico would seem like I was either fleeing the issue or more interested in my career than in justice. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I did go and we won, I’d be bringing honor to the country that was denying our rights.

Coach Wooden and Me

The decision to boycott by the great center for the UCLA Bruins spurred “a firestorm of criticism, racial epithets, and death threats.” But he explained that the UCLA administration and his famed coach, John Wooden, did not try to dissuade Abdul-Jabbar from his conviction to protest. And yet, Abdul-Jabbar, then and for many years later, felt in his heart that Wooden did not approve. Although Wooden never voiced his views, Abdul-Jabbar thought, “I just knew that he was very patriotic. He had been a lieutenant in the navy during World War II. I couldn’t imagine him endorsing my refusal to play in the Olympics and bring glory to the U.S.”

But he was wrong.

Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his book that he received a letter from a woman he did not know about a letter that she got from Coach Wooden, in reply to her letter to him criticizing Abdul-Jabbar’s decision to boycott the Olympics.

Dear Mrs. Hough,

The comments of this most unusual young man also disturbed me, but I have seen him hurt so much by the remarks of white people that I am probably more tolerant than most.

I have heard remarks within his hearing such as “Hey, look at that big black freak,” “Did you ever see such a big N—-r?” and others of a similar nature that might tend to turn the head of a more mature person in normal times. I am truly afraid that he will never find any peace of mind regardless or not of whether he makes a million dollars. He may be able to afford material things, but they are a poor substitute for true peace of mind.

You may not have seen or read about the later interview when he said that there were so many things wrong at present of the treatment of his race in this country that it was difficult for him to claim it as his own.

Thank you for your interest,

John Wooden

Wow. To have one’s perceptions flipped 180 degrees in a moment, to realize that such unspoken assumptions, living quietly in one’s bosom for decades, were false, can be both dagger and balm.

I read the letter again. Then again. Oh, Coach, I thought, I wish I’d known how you felt. If only to ease the burden you’d taken on to defend me. I thought back on my own arrogance at thinking I understood the man by reducing him to the kind of easy stereotype, the very thing that I’d been complaining about my whole life when it was done to me. He’d been too humble ever to say anything to me about the letter. Most people would have made a point of telling me how they’d come to my defense. But Coach Wooden didn’t care about receiving credit. A good deed was its own reward. Seeking praise or gratitude would have negated the deed.

I will have to add “Coach Wooden and Me” to my read list.

world-record-certificate_cockie-gastelaars
Certification of proof of a world record in the freestyle 100 meters for Cocky Gastelaars of the Netherlands_from the collection of Cocky Gastelaars

She was the fastest swimmer in the world. On March 3, 1956, the Dutch swimmer, Cocky Gastelaars, swam the 100-meter freestyle in 1 minute and 4.2 seconds. The record had been held by fellow Dutch swimmer, Willy den Ouden for two decades until then.

Above is a certificate that Gastelaars received from the FINA, the international swimming governing body.

When she broke a world record, Gastelaars told me that special evenings were organized for her, and that she got lots of presents, like food baskets or a pen. She even got a dog.

In early 1956, Gastelaars and her coach knew that the world record was vulnerable, and they planned and trained with a vision of breaking that record. When a person is believed to be on the verge of breaking records, very often the community is alerted so that official timers and lots of witnesses are on hand.

“I made progress every month.” she told me. “I knew it was coming. I broke the record in Amsterdam in a swimming event against other Dutch competitors. It was rather big crowd for the time. My mom and friends were there. My father had to work. He was running an operation of 36 big boats, but he stayed near the telephone. As it turned out, the station interrupted regular radio programming, and my father was able to hear the broadcast on the radio.”

cocky-gastelaars-after-breaking-world-record
Cocky Gastelaars with trainer Dries Peute after breaking world record March 3, 1956

Five weeks later, Gastelaars did it again.

Eight months later, Gastelaars was primed to win gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics….when the unthinkable happened. The Netherlands government decided to boycott the Olympics, joining Spain and Switzerland in a protest of the Soviet Union invasion of Hungary. As you can imagine, members of the Dutch Olympic squad were shocked, angry and devastated by the news. Gastelaars never took off for Australia. At the peak of her powers as the fastest swimmer in the world, she was not allowed to prove her championship mettle because of two countries that had nothing directly to do with either Australia or the Netherlands.

