Peter Snell was the 800-meter Olympic champion, coming out of relative obscurity to set an Olympic record at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome and win the gold medal. But in Tokyo in 1964, Snell was not only the favorite in the 800 meters, he and many others were expecting him to compete and win in the more glamorous 1500-meter race.
While our stereotypical view of Olympic champions are they are super confident and expect to win, the reality is that many oscillate between expectations of victory and the inevitability of disaster. Peter Snell of New Zealand may have exemplified the latter.
As British Olympic reporter, Neil Allen, noted in his book, Olympic Diary Tokyo 1964, Snell was shy and filled with doubt prior to the start of competition.
Two years ago the shy New Zealander and I had sat on the grass in Geraldon, Western Australia, and I had listened to him ponder, with worried brow, his problems in training for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games. Now he was behaving as though he was the last man in the world to hold the records for 800 meters, 880 yards and the mile, the last man you could imagine had won the Olympic 800 meter title four years ago.
“Running both events here might take it out of me, you know,” he said, staring at the ground. “My training was going so badly back at the beginning of last month that I got to the pitch where I couldn’t care less about the Olympics. There are times when you wonder how on earth you could run a 4:30 mile. You no longer have the ability to punish yourself.”
After a successful trial run in the 800 meters, Snell decided he would go for both the 800 and 1500 meter championships. He understood the ramifications of having to run heats in both races, with the possibility that the effort and strain of competing in both could mean doing poorly in both. And those doubts would not go away, as Snell wrote in his autobiography, No Bugles, No Drums.
My most nerve-racking period of the Games was the night before my first race. I’d made the decision to try for the double and promptly that night all sorts of doubts crowded into my mind in a sleep-wrecking procession. Quite seriously I wondered whether the decision was the right one. I felt I could produce a really good performance over 1500 meters. But if I ran in the 800 meters first, there was a strong possibility that not only could I run out of a place in that event – or even fail to qualify at all – I could find myself too tired for the 1500. I could, through tackling both, miss out on both. Was I being too greedy?
Peter Snell was confident. He had ran a time trial run of 800 meters in 1 minute and 47 seconds, a very fast time in 1964, despite the poor conditions of the track. This is when he knew he was peaking at the right time, and thought, not only could he win the 800, but also the 1500 meter competition at the Tokyo Olympics.
In the finals of the 800 meters, Snell drew the first lane, which he thought was unlucky because he would have to either “go like a madman and hit the front so you can maneuver with the field behind you and allow only as many pass as you want, or you can start slowly and try to work your race from the back of the field,” he wrote in his autobiography, No Bugles No Drums. “Either way can be troublesome and an in-between start can cause all sorts of jostling and tangling.”
With that understanding, Snell chose the first option with the intent of just trialing the lead runner, Wilson Kiprigut of Kenya, who was expected to jump out to a fast start. By sticking to the shoulder of the pacesetter, he would be able to avoid being boxed in and slowed. As it turned out, Kiprigut did not race out to the lead, and Snell ended up boxed in amidst a group at the front.
With 250 meters, Snell’s plan was to go all out. But he was trapped.
My pre-race plan had called for a sustained sprint from about 250-to-go. Now the whole position was confused. I was running easily within myself and, unlike Rome, where the circumstances were similar, I felt I was capable of dropping back out of the box, going around the field and still being able to challenge. That’s what I had to do. This involved two separate moves: a surge from the rear of the field to about fourth position with a clear run three or four wide which took me to the end of the back straight; then a second and final effort as I fought past Kiprugut and Kerr, who were locked together, and sprinted desperately into the curve. It was desperate because my plan had gone wrong and my run was coming late against fast finishers.
But soon, desperation gave way to elation. Snell hit the tape, setting an Olympic record. Despite having to drop back and swing wide to take the lead, Snell still relaxed at the end, as he wrote, “subconsciously” holding back for the 1500 meter competition to come.
Watch this video highlighting Snell’s exciting victory in the 800 meter race in Tokyo.
I was fortunate to enjoy a walking tour of Meiji Jingu (aka Meiji Shrine) through my university alumni group on a beautiful autumn Saturday morning recently. We were led on the tour by a Shinto priest at Meiji Jingu, Taisuke Kadosaki, who provided a wonderful description of the shrine’s history and customs as we ambulated through what is often called the lungs of Tokyo.
