Sohn Kee-Chung on the podium after winning the marathon at the 1936 Olympic Games.
Sohn Kee-Chung on the podium after winning the marathon at the 1936 Olympic Games.

He was 73 years old at the time, carrying the heavy burden of the Olympic torch as well as the shame of 1936, and yet he bounded into the Olympic Stadium, hopping and waving his arms to the crowd, overjoyed to be a part of the Opening Ceremonies of the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

Sohn Kee-chung deserved the honor. After all, he had won the gold medal in the premier athletics event, the marathon, in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. But he did not race as a Korean. Instead, he ran as a member of the Japanese Olympic team. In May of 1910, Japan had overpowered the rulers of Korea and made that country its protectorate. When Sohn was born in 1914, hundreds of thousands of Japanese had already moved to the Korean colony, ostensibly to increase Japanese claim to the territory, as well as ease population and food stress in Japan.

Sohn eventually grew into a fine runner, setting the world record in the marathon in Tokyo in November, 1935, a record that lasted for 12 years. The Japanese were eager to do well in the medal count in Berlin, so they sent Sohn and a fellow Korean named Nam Sung-yong to Berlin. And Sohn delivered, winning gold, with his teammate Nam taking bronze. Sohn’s victory, so dramatic, was featured in Leni Reifenstahl’s famed documentary on the Berlin Games. The Japanese national team was of course overjoyed. But nothing burned Sohn more than to look up, tired and victorious at the end of a grueling race, and not see his name on the scoreboard.

Sohn Kee-chung running under the Japanese flag as Kitei Son, from the book "A Picture History of the Olympics"
Sohn Kee-chung running under the Japanese flag as Kitei Son, from the book “A Picture History of the Olympics”

Up came the name Son Kitei, the Japanized version of the characters in his name. And next to that name was the name of the country Japan. The photo at the top of this post shows the shame of the two Koreans who stood on the podium listening to the Japanese national anthem. As you can see in the picture, the heads of the two Koreans are bowed, ashamed of the

Fans remained inside the Stade de France after the soccer game between France and Germany amid confusion caused by the attacks in the area. Credit Christophe Ena/Associated Press
Fans remained inside the Stade de France after the soccer game between France and Germany amid confusion caused by the attacks in the area. Credit Christophe Ena/Associated Press

A suicide bomber, who had a ticket to the football match between France and Germany at the Stade de France on the evening of Friday the 13th, was denied entry to the stadium after a frisk search. Moments later, he detonated his bomb, one of three to go off outside the stadium in Paris where the Prime Minister of France sat as a spectator. On a most unfortunate day, that perhaps was a bit of fortune.

Inside the stadium, according to this New York Times report, the game went on.

The coaches for both national teams decided not to inform their respective teams about the horrifying occurrences taking place nearby, probably because the events were just unfolding and they were unclear regarding the extent of the violence in Paris. When added to poor cell reception due to the concentration of people at the football game, and possibly also the increased data traffic as a result of the terrorist attacks, people on the pitch and the stands remained in enough of a fog to allow their focus to stay on the game.

The beginning of the New York Times video demonstrates the confusion at the stadium.

NY Times Video on Paris Attack

France won the game on a late goal. By that time, the reality of the terrorist attacks had become clearer and the players were informed. But as the NY Times reported, the atmosphere during the game was surreal. “It was so weird,” said Cyril Olivès-Berthet, who was covering the match for the French sports newspaper L’Équipe. “The players were running and doing their game, and the fans were chanting their normal chants, ‘Aux Armes, Aux Armes,’ a typical chant that is a warrior thing about taking arms and going to war. When France scored the second goal late in the game, they all waved their flags and the players celebrated like they always do.”

It can be debated endlessly whether the coaches made the right choices to inform the players, or whether officials made the right choice to allow the game to continue. That is not important. Showing strength in the face of adversity, effectiveness in uncovering the culprits, and wisdom in decisions related to retaliation or reaction – that is important.

My thoughts go out to all impacted by the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Milkha Singh
Milkha Singh

The newspapers called him “The Flying Sikh”. On top of that, the sprinter from India was sporting unusually a beard and a topknot on his head.

Most significantly, Milkha Singh was fast!

It was the finals of the 400-meter race at the 1960 Rome Olympics, and the international press gave Singh a chance at being a rare track and field champion from Asia, certainly the first from the newly independent nation, India. As David Maraniss describes in his book Rome 1960, Singh burst out of the blocks in lane 5 in the finals of the 400 meter race in the 1960 Olympics, keeping pace with South African Malcolm Spence in lane 3. Halfway through the race, Singh very much had a chance at gold.

But as they entered the second half of the race, American Otis Davis and German Carl Kaufmann began to emerge from the middle, and surge to the front. They pulled away from Milkha and Spence. At the end, Davis barely edged out Kaufmann. And despite a desperate push, Singh could not wrestle the bronze from Spence.

It was fourth place for Singh, finishing out of the medal, but entering into the consciousness of Indians, a symbol not of failure or misfortune, but of how hard work can take an Indian to world-class levels.

