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

Tommy Kono Iron Man cover

One of the greatest weightlifters the world has ever seen started his career in an internment camp during World War II.

Tommy Kono, the only Olympic weightlifter to have set world records in four different weight classes, won gold in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, gold in the 1956 Melbourne Games, as well as silver in Rome in 1960.

But at the age of 12, Kono and his family were removed from their home in Japanese Alley in Sacramento, California, and relocated to Tule Lake Segregation Center, which is at the northern-most part of California, near the Oregon border.

Kono and his family were assigned to Tule Lake because of geographically proximity to Sacramento. But of the ten concentration camps designated to hold over 110,000 Japanese or American of Japanese ancestry upon enactment of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Tule Lake was the maximum-security camp that came to house those considered most disloyal or disruptive. (The order was issued exactly 74 years ago on February 20, 1942.)

Little Tommy Kono, skinny, terribly shy, and sickly due to asthma, had to grow up in a camp that housed the most disruptive inmates in a facility that was overpopulated, unsanitary and squalid.

Strangely enough, it may have been the best thing to happen to him personally.

Tommy KonoPhoto by Y Ishii Jan 19 1957
Tommy Kono Photo by Y Ishii Jan 19 1957

Tule Lake is high above sea level, and as Kono told me, “it was a dried up lake, where no bushes or trees would grow.”For the first time, Kono could breathe free and easy, and enjoyed good health for the first time in a long time.

At the age of 11, Kono was 4 ft 8 and a half inches tall and weighed 74 and a half pounds. In other words, he was scrawny. But his friends in the camp were weight training enthusiasts, and as this article explains, they “gave him a fifteen-pound barbell and the advice, ‘It’s good for you, keep lifting it up, lots of times.'”

Weight training was an activity he could do to improve his health, see measurable results, and feel good about himself. Kono told me this was the positive side, the meritocratic side of camp life for him. “There was nothing there (to distract me). No stuff hindering me. You have to understand when you’re in Tule camp you are like everybody else. I got to be in pretty good shape.”

After World War II ended, Kono and his family were not compelled to go to Japan. Kono went back to high school in Sacramento, continued his weight training at a local YMCA until he was drafted into the US Army. So despite the fact that his loyalty was questioned only 8 years earlier, he was considered loyal enough to join the US military in 1950. That was when the Korean War was raging. Kono was targeted to be a cook in South Korea in support of the troops. He had heard that North Korean snipers were targeting cooks in particular – the logic being that if the cook went down, so too would morale.

Fortunately, Kono was breaking California weightlifting records and winning tournaments. When the US Army found out Kono was a really good weightlifter, they decided to move him to safer grounds where he could train for a possible spot on the US team in Helsinki.

Kono had come a long way. He told me that he had difficulty explaining what it was like to lift 300 pounds to a layman in the street. To show how strong he was, he instead would take a hot water bottle (those thick red rubbery things that kept you warm when you were sick as a child) and blow them up. “I blew up hot water bottles with my mouth. First they’re red, then it becomes pink, then white, until it finally bursts!”

This from a boy who had trouble breathing in asthmatic fits.

Kono admits to having an inferiority complex as a teenager, being so small and sickly. And not only did weightlifting improve his health and strength, it introduced him to the world of body building. Kono not only was an Olympic champion, but he was also a body builder champion, who won three Mr Universe titles in 1955, 1957 and 1961. A young Arnold Schwarzenegger considered Kono a role model.

“In Europe, everybody lifts weights.” Kono told me. “It’s a common thing. Arnold was a weightlifter living on the outskirts of Vienna. He saw me in 1961. He was 13 years old. He decided that ‘if that little guy can win Mr. Universe, I could do that too.’ He started training hard, he won Junior Mister World, and eventually he won the big one.”

Kono Schwarzenegger

Tommy Kono passed away April 24, 2016.

Yamanaka Rose and Breen
1,500 meter winners: Tsuyoshi Yamanaka, Murray Rose and George Breen

What was it like?

It’s December 7, 1956 – 15 years to the day that Japan infamously entered World War II by declaring war on the Allies by bombing Pearl Harbor, and executing a series of simultaneous attacks on Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Malaya.

Japanese swimmer Tsuyoshi Yamanaka is stepping up to the edge of the pool, readying himself for the 1,500 meter race against world record holders, American George Breen, and Australian Murray Rose. All three were born prior to the beginning of World War II, and all grew up listening to the propaganda of their respective countries during the war years.

But Yamanaka was in Australia. And while Australian attitudes to the Japanese today are overall quite positive and respectful, my guess is that in the 1950s, the many of the physical scars of the Pacific War may have faded, but not the mental ones. Memories of Australian POWS being forced to build the Burma Railway through the jungles of Thailand among others were powerful, and likely involuntarily arose when an Aussie confronted a Japanese.

