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Nina Ponomareva in Rome.

In the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union were finally invited to the Summer Olympic Games. In 1952, with a will to establish the superiority of their system through sport, the Soviets garnered 71 total medals, including 22 golds, to finish second in the medals race.

The first gold went to Nina Ponomareva, who won the women’s discus throw, and glory for her country, setting an Olympic record as well. “Only after I had felt a heavy golden circle in my hand, I realized what happened. I am the first Soviet Olympic Champion, you know, the first record-holder of the 15th Olympiad…Tears were stinging my eyes. How happy I was!

She would go on to win bronze in Melbourne in 1956, and then gold again at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. That’s an impressive track record. Unfortunately, when Ponomareva passed away in August, she was remembered for something else.

In 1956, prior to the Melbourne Games, the Soviets were invited to a bilateral track and field meet between Great Britain and the Soviet Union in London. Ponomareva stepped into a C&A Modes, which The New York Times informed me was a low-priced clothing store on Oxford Street, and was said to have shoplifted. According to the Herald Scotland, Ponomareva was “arrested on charges of shoplifting four feather hats (white, mauve, black, and yellow) plus a red woolen one, costing a total of £1.65.”

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Nina Ponomareva in Helsinki.

When the team manager Konstatin Krupin heard of the arrest this doctor’s wife, teacher and 27-year-old mother, he pulled his team from the competition with Britain. The Bolshoi Ballet, which was headed to London, threatened to cancel their trip if British authorities did not retract the arrest and apologize. The UK Ambassador was summoned to the Kremlin for a good tongue lashing.

Forty four days after the arrest, Ponomareva came out of hiding in the Soviet Embassy. She was found guilty of shoplifting in court and asked to pay three guineas in costs. After that, she went straight to the harbor and got on a ship back home. Later that year, she failed to defend her Olympic championship in Melbourne (finishing third), but rebounded for gold four years later.

It is the legacy of the five hats that lived on beyond her golden glory. According to this obituary in The New York Times, Ponomareva’s name was cited during a debate on Britain’s actions during the Suez Crisis in the House of Commons. Labour member had this to say about the leading party’s foreign policy. “If the (Suez) Canal is vital to us, we take it,” he said. “This is the morality of Nina Ponomareva – ‘I like your hat, I will have it.'”

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CK Yang pole vauilting
Asian Iron Man C.K. Yang in his strongest decathlon event – the pole vault.

He had barely lost, losing by a mere 58 points in the decathlon to his best friend, Rafer Johnson, at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. Using the 2nd place finish as motivation, C. K. Yang went on to break the world record in April, 1963, and was viewed as the heavy favorite for gold at the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo.

But it was not to be. Not only did Yang fail to win gold, he fell to a disappointing fifth place. In fact, Yang was in ninth place at the end of day one, but had a very strong day two in which he won the 400-meter hurdles, pole vault and javelin throw events, clawing his way to fourth place before the final event. But Yang’s 13th-place finish in the final 1500-meter race meant that two Germans, a Russian and an American would finish ahead of him in the final placements.

A chance at a first-ever gold medal for Taiwan faded into that cool evening of October 20, 1964. Two explanations have been provided for Yang’s disappointing results: a recent change in the way scores were tallied for the decathlon, and Yang’s mysterious illness.

The decathlon scoring system was always considered complicated, as administrators have time after time adjusted the benchmarks and formulas to come up with scores that were perceived as fair so that athletes were satisfied with their points for a strong jump, or a speedy run, as well as with their points for a fantastic jump or a spectacular run. In 1964, the scoring tables were revised yet again. And the rule changes appeared to be heir apparent, Yang, at a disadvantage. Technology advancements in plastics resulted in the increasing prevalence of fiber-glass poles. Yang had mastered the new pole more quickly than others, enabling him to claim a world indoor record in the pole vault. As legendary New York Times sports writer, Arthur Daley, explained in a preview to the 1964 Olympic decathlon, the scoring revision hurt Yang.

“Not too long ago the International Amateur Athletic Federation updated and revised the decathlon scoring tables. This has hit Yang harder than most because he no longer can make a blockbuster score of fifteen hundred points in the pole vault. He still will be the decathlon favorite but not by the preponderant margin that once had been assigned to him. “

Daley went on to quote Yang that he wasn’t overly worried. “Of course I lose points by the new tables,” he said. “But I don’t think it will affect me over the whole thing.” Others, though, believed that Yang was indeed psychologically affected by the rule changes, particularly regarding the pole vault.