I was so sad. All the swimmers were. We trained every day together. When the Games (for us )was cancelled, (our dream) was all gone. So we just went back to school. We didn’t say much. People asked us how we feel, but we didn’t talk about it. I felt awful. You work so hard for something and suddenly it’s over. We definitely would have had a lot of chances for medals. In fact, after the Olympics, we held relays in the Netherlands in all the Olympic events. I think we broke three world records in the relays, and the women’s medley.

Only recently have officials in the Netherlands recognized the 1956 Olympians who never got the chance to compete. The belated recognition is of course good. But to paraphrase Shakespeare, it is perhaps better to have competed and lost, than to have never competed at all.

marny_jolly_with_sukarno_1_asian_games_1962_2
Mariana Jolly meets President Sukarno at the Asian Games in 1962, from the collection of Mariana Jolly

She was a 14-year old, and yet an artifact of colonial Asia – the daughter of British parents representing Singapore in The Asian Games. When Mariana Jolly was asked to join the national swimming team to represent Singapore at the Asian Games, she had no idea that she would catch the attention of the most powerful man in Indonesia.

“It was the Asian Games, but I was the only European there,” Jolly told me. “Sukarno organized a lot of these social events for the athletes, there were quite a few. And the first time, he took one look at me and came to me. He asked me if I was Dutch. I said ‘no’, and he smiled. I danced with him at a barbecue, and I sang to him in Malay at another party.”

Little did Jolly know that the Asian Games they joined ignited the heated feud between Indonesia and the IOC, resulting in the last-second decision by Indonesia and North Korea to boycott the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

marny_jolly_with_sukarno_2_asian_games_1962_2
Dancing with Sukarno, from the collection of Mariana Jolly

Post-war, post-colonial Asia was a mess, a political vacuum, a time of economic experimentation that led to social upheaval. In the midst of those turbulent times, Malaysia emerged as a new nation in 1963, bringing together the British colonies of Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak.

Indonesia in the early 1960s was an emerging political power in Asia, led by that country’s first president, Sukarno. Leading the fight against the colonial rulers from the Netherlands, Sukarno was imprisoned by the Dutch rulers, freed by invading Japanese forces in 1942, and then appointed President of Indonesia when Japan surrendered to the United States and the allies at the end of World War II.

After decades of fighting Dutch colonial rule, Sukarno was anti-imperialist, and by extension, anti-West. While he did secure billions of dollars in aid from the United States and the Kennedy administration, Sukarno cultivated strong ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union.

And to reflect Indonesia’s growing power and influence, Sukarno won the rights to hold the Asian Games in Jakarta in 1962. The Asian Games is held every four years like the Olympics, and brings together the best athletes of Asia. In 1962, the participating countries included the PRC, which was boycotting the Olympic Games, as well as nations in the Middle East. Sukarno decided to make a statement – he would not invite athletes from Israel, which was the enemy of so many of Indonesia’s allies in the non-aligned world, nor athletes from Taiwan, which the PRC did not recognize.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), led by then president, Avery Brundage, took umbrage, reiterating the importance to separate politics from sports, and indefinitely

1956 Dutch Olympic Team Rehabilitation lunch at Kurhaus Hotel in Scheveningen
The Rehabilitation Lunch for the 1956 Dutch Olympic Team, organized by the Dutch Olympic Committee at the Kurhaus Hotel in Scheveningen, Holland.

“Melbourne is THE black page in the Olympic History of the Netherlands,” wrote Ada Kok in an email to me. Kok was not only a two-time Olympian in 1964 and 1968, she was the President of the Dutch Olympians Association for 11 years.

And when she was president, you could join the association only if you were an Olympian. Thus, the unfortunate members of the 1956 Dutch National Team were forbidden from competing once the Dutch government decided to boycott the Melbourne Games. As related in a previous post, some of the Dutch national team, including world-record swimmer, Cocky Gastelaars, were already in Melbourne preparing when the decision was made.