I don’t know. And perhaps, Yamanaka was oblivious, as all high performance athletes tend to be towards distractions. What we do know is that the 1,500-meter race at the Melbourne Olympics brought war enemies together in a celebration of friendship, encapsulated in a photograph after Rose took gold and Yamanaka took silver, and seen by millions around the world.

Rose and Yamanaka
Murray Rose and Tsuyoshi Yamanaka

In this documentary on Murray Rose, the famed Aussie swimmer explains the symbolism of that time and that photograph:

Murray Rose: When I was growing up, I was part of a propaganda campaign for the Australian war effort. Fast forward a few years, and I’m swimming at the Olympic Games, and my main rival and competitor is Tsuyoshi Yamanaka-san. We embraced across the lane line and a photograph of that time was taken and was picked up by newspapers all over the world. For one main reason – the date was the seventh of December, 1956, the fifteenth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. So it became symbolic of two kids who had grown up on opposite sides of the war and had come together in the friendship of the Olympic arena.

As the commentator John Clarke further explained in the video, Rose “did the Olympic Movement an enormous amount of good because it exemplified what Murray called the Olympic spirit.”

To watch Rose, Yamanaka and Breen battle it out, pick up the documentary entitled “Murray Rose – Life Is Worth Swimming” at the video below at the 21-minute mark.

Also see my post about the novel “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, a moving story of the Australian POW experience.

Rudolf Abel
Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, actual (left) and as portrayed in the film, Bridge of Spies by Mark Rylance

I recently watched Steven Spielberg’s film, Bridge of Spies. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, Spielberg needed time to tell the complicated story of how an insurance lawyer from New York ended up representing an arrested English Soviet spy living in New York, and subsequently getting in the middle of a two-front prisoner exchange negotiation in Cold War Berlin between uncertain representatives of the Soviet Union and East Germany, whose own alliance seemed strained at best.

And yet the time of the film zipped by. Tom Hanks plied his Everyman shtick to perfection as the lawyer thrust into geo-political intrigue. Mark Rylance was absolutely riveting as the captured Soviet spy, and the famed Coen brothers helped craft a narrative that was clear, and at times, witty.

One particular scene, which apparently had no basis in fact and was done for dramatic effect (effectively), made me wonder. It was a scene where Tom Hanks’ character, James Donovan, is crossing from East to West Berlin over the wall, and witnesses in horror the shooting of a would-be escapee. What must have been the feelings of West and East German athletes at the Summer Games a few years after the wall went up, especially since they had to compete as one German team? Were they happy? Antagonistic? Were they so focused that they simply didn’t notice each other?

East Germany sent no athletes to the Helsinki Games in 1952. But at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, 37 East Germans joined West Germans on a unified German team. This unified German team was identified by the country code GER, was represented by a flag with black, red and yellow stripes, centered by five white Olympic rings, and was presented gold medals using the opening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.german olympic flag

When East Germany was expected to send around 140 athletes to the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, East and West decided that it was time for both German teams to live and train together. But 15 years of political rhetoric had created a cultural rift between the two sides. For example, as David Maraniss wrote in his book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, “it was part of the daily rhetoric of East Germany to denounce West German leaders as former Nazis.” The victories of East German diver Ingrid Kramer were an inspiration to all Germans, but the rise of the Berlin Wall and geo-political tensions made a lie of the unified German team. Again, Maraniss writes,

The Berlin border closing during the Olympics had gone largely unnoticed by German athletes in Rome, but months later it took on an unavoidable physical reality when the Berlin Wall went up. Kraemer called the construction of the wall “a huge surprise…It was very cruel for many, especially the finality of it. We were all shocked, as nothing had hinted to its erection before it happened.” The wall, and the cold war tensions that followed, made a sham of Avery Brundage’s insistence that the Germans bring another unified team to the Olympics in 1964. West German sports officials refused to have anything to do with their East German counterparts after the wall went up, and fielded a combined team in Tokyo in name only, barely able to “maintain the façade of being unified,” in the words of historian Heather L. Dicther.

Read a relevant post I wrote previously, Escape from East Berlin in October 1964: A Love Story.

Armin Hary edges out David Sime in 100 meters
German Armin Hary (left) edges silver medalist David Sime third from left in the 100 meter finals at the Rome Olympic Games in 1960.

American David Sime, who lost to Germany Armin Hary in a photo finish in the 100 meters race at the 1960 Olympics, passed away on January 12. He was 79.

This obit in the New York Times is a good summary of his life, the championship runner who played baseball at Duke, and then opted to go to Duke University School of Medicine instead of playing for the Detroit Lions in the NFL.

In addition to just missing out on gold at the Rome Olympics, Sime was recruited by the CIA to encourage a Soviet athlete to defect. You can find my write up on Sime and Russian broad jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan here.

