As I drive towards the first draft of my book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, I wrote extensively on some of the greatest as well as some of the lesser known dramas of those Games, some of these based on interviews I’ve had with Olympians. Interviewing Olympians, as well as reading about them, has been such an inspiration to me. I hope they are to you too.
They were the lowest seeded team, and had already lost their first three matches to Malaysia, Belgium and Canada. Their fourth match at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was against India, a global field hockey powerhouse and a favorite to win gold.
But somehow, Hong Kong – a team of part-time players, primarily bankers who stayed fit in amateur clubs – held India scoreless in the first half of play. That would be akin to Team USA basketball team being tied 20-20 at the half in an Olympic first rounder against Team Haiti, for example. In the half-time huddle, the India coaches and players must have been scratching their heads wondering why they weren’t trouncing Hong Kong.
In the second half, Honk Kong had lost two of their regular defenders to injuries, and eventual gold medalist India went on to score six unanswered goals to indeed trounce Hong Kong, a team that would go 0-6-1 and place 15th of 15 teams in Tokyo.
But that was OK. After all, the players from Hong Kong were in one sense, lucky to be in Tokyo at all. Sarinder Dillon was left half on that Hong Kong field hockey team, and recalled in late 1963 that there was an outside chance Hong Kong could make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics, so they had better be ready just in case.
Hong Kong was outside the top 16 before the Olympics. But we were told that there was a good chance that one of two teams might drop out, so the president of the Hong Kong Hockey Association told us that training would start in January and that we should turn out. We thought, “this is a golden opportunity.” Hopefully a team or two would drop out, so we had to get fully fit and develop as players.
In the subsequent months, the field hockey teams from France and Poland would drop from the list, allowing Hong Kong’s field hockey team to qualify. Now it was up to the players. “We were 17 players, almost all of us bankers,” Kader Rahman, who played right half, told me.
I worked for Bank of America, others Hong Kong Bank, for example. And in those days, bankers played field hockey in amateur leagues. But when we realized that we had a chance at the Olympics, we worked at our offices from 9 am to 5pm, then took a bus to King’s Park and played a match every night. On Sundays, we played two matches. It was tough training for ten months, and most of the time, we still had not qualified.
Eventually, the Hong Kong Hockey Association selected 30 players from the various clubs for special training, eventually whittling down the team to 17 – all from different clubs. Due to the international nature of Hong Kong at the time, it was a very multi-cultural team with 7 Portuguese, 3 Indians, 2 Pakistanis, 3 Malays, and an Irishman and a Scot – all Hong Kong permanent residents. “When we walked around the Olympic Village with Hong Kong on the back of our jackets, other athletes were amazed at our team make up,” said Dillon. “We had no Chinese on the team as the few who played in Hong Kong were from the lower divisions. We all spoke English, but would sometimes talk to each other in Chinese. This further amazed the other athletes.”
In addition to the training on top of their day jobs, the members of the field hockey team were tasked with raising funds themselves. The head of the Hong Kong Hockey Association, who doubled as the Olympic squad’s team manager, went to many companies appealing for contributions. In the end, each team member was still required to put up a thousand Hong Kong dollars each of their own money to help pay for airfare, as well as the required fee for board and lodging in the Olympic Village.
Since Dillon was a student, he was asked to pay only 130 Hong Kong dollars, which his school kindly covered. But Dillon could not escape other duties required. In early September, weeks prior to the start of the Tokyo Olympics, the Olympic torch made its way through Asia, coming to Hong Kong via Manila. As Dillon was the youngest HK Olympian, he drew the short straw and got assigned midnight guard duty of the Olympic torch, to ensure its safety before it took off for Taipei the next day.
Like the torch, the Hong Kong team made it to Tokyo, enjoying the awesomeness of a global event decades before television and the internet could bring instantaneous news and images to our homes and hands. Sarinder recalls his amazement at seeing his field hockey heroes from India and Pakistan in the Olympic Village, and naiveté at thinking that the song he repeatedly heard was the Olympic theme, only to learn it was the American national anthem.
But feelings of awe and wonder were often muffled by the reality of the Games. From October 11 to 18, Hong Kong lost their first 6 matches scoring only 2 goals to the oppositions’ 25. Their final match was against Germany, a team made up of East Germans that would eventually place 5th in the Olympic tournament. The German team and fans in the stands were expecting a rout, a shut out, based on Hong Kong’s previous matches.
Hong Kong did not comply. They scored a goal in the first half to lead the mighty Germans 1-0. In fact, they led the Germans throughout the match. With minutes to go, the players on the Hong Kong team could taste victory, a moment all underdogs dream of – a chance to shine on the biggest stage of them all.
“We were playing a blinder, out of our usual selves,” said Rahman. But then, Hong Kong, with a mere two minutes to go, was assessed a penalty resulting in a short corner chance for Germany. And when the ball flew through the air towards the line of Hong Kong players, it somehow hit the shoulder of one of the defenders and deflected into the goal. When the final whistle blew, it was Germany 1 – Hong Kong 1.