Here are a few of the fun facts gained on the tour:
Omotesando: a street akin to the Champs-Élysées in Paris or 5th Avenue in New York, Omotesando leads up to Meiji Jingu, and literally means “the entrance of the path to the shrine.”
80,000 Shinto Shrines in Japan: Most shrines in Japan are over a thousand years old. Meiji Jingu is yet to turn 100.
Kami: Shinto shrines are places to pay respects to “kami,” translated as a mixture of such words as spirit, angel, or deity of nature, things or people. There are kami for the wind, for rice, for rivers and for emperors. For example, famed anime character Totoro is a tree kami. The kami at the heart of Meiji Jingu is Emperor Meiji, who died in 1912.
Not Quite Nature’s Handiwork: In 1916, work was begun for a shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji after his death. Over 100,000 trees from all over Japan were transplanted in a desolate part of Tokyo called Yoyogi. In other words, the woods inside Meiji Jingu – a symbol of Japan’s love for nature – is completely man made.
Sake and Rice: On the shady peaceful dirt path through the woods on the way to the shrine halls, you see barrels of sake on your right and casks of wine on your left. Sake is made from rice, a staple of Japan, and was granted from the sun kami, Amaterasu at the beginning of time. Rice and rice wine are two key offerings to “kami”. The casks of wine represent the modern era Emperor Meiji helped usher into Japan.
Red Wine: In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Emperor Meiji opened up Japan to the West with treaties, Western clothes, and wine. In fact, when his doctor informed the Emperor that he had diabetes and should diminish his sake intake, the good doctor recommended red wine in its place. Once the wineries of Burgundy in France heard about that, they sent bottles of their best red wine to Emperor Meiji every December.
A Most Popular Place After New Year’s Day: In 1920, Meiji Jingu welcomed 500,000 people when it opened. Every year, 10 million people visit Meiji Jingu, the first 3 million in the first three days of the year coming to make wishes for the new year.
100th Birthday: In 2020, Meiji Jingu will have its 100th birthday. It is currently going through a renovation, the most apparent part is the re-plating of the copper rooves of the shrine’s halls. What most people will remember are light green rooves, the product of copper oxidating over decades. The very day of our tour, the roof of the main hall was uncovered, displaying a bright and shiny copper finish.
Put Your Name on Meiji Jingu for 3,000 Yen: If you want to help finance the renovation of Meiji Shrine, you can donate JPY3,000 for a copper plate that will adorn the roof of one of the halls of the shrine. On one side of the plate, you can write your wish for the future and your name.
One of the wonderful insights shared by Kadosaki-san on the tour was about the Japanese, and whether they are religious or not.
“Many Japanese will say, ‘I’m not religious’. But in reality,” Kadosaki-san told us, “our daily lives are very close to Shinto.” He then cited several examples:
Children dressed up for Shichi-Go-San and new-born babies are brought to shrines to celebrate their growth and health
Cars are brought to shrines to be blessed.
Weddings are held at shrines. In fact, eighteen wedding ceremonies were scheduled the day of my tour.
Kadosaki-san also explained that from the moment the sun rises, people are sweeping the shrine grounds, cleaning floors, and wiping rails and handles. Washing the hands and rinsing the mouth inside the shrine grounds is also a custom. If you assume Japan is a culture of cleanliness, it’s possible this culture emerged from the practices and beliefs of the shrine.
If you’re in Japan, or planning a trip, you may want to visit peaceful and rejuvenating Meiji Shrine, or one of the other 80,000 shrines in Japan.
For a more detailed explanation of Kadosaki-san’s description of Shintoism and Meiji Jingu, click here.
It is so hard to find footage of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, beyond a few newsreel samples and clippings from Kon Ichikawa’s documentary of the 1964 Olympiad. One of the few, great samplings of footage from the 1964 Olympics is a film produced by George and Lilian Merz, amateur filmmakers.
Not only do you get to see a few great events and athletes, you get a feel for the atmosphere in Tokyo and in the stadiums.
Part 1 of this breakdown of the Merz’s documentary focuses on the athletes and the competitions. Part 2 focuses on the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as things happening beyond the cut-throat world of high performance competition. The numbers below are the minute marks of the video where you can find what I am describing.
100-Meters Men’s: 8:51 – Watch Bob Hayes in the first semi-final heat of the 100-meter spring in lane 6. You can see Bob Hayes again at the 24:33 mark in this exciting 4X100 meter finals, with Hayes coming from behind to win gold for the US handily.