Roy_summer vacation_1967 maybe
Roy, sometime between the Tokyo and Mexico City Olympic Games.

On this, the last day of 2015, I’d like to thank everyone for their support of my blog – The Olympians. I have posted at least once every day since I started the blog on May 1. Out of about 300 posts, I’ve selected 25 that I personally like, in good part because I’ve had the great fortune to talk with the people mentioned in these stories.

  1. A Helicopter View of US-USSR Relations, Olympic Style
  2. American Gymnast Makoto Sakamoto and Memories of Home: Post-War Shinjuku
  3. Arnold Gordon (Part 1): Befriending Judy Garland at Manos in Shinjuku
  4. The Banning of Headgear in Boxing: The Convoluted World of Protecting Our Athletes
  5. Clumsy Handoff, Beautiful Result: A World Record Finish for the American 4X400 Relay Team in Tokyo
  6. Coach Hank Iba: The Iron Duke of Defense Who Led the Men’s Basketball Team to Gold in 1964
  7. Creativity by Committee: The 2020 Olympic Emblem and the Rio Olympic Mascots?
  8. Crowded, Noisy, Dirty, Impersonal: Tokyo in the 1960s
  9. The Dale McClements’ Diary: From Athlete to Activist
  10. Doug Rogers, Star of the Short Film “Judoka”: A Fascinating Look at Japan, and the Foreigner Studying Judo in the 1960s
  11. Escape from East Berlin in October 1964: A Love Story
  12. Escape from Manchuria: How the Father of an Olympian Left a Legacy Beyond Olympic Proportions
  13. Fame: Cover Girl and Canadian Figure Skater Sandra Bezic
  14. Frank Gorman: Harvard Star, Tokyo Olympian, and Now Inductee to the International Swimming Hall of Fame
  15. The Geesink Eclipse – The Day International Judo Grew Up
  16. India Beats Pakistan in Field Hockey: After the Partition, the Sporting Equivalent of War
  17. The Narrow Road to the Deep North
  18. On Being Grateful: Bob Schul
  19. Protesting Via Political Cartoons: Indonesia Boycotts the Tokyo Olympics
  20. The Sexist Sixties: A Sports Writers Version of “Mad Men” Would Make the Ad Men Blush
  21. “Swing” – The Danish Coxless Fours Found It, and Gold, in Tokyo
  22. Toby Gibson: Boxer, Lawyer, Convict
  23. Vesper Victorious Under Rockets Red Glare – A Dramatic Finish to One of America’s Greatest Rowing Accomplishments
  24. What it Means to Be an Olympian: Bill Cleary Remembers
  25. Who is that Bald-Headed Beauty: The Mystery of the Soviet Javelin Champion

 

lennon and ono
John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Today in Japan, it is December 9, but in the US, it is still December 8, the day John Lennon was murdered, the day the music died.

On the closing day of the Munich Olympics in 1972, the torch was extinguished, the lingering waves of joy of Olympic competition and camaraderie merging with countervailing waves of sadness. Eleven Israeli athletes had been killed by the hand of terrorists. According to the book, Secret Olympian: The Inside Story of the Olympic Experience, athletes left the closing ceremony and gathered in the Olympic Village. And as the athletes struggled with their mixed and roiling emotions, a song by John Lennon unified them all.

Lennon Memorial Central Park_14Dec80 #1
At the John Lennon memorial event at Central Park on December 14, 1980_photo taken by Roy Tomizawa
Following the closing ceremony, the athletes returned to the Village and converged on the discotheque. John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’ was played several times with its poignant relevance. Fencer Susie Murphy’s overriding memory of Munich was a touchingly united scene with athletes of all nations singing along to Lennon in one unified voice, arms round each other’s shoulders, in defiance of the atrocity.

Munich Massacre
West German policemen wearing sweatsuits, bullet-proof vests and armed with submachine guns, take up positions on September 5, 1972 on Olympic Village rooftops where armed Palestinians were holding Israeli team members hostage

The terrorist attacks on Paris last month are still likely jagged memories for many. I shudder to think of what could have been if the suicide bomber had successfully made her way into the Stade de France during the football match between the French and German national teams.

The singular most horrific terrorist attack in an Olympic Games are when eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and killed during the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, Germany. A Palestinian group called Black September, a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) smuggled rifles, pistols and grenades into the Olympic Village on September 5, 1972, before dawn, while athletes slept.

Details of those events have been depicted in articles, books and film. But until recently, the level of cruelty the Israeli athletes suffered had not been known, according to this New York Times article. The reporter explains that German authorities had hundreds of pages of reports depicting the 20-hours the athletes were held hostage, but until recently denied they had existed.