Ada and Cocky
Ada Kok and Cocky Gastelaars

“Some athletes were already present in Melbourne to train and they were whistled back home by the Dutch Olympic Committee and the Dutch Government,” wrote Kok. “For Cocky this was a traumatic decision as this was her chance to win a gold medal being a world-record holder. But not only was Cocky disappointed. Then, we had a lot of potential gold medal winners who were part of this Dutch Olympic Melbourne Team in 1956. The sad thing was they all just received a telegram to announce the Olympic Team was not travelling to Melbourne, and for those who were already in Melbourne, they were ordered to leave the Olympic Village, not to wear their Olympic outfits anymore and travel home immediately.”

Kok provided me with a copy of that telegram dated November 7, 1956, seen below.

telegram Dutch boycott

DUTCH OLYMPIC TEAM                                                                                                              HEIDELBERG-VICTORIA-ASUSTRLIA

AT EXTRAORDINARY MEETING THE DUTCH OLYMPIC PARTICIPATION TO WITHDRAW DUE TO HUNGARY STOP LEAVE OLYMPIC VILLAGE – FIND OTHER PLACE TO STAY STOP WEAR CIVILIAN CLOTHES – IF IMPOSSIBLE REMOVE BADGE STOP WAIT FOR PAULEN LEAVING 11 NOVEMBER FLIGHT 845 FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS STOP CANCEL ALL HOTEL RESERVATIONS BUT RESERVE HOTEL WINDSOR PAULEN AND CHARLES LEAVING 15 NOVEMBER SORRY ALL THE BEST

NOC  (National Olympic Committee )

To a world-class athlete preparing years for this moment, the telegram above must have been a dagger in their backs. “No further explanation,” wrote Kok. “This was so sad! And this caused over the years a lot of bad feelings among the Dutch Olympians from 1956.”

It took a while, but in 2014, a step was taken to recognize these athletes whose lives were so abruptly and rudely changed that day in November 1956. Erica Terpstra, who was the President of the Dutch Olympic Committee, worked with Ada Kok to arrange a day of

gastelaars and fraser
Cocky Gastelaars and Dawn Fraser

You are one of the fastest swimmers in the world, having broken the world record twice prior to the Olympic Games. You’re going to be confident and excited for the fight.

So much can happen to an athlete before the competition begins: bad news from home, illness, an injury. But rarely do you arrive at the venue of the Olympic Games, prep for the competitions, only to be told to go home. It happened to the Indonesians and North Koreans at the 1964 Tokyo Games, and surprisingly to me, the Dutch in the 1956 Melbourne Games.

When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in late October, 1956, in order to help suppress an anti-government uprising, there was an international outcry. As a result, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland decided to boycott the Summer Games in Melbourne held only a few weeks later. This came as a shock. In one case, a world-record holder and nearly sure-medalist swimmer from Rotterdam, Cornelia Maria (Cocky) Gastelaars, was asked to retreat at a time of possible victory.

Dawn Fraser, legendary Olympic champion swimmer from Australia , told this story in her autobiography, Below the Surface – The Confessions of an Olympic Champion.below the surface cover

My first disappointment after moving into the Olympic Village came when the Dutch government ordered the Netherlands team to withdraw from competition. The international situation was tense then, first with Suez and then with the Hungarian revolution, and the Dutch felt that it was no time for running, jumping, swimming and other frivolous pastimes. This meant that Lorraine and I would be deprived of our main opposition from overseas – Cockie Gasterlaars. You may think that we should have welcomed the news that a big danger was out of the reckoning: all I know is that we were bitterly disappointed, the more so because Cockie was actually in Melbourne and living at the Village when the news of Holland’s withdrawal arrived.

Cockie spoke excellent English, and we talked often during the first weeks in the Village. She had held the world 100-meter record twice during the year, and she wept once when she told me how much she wanted to compete. Another time she checked through the list of entries with me and told me that an American girl, Shelley Mann, and a Canadian girl called Grant had been swimming good times; but I think we both knew that the real struggle would have been between Cockie, Lorraine and me.

Fraser went on to win the 100-meter freestyle championship in Melbourne in world record time. But she is not sure that would have been the result had the Dutch team not boycotted the Games.