Willi Holdorf and C. K. Yang in 1964
Willi Holdorf and C.K. Yang after the decathlon’s 1500-meter race in Tokyo 1964, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964 Kyodo News Service

Based on the revised scoring system, Yang’s world record of 9,121 points would convert to 8,087 points, which is significantly higher than gold medalist Willi Holdorf’s winning point total of 7,887. But clearly, at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Yang did not come close to his world-record times and distances of his 1963 world-record setting effort. The explanation at the time was that Yang was not 100% healthy. As his coach Ducky Drake said, Yang hurt his left knee about five weeks ago. He never got into shape and this was reflected in his performances.” Another report said that Yang was suffering from a cold.

But Yang’s buddy, Rafer Johnson, revealed in his book, The Best That I Can Be, a shocking explanation for Yang’s unexpected performance in 1964. Remember, this is the time of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, Mao’s China and Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan.

In the 1970s, C. K. had dinner with a man from Taiwan’s counterpart to our FBI. They were talking about the 1964 Olympics when the man dropped a bombshell: C. K. had been poisoned, he said. Because of the tension with mainland China, Taiwan had assigned two bodyguard to C.K. at the Games. Despite that precaution, this man told him, a teammate had spiked C. K.’s orange juice at one of their meals. Shortly afterward, that athlete and two Taiwanese journalists defected to Red China. C. K. had always considered himself unlucky for having gotten ill at the wrong time. Instead, he may have been a victim of political warfare. “I was so angry I thought I would cry,” he told me.

Woah.

For more stories on C. K. Yang, see the following:

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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.

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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

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Kenneth Matthews

Kenneth Matthews

He powered through his long walk, entering the National Stadium first and alone, winning gold in the 20-kilometer walk race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And when Brit Kenneth Matthews reached his goal, his wife Sheila was there to greet him with a joyous hug. She continued to walk with her husband around the track as the crowd cheered. The great race walker from Birmingham died on June 2, 2019. He was 85.

 

 

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Lowell North

Lowell North

Two-time Olympian and two-time medalist in sailing for USA, Lowell North passed away on June 2, 2019. He was 89. The Springfield, Massachusetts native was one of three crewmen who competed in the Dragon class competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics which won Bronze. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, North partnered with Peter Barrett to take gold in the Star class competition.

 

Gunter Perelberg
Günter Perleberg

Günter Perleberg

Günter Perleberg was paddler who won the silver medal in the kayak K-4 1000 meter competition as a member of the United Team of Germany at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, adding to his gold medal in the K-1 4×500 meter relay won at the 1960 Rome Olympics. An East German from Brandenburg an der Havel, Perleberg defected to West Germany via Austria in 1963, this making his selection for the Unified German team a topic of animosity between the Cold War powers. Perleberg passed away on August 1, 2019, at the age of 84.

 

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Roy Saari

Roy Saari

American Roy Saari was selected for two different sports for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic: swimming and water polo. Having to choose one, Saari chose swimming where he won silver in the 400-meter individual medley, and gold in the 4×200 freestyle relay. That relay team set a world record. He also held the world record in the 1500-meter freestyle. His father was the famed water polo coach, Urho Saari. Saari passed away on December 30, 2018 at the age of 63.

 

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Patrick Sercu

Patrick Sercu

One of the great Belgian cyclists of the 1960s, Patrick Sercu of Roeselare, West Flanders, took gold in the men’s 1,000-meter time trial at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Racing primarily in the 1960s and 1970s, Sercu won over 1,200 track and road races in his career, including 88 championships in the grueling Six-Day tournaments.

 

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Peter Snell

Peter Snell

One of New Zealand’s greatest athletes, Sir Peter Snell, passed away on December 12, 2019 at the age of 80. Snell’s heroics started with his gold medal triumph in the 800 meters at the 1960 Rome Olympics. But at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the native of Opunake, New Zealand became the only Olympian since 1920 to win gold in both the 800-meter and 1500-meter distances in the same Olympics.

Takahisa Yoshikawa
Yoshihisa Yoshikawa

Yoshihisa Yoshikawa

Yoshihisa Yoshikawa (吉川貴久) was the Chief of Police for Yawata Nishi in his home prefecture of Fukuoka, Japan. But he was more well known as the four-time Olympian, who won bronze medals in men’s free pistol 50 meters at the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Yoshikawa was 83, when he passed away on October 12, 2019, nearly 55 years to the day when he won his second bronze medal in Tokyo.

Horace Ashenfelter ahead of Vladimir Kazantsev in 3000meter steeplechase
Horace Ashenfelter ahead of Vladimir Kazantsev in 3000meter steeplechase

It was 1952 at the Helsinki Olympics, and the Cold War was heating up.

Making their first appearance at the Olympics were the Soviet Union. And in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, the favorites were Russians Vladimir Kazantsev, and Mikhail Saltykov, both world record holders with times under 9 minutes. Horace Ashenfelter, an American whose best at the time was nearly 18 seconds slower than Kazantsev’s best, was not given a chance to win the steeplechase competition.

