1964 Abebe Bikila Avery Brundage Basketball Billy Mills Bob Hayes Boycotts Closing Ceremonies Cold War Dawn Fraser Diving […]
Dawn Fraser was on top of the world, after winning gold and silver medals, adding to her haul of 8 medals over three Olympiads. She was honored with the task of carrying the Australian flag in the closing ceremony on Saturday, October 24.
But it was Friday, and the night was still young. And when you’re Dawn Fraser, you can’t help but let a bit of the larrikin out.
The competitions were over and the party was on at The Imperial Hotel. The Australian swim team had gone home already, but Fraser had the entire Australian hockey team to party with. As she described in her book, Below the Surface – Confessions of an Olympic Champion, “at one stage one of the Olympic officials was wearing a kimono while the owner of the kimono was dancing about in a large Australian dressing gown.”
Around 2:30 am, a little less than 12 hours prior to when Fraser was scheduled to march into the National Olympic Stadium carrying her country’s flag, a plan was being hatched. Fraser and her friends were going to embark on a shady tradition of sorts in the Olympics – pinching flags.
A friend of hers, whom she refers to as an official, tells her that he’s found an ideal place to “pick up some good flags.” Fraser, the official and a hockey player slip away from the party, and walk through the darkened Tokyo streets until they arrive at the Emperor’s Palace. Again, here’s how Fraser explains it in her autobiography, Below the Surface:
We followed the moat for a while, and suddenly we were in the middle of a large flutter of flags. The flagpoles were sprouting like exclamation marks all round us. We chose a fine big Olympic banner with the five circles on it, and one of my companions bunked himself up on the shoulders of the other. They swayed around a little, and they swore once or twice; but finally they pulled the flag loose. ‘Quick,’ said one of them. ‘Cop this.’ I took the flag. ‘Go for your life,’ said the other. ‘The demons are coming.’
The “demons” were the police. Fraser tried to hide in a large shrub, but the police found her and started beating on her feet with a baton, so she threw the flag away and ran again. She saw a bicycle and hopped on it to get her further from the police “yelping and whistling” behind her. After all, she was making her escape on a policeman’s bike. That’s when she saw the Palace moat, and thought she could disappear into its darkness. “I figured that no policeman would ever catch me once I hit the moat,” she wrote.
In the panic, she ran into a brick wall, jumped 8 feet down into the moat onto more concrete and badly twisted her ankle. That’s when the police caught her.
At the Marunouchi Police Station, to where she was taken, no one would believe that she was not only an Olympic athlete, but that she was the world-famous Dawn Fraser. She had no identification on her, so the best she could do in the middle of the night was to contact a friend to bring her identification, and vouch for her. This friend was Lee Robinson, who was filming a documentary about Dawn Fraser. He brought the ID and the
No woman had ever won gold in three successive Olympics in the same event, but Dawn Fraser of Balmain, Australia was gunning for it.
Fraser’s breakthrough was at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 as she beat her fellow Australians in the 100-meter freestyle, becoming an overnight sensation. Then in Rome, the American swimming team was a rising power, but Fraser stared them down to win the 100 meters. In Tokyo, the Americans were expected to win everything. And they came close. But Fraser, at the age of 27, beat 15-year old Sharon Stouder, and 17-year old Kathy Ellis to assure her status as one of the Olympiad’s greatest heroes.
But heroes often must pass painful trials to complete their journey. 1964 proved to be an emotional roller coaster for Fraser, beginning with a disaster for Fraser only 8 months before the Tokyo Olympics.
In February, Fraser was peaking, setting the world record in the 100 yards, and winning the 220 yard title at the National Championships in Sydney. One evening shortly after those championships, she and her family were enjoying an evening out. She had a car and offered to drive her sister home, accompanied with her mother and her friend, Wendy Walters. Here is how she describes the fatal crash in her autobiography, “Below the Surface“, that ended her mother’s life:
I was driving about 40 miles an hour. I’d been driving for 10 years, and I knew that this was about my limit with my mother on board; she was nervous about speed. We were sweeping around a curve on a highway called General Holmes Drive when I saw what looked like the cabin of a truck dead ahead. At the same moment, Wendy, who was next to me in the front seat, called out, ‘Look out, Dawn.’ I remember pulling the wheel hard to the right, and I think I must have hit the brakes hard. I learned a long time later that the driver of the truck we hit had parked his vehicle while he went fishing nearby in the Cook’s River. But my recollections of the crash are vague: a gigantic close-up of the cabin in our headlights, a high screech of tires on bitumen, and a terrible crash.