The day the Dutch team moved out, I saw Cockie Gastelaars. “You were wonderful,” she said. And I told her it might have been a different result if she’d been swimming. She was a sweet, shy girl and very brave; it must have been awful to have been deprived of the chance to compete just when she was at the peak of her career. We swapped badges, pins and finally addresses. We said we’d write, and we told each other that we’d be bound to meet in the water sometime, somewhere.

POSTSCRIPT: October 29, 2016. I had the honor of interviewing Cocky Gastelaars on October 10. I learned that, in fact, she never was in Australia when the Dutch government announced the boycott. She was still at home. And of course, she was very disappointed. But she did not meet Dawn Fraser  until a year after the Melbourne Olympics when she took a trip to Australia.

 

For Part 2, go to this link:

The Dutch Boycott of the 1956 Olympic Games Part 2: Rehabilitation

mal whitfield obit-1-master675
Mal Whitfield after winning the 800-meter event at the 1948 London Games. Credit Central Press/Hilton Archive, via Getty Images.

   

One of the powerful images of the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 were the bowed heads and raised fists of sprinters gold and bronze medalists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. They were protesting the state of race relations in the United States.

But in 1964, a less well known protest was made by a three-time gold medalist who actually called for a boycott of the Tokyo Games. In the 1950s and 1960s, one of the most respected of American track and field athletes was Mal Whitfield, a winner of five medals in the 1948 Olympics in London, and the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, including two golds in the 800 meters in both Games, and one in the 4×400 meter relay in London.

And as related in this New York Times article, a member of the US Air Force’s famed Tuskegee Airmen, Whitfield flew 27 bombing missions during the Korean War, and became the first US military serviceman on active duty to win gold medals in the Olympic Games. He was also the first black man to receive the prestigious Sullivan Award, given to the nation’s most outstanding amateur athlete, in 1954.

Whitfield, who passed away on November 18, 2015 at the age of 91, was one of the most respected American athletes and sports ambassadors of his time. And so in retrospect, it seems surprising that in Ebony Magazine’s March 1964 edition, Whitfield penned this story titled “Let’s Boycott the Olympics”.

“I advocate that every Negro athlete eligible to participate in the Olympic Games in Japan next October boycott the games if Negro Americans by that time have not been guaranteed full and equal rights as first-class citizens. I make this proposal for two reasons: First, it is time for American Negro athletes to join in the civil rights fight – a fight that is far from won, despite certain progress made during the past year. For the most part, Negro athletes have been conspicuous by their absence from the numerous civil rights battles around the country. Second, it is time for America to live up to its promises of Liberty, Equality and Justice for all, or be shown up to the worlds as a nation where the color of one’s skin takes precedence over the quality of one’s mind and character.”

 

Ebony Magazine_Mal Whitfield
From the March 1964 Ebony Magazine

 

“What prestige would the United States have if every single Negro athlete, after qualifying for the U. S. team, simply decided to stay at home and not compete because adequate civil rights legislations had not been passed by Congress? For one thing, such action would seriously dampen American

CARTOON: Indonesia Withdraws from Tokyo Olympics, Warta Bhakti- 10 October 1964, p1
CARTOON: Indonesia Withdraws from Tokyo Olympics, Warta Bhakti- 10 October 1964, p1

The day before the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games, North Korea and Indonesia decided to boycott the Games. This decision was expected by many as the previous months had seen conflict between Indonesia and major international sports governing bodies.

Indonesia had hosted a regional sporting event called the Asian Games in 1962, refusing entry of athletes from Israel and Taiwan. As a result, The IOC (symbolized by IOC president Avery Brundage in the cartoons) suspended Indonesia, the first time they had ever done so. In reaction to that, Indonesia organized the GANEFO Games, “The Games of the New Emerging Forces”, which explicitly stated that politics and sports were intertwined.

CARTOON: Just wait until it collapses, Warta Bhakti- 26 September 1964
CARTOON: Just wait until it collapses, Warta Bhakti- 26 September 1964

As the time got closer and closer to October 1964, Indonesia was getting impatient to receive formal indication from the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee (TOOC) that they would be allowed to participate in the Tokyo Olympics. Indonesia actually was invited to the Olympic Games, but were told by the IOC and TOOC as well as the international governing boards of swimming (FINA) and athletics (IAAF), that athletes who participated in the GANEFO Games could not participate in the Olympics.