And that was the last time a team from Hong Kong, of any sport, participated in the Olympics. “Our team was 100% amateur compared to other countries in 1964 we played,” reflected Rahman. “Our results were not great, but we enjoyed our time. And today, our hockey team remains the only team from Hong Kong to go to the Olympics.”
This is Part 2 of a breakdown of the amateur film by George and Lilian Merz.
The Merz’s, who won an award for their summary of the XVIII Olympiad in Tokyo, stayed primarily around the National Stadium, so their view of the Olympics was primarily track and field. But on occasion, they trained their cameras at events outside the National Stadium, as well as on non-sporting events. Their footage of the ceremonies have been more effectively captured elsewhere, but their human interest forays are interesting at times.
Opening Ceremony: 1:25 – It’s the Opening Ceremony at the National Stadium on October 10, 1963. At the 3:12 mark, the US team enters the stadium. The men on the US team are wearing cowboy hats, and it appears that is all you see in their sea of members. The women however aren’t wearing any hats. President Johnson, who is believed to have had the hats sent to the Olympians, probably didn’t think it was appropriate for women to wear these cowboy hats. What struck me was how small the female crowd was. When I looked it up, of the 346 people on the US Olympic squad, only 79 were women. And many of them were likely swimmers who had to compete in the next few days, so were likely not allowed to march in the opening ceremony. Interestingly, the men who dominated the US sailing team brought up the rear, not in cowboy hats, but in sailor caps. Also great footage of the balloon released, the Olympic flag raised and the cauldron lit, in a jam-packed stadium. At the 8:36, Merz has footage of the Emperor and Empress of Japan in the stands!
Huckster Girls: 12:25 and 13:56 – That’s what Merz calls the women selling food and drink in the National Stadium. I can’t tell what snacks they were selling, but they were selling a bottle of Coca Cola for 50 yen. At 360 yen to the dollar, that’s about 13 cents!
Nature Boy: At the 14:32 mark, Merz films an unusual looking Japanese man outside the National Stadium, whom he dubs “nature boy”. He’s bald headed and bare chested, except for a sash, and holding a banner. The sash says “Make Your Body as Naked as Your Face!”. His banner basically says the same thing, further emphasizing that nudity is healthy, and that he belongs to some sort of nudist association. In modest Japan, this is the last thing I would have expected to see in this documentary.
Rain Rain Rain: You can see at the 17:16 mark a sea of umbrellas. On certain days, it simply rained through the day.
Press Seats and TV Monitors: As you can see at the 16:44 mark, the press section in the National Stadium had little TV monitors so that the press could watch the action up close.
Eating Bento: I don’t know what the guy is eating, but I’m sure it was good! At the 23:16 mark you can see the spectators sitting on wood-slat benches, and this particular man enjoying a bento. He appears to be sitting in a covered section of the stadium too.
4×100 Swimming Relay Men’s: 5:26 – The Merz’s visit the National Gymnasium and fil the second heat of the men’s 4×100 swimming relay, which the Americans win handily.
Field Hockey Men’s: 25:24 – The Merz’s take a break from the National Stadium and head to the Komazawa Stadium to watch a field hockey match between Germany and Kenya.
Basketball: 25:48 – The Merz’s then head to the National Gymnasium Annex to see men’s basketball. Unfortunately, the footage is too dark to tell which players are from which countries.
Closing Ceremony: 27:38 – And finally, here was footage of the closing ceremony. The film is dark, but you can see the Olympic flame extinguished – a blurry light extinguished, the Olympic Flag lowered, to be send to Mexico City, and an fireworks display to cap off an incredible two weeks.
We gathered at the prestigious Singapore Cricket Club on May Day, and enjoyed fish and chips and beef Guinness pie reminiscing about 1964. I had the honor of having lunch with three Singaporean Olympians who went to the Tokyo Olympiad:
Canagasabai Kunalan, who held the fastest 100-meter time in Singapore for over 30 years, and competed under the Malaysian flag at the 1964 Olympics, as well as under the Singaporean flag in 1968,
Hamid Supaat, who competed in the grueling individual cycling road race in the chilly hills of Hachioji at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as written about here, and
Anwarul Haque, who was a goalie on the 1964 Malaysian field hockey team, went on to become a lawyer, as well as serving eight years as president of the Singapore Cricket Club, where we ate and reminisced.
In 1964, Singapore was undergoing political upheaval, having gained independence from Britain in 1963, and joining a federation of states that became Malaysia. Previous to that, Singapore had been a colony since Stamford Raffles arrived on the tiny island in 1819 to claim it as a trading post for the East Indies Company and the British empire.
Before independence, Singapore was a bustling harbor town, its population growing quickly, but still relatively small at 1.5 to 1.8 million in the first half of the 1960s. So it’s quite understandable that in the sports history of Singapore, only 5 medals have been won by Singaporeans in the history of the Olympics, the first one – Singapore’s first silver – in 1960 and the last one – Singapore’s first gold – in 2016.