Israeli victims
Six of the 11 Israeli hostages killed by the Palestinian ‘Black September’ cell at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Yossef Romano, the torture victim, is top center

The families of victims were actually aware of these reports and never-released photos of the massacre since 1992. A documentary called “Munich 72 & Beyond” will be released in early 2016.

Munich-1972-Beyond

The International Olympic Committee has had a long, uneasy relationship with families of the Munich victims. According to this New York Times article, they have been lobbying the IOC for official recognition of those killed during the Munich Olympics. They are hoping that the IOC will create awareness of that day in September to the Games in August, 2016, in Rio.

In fact, progress has been made and a memorial will be built in Germany, very near the building where the Israeli athletes were taken hostage. The memorial, which will open to the public in September, 2016, is being funded by the local Bavarian government, the German federal government, as well as the IOC and the Foundation for Global Sports Development.

Perhaps progress has been due to a change in IOC leadership in 2013. The current IOC head is Thomas Bach, a German. In addition to the memorial in Germany, Bach announced there will also be a memorial erected in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games.

“We want to give the athletes the opportunity to express their mourning in a dignified way and environment in the Olympic Village where representatives of the whole world are living peacefully under the same roof,” (Bach) said. “At the Closing Ceremony, the Games come to an end and many people feel that it is a moment to remember people who have died at the Olympic Games.”

Mohammed Al-Khatib
Screen capture from Ak-Khatib’s youtube appeal.

His request was straightforward. Mohammed Al-Khatib of the State of Palestine needed funds to train in the United States so that he could represent his homeland in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The yoga and fitness instructor from Hebron has a dream – to win an Olympic medal in the 100 meters or 200 meters competition “on behalf of every Palestinian.”

As he explains in the request video below, understandably, Palestine lacks the facilities and the professional coaches all athletes need to advance to a world-class level.

But despite that, Al-Khatib has nurtured this dream of representing Palestine in Rio for the past three years, training hard after being encouraged by a US track and field coach, Crystal Dunlap, who saw him run a 10.4 second 100 meters without spikes or starting blocks. Coaches and role models are so important. In fact, Al-Khatib was inspired by two people, as he explains here: a 15-year-old Lithuanian swimmer named Ruta Meilutyte who won gold in London in 2012, as well as a Palestinian named Mohammad Assaf who won a singing contest in Arab Idol. Learn more in this great profile of Al-Khatib here

Mohammed Al-Khatib_Ash Gallagher
Palestinian yoga and fitness instructor Mohamed al-Khatib trains for track and field events in the hopes of attending the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, Nov. 18, 2015 | Ash Gallagher

Al-Khatib wanted to raise $7,850 so that he could participate in a 3-month training camp in Texas from January. In only 4 days, he reached $12,160! So yes, Al-Khatib is on his way to Texas!

You can actually continue to make contributions here – funds beyond his budget will be donated to the Jericho Youth Club’s Running Team in the West Bank.

Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove
Peter Sellers as Captain Mandrake, President Muffley and Dr Strangelove.
It was October, 1962, and Michael Dobbs wrote in his thrilling description of the Cuban Missile Crisis in his book “One Minute to Midnight“, how close the world came to mutually assured destruction.

Like Bobby, the president was now learning toward a blockade after initially favoring an air strike. His mind was still not completely made up, however. Blockade seemed the safer course, but it too carried huge risks, including a confrontation between the US and Soviet navies. After the meeting was over, he took Bobby (Kennedy) and Ted Sorenson out to the Truman Balcony of the White House, looking over the Washington Monument. “We are very, very close to war,” he told them gravely, before deflating the moment with his mordant Irish wit. “And there is not room in the White House shelter for all of us.”

The early 1960s was a time under dark clouds, threatening to become nuclear. In 1964, incumbent President Lyndon Johnson used this horrific television ad to scare people from voting for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater by suggesting that he would take us all the way to nuclear disaster. (It may have worked.)

It was in this cultural milieu that director Stanley Kubrick directed Dr Strangelove, a bizarre and critically acclaimed film about a US General who orders the launch of nuclear missiles on the Soviet Union, and the US government’s debate and attempts to bring the bombers back, and thus prevent a nuclear war.

On October 9, 1964, a day before the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Summer Games, and 8 days before China shocked the world by test exploding its first Atomic bomb, The Japan Times published a review of Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The reviewer, Mary Evans, wrote, “Though the title is long, it couldn’t be more compact. In it are allusions to the obsessions of our times and to the only escape possible – intelligent detachment. The film is brilliant, mocking, incisive, funny, horrifying. Because it is so intelligent and honest, it is also reassuring.”

George C Scott, who would go on to win an Academy Award portraying WWII hero, General George Patton, portrayed another military leader named General Buck Turgidson. But it is the amazing actor, Peter Sellers, who played three major characters in the film, Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove. Here is a clip about the so-called “Doomsday Machine”, featuring President Muffley and Dr Strangelove.