CARTOON: We are Not Begging Tokyo, Warta Bhakti - 5 July 1964
CARTOON: We are Not Begging Tokyo, Warta Bhakti – 5 July 1964

On October 9, both North Korea and Indonesia decided to pull their entire teams out of Japan.

While it must have been an incredible disappointment to Indonesian athletes in Tokyo then told to return home on the eve of the Olympics, the press in Jakarta made it clear that the boycott was the right decision. The anti-IOC, anti-Western, anti-colonial backlash was

Yuukan Fuji_March 6 2019
“2020 Tokyo Gorin – Saiaku no Shinario,” (Tokyo 2020 Worst Case Scenario), by Robert Whiting, Yuukan Fuji, March 5, 2019 – The text inside the blue box is where I am quoted.

What could go wrong at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

I was asked that question by best-selling author, Bob Whiting, for a weekly column he writes for the Japanese  newspaper, Yūkan Fuji. My answer to him?

Anything.

And we don’t have to go too far back in time for a prime example.

It was less than three years ago when the organizers of the 2016 Rio Olympics had to endure an endless number of threats to the reputation of Brazil and the Olympics:

  • The Brazilian economy had tanked. Police and firemen protested at the airports they were not getting paid, warning people to stay away. There was even significant speculation that the  organizers would cut air conditioning in the Olympic Village to save costs.

Police on strike in Brazil airport

  • The largest scandal in Brazilian history filled the headlines in 2016, one that involved state-run oil company, Petrobras, in which officials received kickbacks in return for selection of specific suppliers, kickbacks that totaled some USD3 to 5 billion.
  • The question of whether the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, would be impeached and removed hung over the Games like a cloud. (She was removed from office 10 days after the end of the Rio Olympics.)
  • The threat of catching the Zika Virus, a mosquito-borne threat to pregnant women and newborns, kept tourists and Olympians away from the Rio Olympics.
  • The site of the triathlon and sailing competition, Guanabara Bay, was so contaminated with human waste that it threatened the health of athletes who would compete in those waters.
Garbage on the shore of Guanabara Bay_1June 2015 In this June 1, 2015 file photo, a discarded sofa litters the shore of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo, File)

It’s impossible for Olympic officials to control the media’s thirst for issues and scandal, but the circumstances of Brazil at the time made it easy for the press to generate negative storylines.

Will that be the case in Tokyo, when the Olympics come to town in July and August of 2020? What are the headlines that could shake Olympic officials or encourage the naysayers?

  • North Korea Boycotts the Olympics: The Korean teams marched together at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018, and even brought together North and South Koreans on the women’s ice hockey team. But if pressure mounts due to lack of progress in US-North Korea talks to denuclearize North Korea, who knows whether the Olympics will become an opportunity to raise the rhetoric and make North Korea’s participation a bargaining chip?

Is there precedent? Yes. The North Koreans abruptly boycotted the 1964 Tokyo Olympics the day before the opening ceremony.

  • Magnitude 8.0 Earthquake Hits Tokyo – Olympics Disrupted: The timing of an earthquake just prior or during the Olympics are highly unlikely. And yet, the fear of the big one in Tokyo is in the back of the minds of many in Japan since there hasn’t been one since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Last year provided multiple reminders of Japan’s vulnerability to mother nature. In an annual vote of the kanji character that bests represent the year of 2018, the symbol for “disaster” was selected. After all, in 2018, 200 people were killed in flood waters across 23 prefectures, dozens perished in a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in Hokkaido, and there were at least 11 fatalities when Typhoon Jebi swept through the Kansai region.

Is there precedent? Yes. The 1989 World Series, when a magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck San Francisco just prior to the start of Game 3 match between two Bay City teams, the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants.