Tan Howe Liang migrated with his family from southern China to Singapore and at an amusement park saw an exhibition of weightlifters and was hooked. He joined a weightlifting club, and soon became internationally competitive, finishing ninth in the lightweight category at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, and then gaining confidence by winning gold at the 1958 Commonwealth Games, the 1958 Asian Games and the 1959 SEAP Games. In Rome, Howe Liang brought glory to Singapore with a silver medal in the lightweight category.
Even earlier, at the 1948 London Olympics, Singapore had a representative as a part of British crown colonies. His name was Lloyd Oscar Valberg, and he competed in the high jump as Singapore’s sole athlete in the first Olympics after the Second World War. Valberg came in 14th. But he set the Singapore record for the high jump at the age of 17, and is a symbol of how far Singapore has come. Valberg’s nephew was Colin Schooling, and his son saw his famous relative as a role model.
Inspired by his grand uncle, Joseph Schooling went on to take gold in the 100-meter butterfly in one of the most dramatic races at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Schooling beat a very strong field, including his childhood idol, Michael Phelps to win Singapore’s first gold medal.
The Olympians has been a labor of love for exactly two years. It is my sketchbook as I prepare for the mural masterpiece, a book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
While my book’s focus is on the XVIII Tokyo Olympiad, I use my blog as an excuse to write about anything even remotely related to these areas: the Tokyo Olympics, the Olympics overall, Japan, and sports in general. In other words, I think of my blog as therapy for a restlessly curious mind.
How else could I go 730 straight days without missing a post?
Twenty-six sports were recommended as new additions to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. As many of you now know, Tokyo2020 and the IOC selected five new competitions: baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing.
But there were others recommended that I was either surprised about or unfamiliar with. I’ve created a list below of all the “sports” that were considered officially by Tokyo2020 for the next Summer Games. I took the liberty to make sense of them by organizing them into four categories, which you could most certainly dispute.
The Olympics are, in a way, an endorsement of the international relevance of an organized sport or gaming activity. This year, there was a conscious emphasis to increase the youth following, so skateboarding (roller sports), sports climbing and surfing were added.
Baseball and softball were actually Olympic competitions from 1992 to 2008, so it probably was not a difficult decision with the Olympics returning to Asia, where baseball is very popular. However, tug of war, which was an Olympic competition from 1900 to 1920, did not make the cut.
I was faintly familiar with Netball, which is popular in Singapore where I lived a couple of years. It is a derivative of basketball, played mainly by women. But I was not familiar with Korfball, which originated in the Netherlands and is similar to basketball, but certainly not the same. First, the teams are composed of both 4 men and 4 women. Second, you can score from all angles around the basket. Third, there is no dribbling, and fourth, you can’t shoot the ball if someone is defending you. Watch this primer for details.
Orienteering is new to me, but then again, I was never in the Boy Scouts. Orienteering is a category of events that require the use of navigational skills, primarily with the use of a map and compass. Most are on foot, but some are under water, or in cars or boats. Think The Amazing Race, without all the cameras. The video gives you an idea of what this activity is like.
DanceSport is essentially competitive ballroom dancing, which is popular in Japan. The 2004 movie “Shall We Dance” with Richard Gere and Jeffifer Lopex is a re-make of the 1996 Japanese film of the same name. A film that you may know that focuses on the competitive side of dance (with a smattering of American football) is “Silver Linings Playbook” with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro.
And then there’s Bridge and Chess, what most people refer to as games as opposed to sports. I used to play chess a lot, since I grew up in the days of Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. And while I won second place in a chess tournament when I was 13, I would never experience the mentally and physically draining levels of tension that world-class chess masters go through. Still, is it a sport?
On Sunday, May 1, during the long break in Japan known as Golden Week, I took a short bicycle ride to Komazawa Olympic Park, and walk where 1964 Olympians walked. The Park is a collection of venues: Komazawa Gymnasium where Japan won 5 of 16 total gold medals just in wrestling, Komazawa Hockey Field where India beat Pakistan in a memorable finals between two field hockey blood rivals, Komazawa Stadium where soccer preliminary matches were played, and Komazawa Volleyball Courts where Japan’s famed women’s volleyball team mowed through the competition until they won gold at a different venue.
On that day, thousands of people were enjoying unseasonably warm weather under clear, blue skies. The tracks around the park were filled with runners. The gymnasium was hosting a local table tennis tournament, and the stadium was prepping for the third day of the four-day Tokyo U-14 International Youth Football Tournament.
In the plaza between the various Komazawa venues, hundreds were enjoying the weather with great food and drink. I was pleasantly surprised to find draft Seattle Pike IPA. While enjoying the cold beer on the hot day, surrounded by hundreds of people loving the day, I realized that Japan in the 1960s made great decisions in planning for the 1964 Olympics. I had a similar revelation earlier when I visited the National Gymnasium months earlier. So much of what was built for those Summer Games are a part of the everyday life of the Japanese.
Japan built a fantastic legacy for 1964. What legacy will Japan begin in 2020?