And yet the American press played up the geo-political theme, particularly since Ashenfelter was an FBI agent in the US government. As Red Smith wrote in his column on July 26, 1952,

It was evident at Wednesday’s steeplechase heats that the final would bring about the carnival’s first head-on, man to man clash between an American and a Russian. A lot of people had been waiting for such a match ever since it became apparent, long before the games opened, that the 15th Olympics would be chiefly a Russian-American struggle. Before the heats, however, nobody had dreamt that the match might come about in the steeplechase. All the tall tales about a generation of supermen rehearsing behind the iron curtain had made special mention of Vladimir Kazantsev of Kiev, who had been charging over the obstacles at speeds the outside world had never seen.

With such a foe looming, Ashenfelter was given little chance. In the book, The Heart of a Champion, he was teased about his likely fate at the hand of the Russians:

“Horace, how is it going to feel to be out there running on the track when Kazantsev is in taking a shower and on his way home?” Another team-mate said, “I’ll bet Horace will have only three laps to go when Kazantsev is getting his gold medal.”

And yet, Ashenfelter was never fazed by the challenge. As stated in this interview, Ashenfelter was in prime shape and had nothing to lose.

I’m a pretty confident guy, actually and – put it this way – he had to beat me. It was the first time and only time where I had about three weeks of controlled training and rest. I had fine tuned my weight and weighed 128 pounds which I carried on five feet nine frame as compared to my normal weight of 140. I was in outstanding shape and had no bad luck occur. I was just going to stay with the pace as long as I could and to make the pace if I had to – I didn’t mind that.

He got suckered by his coaches as his plan they had was for him to stay with me. That meant that he was running on my right shoulder the whole race and adding three or four yards to each lap. I ran him a little bit wide on the corners and we bumped several times as he was running that close to me. That didn’t bother me but it may have bothered him – I don’t know. I knew I had a lot left at the end.

The American press lapped up the victory. As Smith wrote in his column, “The G man, reluctant to keep his back turned on a Commie, trotted back and slapped Kazantsev on the blouse of his britches.”

It was not known at that time that Kazantsev was also a KGB Agent, but one could imagine that Red Smith’s rhetoric would have been even more provocative.

As for Ashenfelter, he could care less about the Cold War drama on the track. “He was just an opponent. The media writes what they think and what they believe will attract readers.”

On January 6, 2018, Horace Ashenfelter passed away at the age of 94.

Spiderman vs Hulk at the Winter Olympics_1

I grew up on comic books, thrilled by the Marvel world of super heroes fighting evil in the universe while dealing with their own complications of making a living, family strife, and acne. The reason that Hollywood is enamored with the Marvel and DC universes is because of the powerful character development of superheroes who were learning as they went, uncovering personal flaws, while wisecracking and cracking heads.

But perhaps in my youth, I was overly forgiving.

I picked up a 1980 comic book because it was related to the Olympics – Marvel Treasury Edition #25, Spider-Man vs. The Hulk at the Winter Olympics.

Spiderman vs Hulk at the Winter Olympics_3

And boy, it is bad. The illustrations are fine. The story is ridiculous. The writing is awful – way too much explanation.

According to this article, there was a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Marvel and DC were locked in a Cold War – Détente relationship. When DC put out a large-sized comic book called DC’s Limited Collector’s Edition, Marvel did the same with Marvel Treasury Edition. Measuring 10 inches by 14 inches, the Marvel Treasury Edition was significantly bigger than the standard 6.5 by 10 inch mag.

But Marvel featured primarily reprints. Inspired by the coming Winter Games in 1980, Marvel decided to use the Marvel Treasury format in issue #25, creating original content in commemoration of the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, complete with appearances by Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk. Despite the writing, and storyline, the art is still pretty cool.

I wonder if they were thinking to do one on the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. I guess we’ll never know.

Spiderman vs Hulk at the Winter Olympics_2

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Andras Toro is wearing the hat.

An excerpt from the book, 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes

 

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the kayakers and canoeists landed at Haneda Airport like most other Olympians, but then were whisked off to Sagamihara, about sixty kilometers west of Tokyo. The competitions for the canoeists and kayakers were to be held at Lake Sagami, a man-made reservoir in an idyllic setting developed for tourists.

To Andras Toro, it was dreamlike:

Lake Sagami was a magical place with all the oriental beauty we had only seen before in magazines…the morning mist that rose along the shoreline was beautifully surreal.

It was the perfect setting for Cold War intrigue.