  • Officials Deny Bribery Allegations in Black Tidings Affair: A dark cloud in the distance appears to be approaching. The former president of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), and longtime IOC member, Lamine Diack, has been held by authorities in France since November, 2015. One of the allegations under investigation is whether Diack and his son Papa Massata Diack, were responsible for payments of USD2 million made from officials in Japan to Papa Diack through a company in Singapore called Black Tidings. It is alleged that these payments, made in July 2013, were connected to bribes that would “help the Japanese capital secure the hosting rights for the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” according to the French newspaper, Le monde. The current president of the Japan Olympic Committee, and member of the IOC, Tsunekazu Takeda, is under investigation for corruption, and may end up retiring from the Japan Olympic Committee in June or July.

Is there a precedent? Yes. A year after the end of the 2016 Rio Olympics, the head of the Rio de Janeiro Organizing Committee and member of the Brazilian men’s volleyball team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Carlos Nuzman, was arrested for soliciting votes ahead of the 2009 IOC session to select the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Carlos Nuzman with Police Carlos Nuzman_Reuters

Make no mistake – prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there will be a lot of noise, much of it negative. That’s just the reality of hosting a high budget big tent event like the Olympics.

But also, make no mistake – in the end, it is always about the athletes – their stories of struggle, fair play, excellence and achievement – that drive the headlines during the Games.  Those are the headlines that will inspire millions of young Japanese, and provide the motivation that propels a select few to future Olympiads.

By the way, the last two paragraphs are what Bob quoted me on at the end of his column – after all, you can’t end a story like this with such black tidings.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be great, and you won’t want to miss it!

2020 Tokyo Gorin – Saiaku Shinario_Robert Whiting YukanFuji March 5 2018 Olympics

500 days to go mascots

It’s March 12, 2019.

It’s now 500 days to July 24, 2020, and the Opening Ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics!

The National Stadium is taking shape.

Volunteers have raised their hands.

Tickets are close to going on sale.

In only 16 more months, the world will come to Japan for the XXXII Olympiad. Which made me wonder. What was it like on May 29, 1963 – when it was 500 days to go for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics? I took a look at The Japan Times for a week from May 23 to 31 to see what was top of mind in the press with 500 days to go.

First thing I noticed – no big deal was made that there were 500 days to go. But I also noticed that in addition to the significant progress on Olympic-related infrastructure, geo-political issues that were brewing in May, 1963, would come to a head 500 days later.

The facilities were taking shape: It was reported at a government meeting that “80% of the National Stadium, 20% of the track and field course, 25% of the boat course at Toda, 50% of the shooting range at Asaka, 50% of the sports center at Komazawa, and 75% of yacht harbor at Enoshima inland are completed.”

Indonesia’s Participation Under Threat: The IOC was scheduled to expel the National Organizing Committee of Indonesia, which would mean that Indonesian athletes would not be allowed to participate at the Tokyo Olympics. President Sukarno arrived in Tokyo unofficially before taking off for his planned trip to Europe, with hopes of improving the tone of Olympic discussions. This was part of an ongoing dispute over the politicization of sports, and it did not end well for Indonesia. As you can read here, the Indonesians could not get what they wanted, and boycotted the Games.

Indonesia Withdraws From Tokyo Olympics
CARTOON: Indonesia Withdraws from Tokyo Olympics, Warta Bhakti- 10 October 1964, p1

JFK Thanks Hayato Ikeda for Congratulating JFK: Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda received a cable of thanks from US President John F. Kennedy, for the prime minister’s message of congratulations on the successful orbiting of an American spaceship, Faith 7, which circled the earth 22 times in mid May, piloted by a single astronaut. During the Tokyo Olympics, the Soviet Union would surprisingly top that by sending the world’s first spaceship with a crew of three – the Voskhod – during the Olympic Games.

USSR, USA and Cuba: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened that things could get worse than the Cuban Missile crisis of the year before if the United States did not cease in interfering in Cuban affairs. Little did Khruschev know that he would be ousted from power a bit over 500 days later.

Khruschev Ousted_NYT_16Oct1964
New York Times, October 16, 1964

Nuclear Tests: The Japanese government decided in May of 1963 to cease its protests against American underground testing of nuclear explosives, after one such test took place in mid May in Nevada. The Japanese government finally realized that simply protesting the US government to change its behavior was not working. They didn’t realize that about 508 days later they would have to protest China’s decision to test its first atomic bomb, which they did on October 16, 1964, six days into the Tokyo Games.