100-Meters Women’s: 14:17 – Wyomia Tyus wins 2nd heat of 100-meter sprint in a spirited race.
200-Meters Men’s: 15:50 – Here’s great film of the finals of 200 meter dash, American Henry Carr, pouring it on at the finish
400-Meters Women’s: 16:14 – At this mark, you can see Australian Betty Cuthbert beat Brit Ann Packer in the women’s 400 meters final
80-Meter Hurdles Women’s: 17:56 – Men and women run hurdles on a slick track. The Merz’s show footage of a Canadian woman being carried off the track. They call her “Miss Wengerson”, but I suspect it is someone named Marion Snider of Toronto, whom I wrote about here. The film returns to the women’s hurdles at the 20:44 mark.
Women’s Pentathlon: 12:08 – Here is the 80-meter hurdles part of the pentathlon
400-meter Hurdles Men’s: 13:59 – Watch American Rex Cawley win in the 400-meter hurdle finals
800-Meter Women’s: 21:45 – Great footage again of the women’s 800 meters final, with Ann Packer taking gold, coming from behind to win.
1500-Meter Men’s: 23:27 – Here we can see double-gold-medalist, New Zealand’s Peter Snell, winning the men’s 1500, going from last to first. The race started in misty, low visibility conditions, but by the end of the race you can see Snell victorious by 10 meters.
3,000-Meter Steeplechase Men’s: 10:38 – Great footage of a 3k steeple chase heat
5,000-Meters Men’s: 18:31 – Great film of the rain and slick track that Bob Schul and other 5000 meter runners had to deal with, as well as Schul’s great streak at the end to win gold.
10,000-Meters Men’s: 6:30 – The Merz’s spend their greatest length of footage on the incredible 10,000 meter race, which Billy Mills won in a surprise finish. The film goes on to show IOC president, Avery Brundage, awarding Mills with his gold medal, kimono-clad medal bearers behind Brundage.
Pole Vault Men’s: 9:13 The Merz’s spend time watching pole vaulters warming up and practicing, with a bit of slo mo.
Discus Throw Men’s: 11:18 – Here’s footage of the men’s discus competition, including US Olympic legend, Al Oerter.
Triple Jump Men’s: 12:40 – Watch triple jumpers Labh Singh of India, and slo mo of Ira Davis of US
Javelin Women’s: 13:30 – See a few throws in the women’s javelin
Shot Put Men’s and Women’s: 15:11 – Footage of the men’s shot put finals, including gold medalist Dallas Long; with the women’s shot put at 21:19
Shot Put Women’s: 19:48 – Day Five brought great weather, and the Merz starts with women’s discus throw. You can see the only American women’s shot putter, Olga Connolly, at the 20:19. For some reason, Merz calls Connolly Polish born, when actually she was born in Czechoslovakia.
High Jump Men’s: 25:03 – Here’s footage of the men’s high jump competition, featuring Valery Brumel and John Thomas.
Hammer Throw Men’s: 17:28 – Rain dominated Day Five, with rain hammering the fans as the hammer throwers slipped around their ring as they tossed their hammers
Equestrian Jumping: 26:18 – Here’s something I hadn’t realized. One of the equestrian events were at the National Stadium, not at the venue in Karuizawa. The infield were set up for the complex set of jumps for the Grand Prix Jumping competition.
When you walk through Meiji Shrine, a peaceful oasis of green in the middle of Tokyo, your pulse rate drops and you forget the hustle bustle of one of Asia’s most dynamic mega-cities. Its location next to the National Stadium for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the Olympic Village made the wooded park of Meiji Shrine a wonderful place for runners to train, a la middle distance double gold medalist, Peter Snell.
When images of the planned National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics were released, there was a mixture of groans and puzzlement. Globally renown architect, Zaha Hadid, presented a design of sleek modernity. Frankly, I thought it looked like a bicycle helmet, somewhat out of place in its surroundings.
TOCOG quickly put together another search for a stadium designer. And suddenly, Kuma Kengo, whose design was selected, was in the spotlight. Not only will the cost of the Kengo stadium be closer to the originally proposed estimate (JPY150 billion), the design of the stadium will more seamlessly blend into the environment.