Since the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Toro and his friends in the Honved Canoe Club in Budapest had given serious thought to defecting from their country, as long as it was under the hammer (and sickle) of the Soviet Union. In fact, many of his friends did indeed defect, taking advantage of their participation at the 1956 Melbourne Games.

But Toro didn’t go to Melbourne. And his bronze medal finish at the 1960 Rome Olympics only fanned the flames of his desire to win in Tokyo. Competing in the individual 1,000-meter event, Toro had his sights set on the gold. But he also smelled an opportunity—that if he did not win a medal, he would seriously consider defecting to the West.

Just saying that you want to defect, however, doesn’t make it happen. There is no defector’s manual. Who do you contact? What country would take you? How do you avoid the ears and eyes of your country’s minders? Toro spoke almost no English. Who would he even start this conversation with?

And yet, when you want something, as Paulo Coelho famously put it in his novel, The Alchemist, “all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

Off the foggy banks of Lake Sagami, the universe began to conspire for Andras Toro.

Andras Toro at Lake Sagami
Andras Toro at Lake Sagami, courtesy of Andras Toro

In the tiny community of Olympic canoeists and kayakers emerged quite unexpectedly a friend of Toro’s, Andor Elbert. Friends since their teenage years in the Honved Canoe Club in Budapest, Elbert had defected to Canada eight years prior, and was representing Canada at the 1964 Olympics. Toro, shielded behind his Hungarian minders, was of course never informed that a defector had made the Olympic squad on another nation’s team.

Then an American kayaker named Bill Smoke entered the picture. He was at Lake Sagami to compete for the US Olympic squad, but he was also looking for talent. Smoke lived in Michigan, famous for its lakes and love of boating of all kinds, and he hoped to find someone who could build canoes and kayaks so that he could start a business back home.

Smoke walked over to the Canadian dorms looking for someone who spoke English and happened to have that conversation with Elbert. Smoke wondered if Elbert knew anyone in Canada who might be willing to help him out. As a matter of fact, Elbert did know someone, but he wasn’t from Canada.

Elbert told Smoke that his friend Toro was not only good at designing and building boats, he was also hoping to defect from Hungary. Smoke in turn talked with US teammate and then-girlfriend, Marcia Jones, who was in Japan also competing in individual canoeing. She turned out to be a key connection, as her mother was Mary Francis, an attorney, one of two women to graduate from the University of Michigan Law School in 1929. She was also sympathetic to people who had to leave their home countries.

Jones said that when she was ten, they had a DP, or displaced person, couple from Latvia stay with them. “The government brought them over here,” she said. “My mother sponsored them. They lived at our place. They went to our schools. She wanted to help them out. She was a very generous person and we could afford to help them.”

When Jones told her mother about Toro, Mary Francis got to work, contacting the US Embassy in Tokyo to seek their help. According to Smoke, who eventually married Jones, his future mother-in-law was not someone you could say no to easily. Francis was able to set up a meeting for Toro at the Embassy.

So very suddenly, all of the pieces fell into place. Toro was ready to defect, resigned to most likely never seeing his family and home country ever again, but with hopes of starting anew in a new land. All that remained, strangely enough, was for him to lose.

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The great American diver, Sammy Lee

In memory of Olympians or people significantly connected to the Olympics who passed away in 2016.

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Triumphant Vera Caslavaska in Mexico City
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Ted Mittet surrendering his American team’s cowboy hat, gifted by President Johnson to the male Olympians

“Please send me many U.S.A. artifacts which I can use to trade with the Russians, Pols, etc. Emblems are especially desirable.”

So wrote Ted (Theo) Mittet to his family on October 4, 6 days prior to the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In addition to transforming into mini-United Nations, Olympic Villages become a mini-bartering economies where the currency of trade were pins, shoes, patches, shirts and hats.

As NBA All-Star and member of gold-medal winning USA men’s basketball team, Jeff Mullins, said, the most targeted American item were the cowboy hats the men received as part of their team kit.

USSR crew shirt 1964_Mittet

Mittet, a bronze-medal winning member of a four-person rowing crew, had already given away his hat as you can see in the top photo, but he was still very active in the market. And for Americans, trading with the unknown and mysterious communists had a high level of cool cachet. As you can see, Mittet traded with fellow rowers from Cuba and the Soviet Union.

Cuban crew shirt 1964_Mittet

Another very unique rowing jersey is from the German team. During the Cold War, the IOC got the East and West German Olympic Committees and governments to agree to a united German team from 1956 to 1964. As explained here, not only did the teams agree to using Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as their national anthem, and an altered version of the East German black, red and gold striped flag with the Olympic rings in white placed in the middle red stripe.

Unified Germany crew shirt 1964_Mittet

This is where I need help. What is the nationality of the athlete Mittet traded with to get this red rowing jersey?

Unknown crew shirt 1964_Mittet