Walters had injuries to her face, while Fraser and her brother Ken recovered from injuries after arriving at the hospital unconscious. Fraser’s mother, however, was killed in the accident.
Over my last few days in the hospital, I was trying to sort my life out again, trying to adjust to the idea that my mother wasn’t there anymore. I couldn’t believe that it had all happened. And I kept blaming myself, because I had been driving the car. My mother was 68, and I was completely devoted to her; I don’t think I really knew how close we were until the accident, and then it was too late. My family kept trying to talk me out of my depression, telling me that it was foolish to accept the blame.
Fraser had pretty much given up on going to Tokyo. She was depressed, feeling guilty. She was at the wheel. She was responsible. On top of that, she had to wear an uncomfortable steel brace for nine weeks that kept her neck and back immobile, forcing her to turn her whole body just to talk to someone to her side. But recover she did, returning to the water
I have searched far and wide for books in English about the 1964 Olympics, and have built a good collection of books by Olympians who competed in the Tokyo Olympiad.
My conclusion? Runners like to write! Of the 15 books written by ’64 Olympians I have purchased, 8 are by sprinting and distance track legends. But judoka and swimmers also applied their competitive focus to writing.
So if you are looking for inspiration in the words of the Olympians from the XVIII Olympiad, here is the ultimate reading list (in alphabetical order):
All Together – The Formidable Journey to the Gold with the 1964 Olympic Crew, is the story of the Vesper Eight crew from America that beat expectations and won gold as night fell at the Toda Rowing course, under the glare of rockets launched to light the course. The story of the famed Philadelphia-based club and its rowers, Vesper Boat Club, is told intimately and in great detail by a member of that gold-medal winning team, William Stowe.
The Amendment Killer, is the sole novel in this list, a political thriller by Ron Barak, to be published in November of 2017. Barak was a member of the American men’s gymnastics team, who parlayed a law degree into a successful consulting business, as well as a side career as budding novelist.
A Slow Boat to Yokohama – A Judo Odyssey, is a narrative of the life of British judoka, Syd Hoare, culminating in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when judo debuted as an Olympic sport. Hoare provides a mini-history of British judo leading up to the Olympics, as well as fascinating insight into life in Japan in the early 1960s.
Below the Surface – The Confessions of an Olympic Champion, is a rollicking narrative of a freewheeling freestyle champion, Dawn Fraser (with Harry Gordon), Below the Surface tells of Fraser’s triumphs in Melbourne, Rome and Tokyo and her incredible run of three consecutive 100-meter freestyle swimming Olympic championships. She reveals all, talking about her run ins with Australian authorities, and more famously, her run in with Japanese authorities over an alleged flag theft.
Deep Water, is an autobiography of the most decorated athlete of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Don Schollander, who won four gold medals as the most dominant member of the dominant US men’s swimming team. Co-written with Duke Savage, Schollander writes intelligently of his craft, the technique and the psychological, finding a way for a swimmer strong in the middle distances, to sneak into victory in the 100-meter sprint.
Escape from Manchuria, is a mindblowing story by American judoka, Paul Maruyama, whose father was at the heart of one of Japan’s incredible rescues stories – the repatriation of over one million Japanese nationals who were stuck in China at the end of World War II.
Expression of Hope: The Mel Pender Story tells the story of how Melvin Pender was discovered at the relatively late age of 25 in Okinawa, while serving in the US Army. Written by Dr Melvin Pender and his wife, Debbie Pender, Expression of Hope, is a story of disappointment in Tokyo, victory in Mexico City, and optimism, always.
Golden Girl is by one of Australia’s greatest track stars, Betty Cuthbert, whose life path from track prodigy in Melbourne, to washed-up and injured in Rome, to unexpected triumph in Tokyo is told compellingly in her autobiography.
See the remaining book list in my next post, Part 2.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
A Diary of the XVIIIth Olympiad, by Christopher Brasher All Together – The Formidable Journey to the Gold […]