Kuma has built a reputation for his use of wood, and plans to employ wood, particularly wood grown in all prefectures of Japan, to fashion a stadium that folds into the relatively green surroundings, as he explains in this Nippon.com interview:
Instead of the old-fashioned idea of putting up a huge monument, my idea is to create a stadium that people will remember as part of the Meiji Shrine outer gardens, the wooded area in which it’s located. And we’re planning to uncover the Shibuya River, which was put underground during the rapid-growth years, and have it flow at surface level through the stadium grounds. I believe that creating something sustainable for future generations, with the surrounding nature open to the public, is a more important considerations than the physical shape of the edifice, and so that’s what I’ve been focusing my efforts on.
Kuma was 10 years old when the 1964 Olympics came to Tokyo. He remembers witnessing the rapid growth of the post-war years, and being amazed in particular by the two complementary buildings of the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, built for the aquatic and basketball events. According to the Nippon.com article, he remembers often visiting the First Gymnasium designed by legendary architect, Tange Kenzo. “The light shining down from the windows in the high ceiling made the water of the pool sparkle. I was captivated by this sublime sight, and that was what made me decide that I wanted to become an architect.”
Kuma’s approach is perhaps best illustrated by a series of buildings he has built in and around a small town called Yusuhara on Japan’s southern Shikoku island. The Yusuhara Town Hall (2006) sits under a roof and frame of Japanese cedar in a traditional structural arrangement, but one that gives off more than a hint of high-brutalism in the strong articulation of its thick beams and columns. The outside features a series of timber panels of various dimensions, alternating with glazed panels – a genuinely interesting take on the “barcode” facade.
A small hotel and market (2010) that Kuma built nearby is just as unconventional, with a curtain wall on the main facade made of straw bales and bamboo that can actually be opened out to allow light and ventilation through – a very odd combination of rustic material and hi-tech detailing. But the wooden bridge building (ICON 101) that Kuma built over a road to link a spa and hotel on the outskirts of the town is stranger still. Here is a version of traditional Japanese roof construction blown up to super-large scale, a series of single wooden elements all overlapping and stepping up towards the bridge itself. It is this radical re-imagining of a historic building material or method of construction that one sees time and time again in Kuma’s work.
I’m truly excited for the debut of Kengo Kuma’s national stadium. I feel it will not only be appreciated for its uniquely Japanese sensibilities, but will be a lasting legacy of the 2020 Games, a fitting complement to its green surroundings, particularly the peaceful Meiji Shrine.
“I want to go beyond the era of concrete,” Kuma, 62, said in this Japan Times interview. “What people want is soft, warm and humane architecture. We will show the model of a mature society in the stadium. That’s the way to live a happy life relying on limited natural resources from a small land.”
At every Olympics, there are people who stand out brighter than others. In 1964, everybody had a Billy Mills story. The legendary Native American champion of the 10,000 meter race, Mills was not expected to medal in Tokyo, and thus appeared to come out of nowhere to win one of the most dramatic races in Tokyo.
Silver medalist 3-meter springboard diver, Frank Gorman, remembers sitting in the Olympic Village common area watching the Olympic Games on TV. “He was a guy I didn’t know until I got to Tokyo. In between our work outs we would sit and watch the games on the local TV, just the two of us. I understood that he was training hard, and that nobody thought he had a prayer, nobody was putting any money on him. But he told me he was excited about being there, and that he had been working his whole life at being the best.”
Gold medalist 400-meer runner, Ulis Williams, watched Mills in the stadium. “Towards the end, I think the last 200 meters, we see him picking up speed. We couldn’t believe it, and we’re shouting ‘Look at him go!’ He tried to go around a guy, and they were moving to block him, but he burst through the center with his arms up. We absolutely couldn’t believe it.”
For gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto, he remembers watching the 10,000 meter race on a black and white TV in a common room. “I remember it’s the final lap. A bunch of us, 30 of us, we were just yelling our heads off! And he wins the thing. What a dramatic finish! Mills comes out of nowhere and wins!”
Peter Snell remembers agreeing with his teammates that Australian Ron Clarke was a definite favorite to win, and had no expectations for any American, let alone Billy Mills to be in the running. As he wrote in his biography, No Bugles, No Drums, “This is no personal reflection on the tremendous performance of the winner Billy Mills. It’s just that Americans are traditional masters of the short track events and we other nations are naturally not too keen to see that mastery extended to the longer races.”
Snell, the incredible middle-distance runner from New Zealand, who won gold in both the 800 and1500 meters races in Tokyo wrote that “the 10,000 lives in my memory as one of the most exciting