And in the scheme of things, Singh’s life experiences as a child pale in the face of the challenges he faced in Rome. When the British Indian Empire fell, and the state of Pakistan was split off from India, primarily to create separation between Hindu and Muslim populations. The so-called partition, a mass migration of Muslims into Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs into India, was a time of tragedy, when neighbor set upon neighbor, when families were split, and people were murdered depending on what religious beliefs they were believed to hold.

Milkha Singh witnessed this first hand in his home, which was located in the nation that became Pakistan. Driven from his town, his family joined the migration. Inevitably, the family encountered the hatred head on, and Milkha witnessed the deaths of his parents and his siblings. An orphan, separated by surviving family members, Milkha made his way across the border into India.

Soon after the Rome Olympics, when Singh returned to India a star, he was asked by the Indian government to participate in a track competition in Pakistan. And Singh refused. It is the kind of script that could only appear in a movie. And of course, this was the dramatic finish to the 2013 movie, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (“Run Milkha Run”), starring Farhan Akhtar, who does actually look like Milkha Singh in his youth (although far more muscular).

In the end, the prime minister of India appeals to Milka Singh’s responsibility as a soldier of India to defend his country’s honor at this track meet in Pakistan. In reality, very little time has passed since the Partition. Milka Singh did indeed run, as the film would have you believe, from the ghosts of his past, from his Pakistani rival, Abdul Khaliq, and find, perhaps, a peace within himself.

Singh would go on to compete. He appeared in Tokyo at the 1964 Summer Games, running in the 4×400 Relay, but unable to help his team beyond the heats. He was apparently an inspiration to the British champion, Ann Packer, whom he greeted with warm confidence before the 1,500 meter finals, telling her she would win, and she did. More importantly, Singh continues to inspire and make an impact. While he reportedly sold the film rights to his story for one rupee, he stipulated that a share of the profits would be given to the Milkha Singh Charitable Trust, which assists poor and needy sportspeople.

Here is the final scene from the Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra film, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag in which Singh triumphs in Pakistan.

High Jump, John Thomas, Lands in Sawdust after Successful 2-Meter Bar Jump, at Olympics - Allposters.com 
High Jump, John Thomas, Lands in Sawdust after Successful 2-Meter Bar Jump, at Olympics – Allposters.com

He lost to two Russians in 1960. And then he fell to a Russian again in 1964.

John Thomas from Boston was a favorite to win the high jump in Tokyo, but could not meet the heightened expectations of a country. Thomas and the gold medalist, Valery Brumel, both cleared a height of 2.18 meters, but neither could clear 2.20 meters. Due to the way high jumping is scored, Brumel had fewer attempts than Thomas on an earlier jump, so won the gold on a tie-breaker.

As he told Stars and Stripes, “I think I did a good job. I wasn’t outjumped. I don’t know how close I came to clearing the bar on that last try. Everyone said I was close, but I don’t know. I felt something hit…it just wasn’t good enough this time.”

Thomas also revealed that he would return home and have an operation on a hernia, a condition that had been identified earlier in the year. But nothing hurt him more than what he perceived as a bitter public and press. In a press conference the day prior to the finals,

“I don’t care what the people think,” the AP quoted him as saying “I am on my own. I can’t trust fans and supposed well-wishers any more. They are fickle and vacillating. If I win, they’re with me. If I lose, they’re the first to desert me and call me a bum. They have no use for losers. They don’t give credit to a man for trying. They have appreciation only for the champion the man who finishes first. I felt proud at getting a bronze medal. But everybody else thought I was a goat. People who had been slapping me on the back ignored me as if I had the plague. I was called a quitter, a man with no heart. It left me sick.”

John Thomas_podium_Tokyo

His rival, Brumel, felt that Thomas was treated unfairly, telling Sports Illustrated that the jumper from Boston faced a “torrent of abuse”.

CARTOON: Indonesia Withdraws from Tokyo Olympics, Warta Bhakti- 10 October 1964, p1
CARTOON: Indonesia Withdraws from Tokyo Olympics, Warta Bhakti- 10 October 1964, p1

The day before the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games, North Korea and Indonesia decided to boycott the Games. This decision was expected by many as the previous months had seen conflict between Indonesia and major international sports governing bodies.

Indonesia had hosted a regional sporting event called the Asian Games in 1962, refusing entry of athletes from Israel and Taiwan. As a result, The IOC (symbolized by IOC president Avery Brundage in the cartoons) suspended Indonesia, the first time they had ever done so. In reaction to that, Indonesia organized the GANEFO Games, “The Games of the New Emerging Forces”, which explicitly stated that politics and sports were intertwined.

CARTOON: Just wait until it collapses, Warta Bhakti- 26 September 1964
CARTOON: Just wait until it collapses, Warta Bhakti- 26 September 1964

As the time got closer and closer to October 1964, Indonesia was getting impatient to receive formal indication from the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee (TOOC) that they would be allowed to participate in the Tokyo Olympics. Indonesia actually was invited to the Olympic Games, but were told by the IOC and TOOC as well as the international governing boards of swimming (FINA) and athletics (IAAF), that athletes who participated in the GANEFO Games could not participate in the Olympics.

CARTOON: We are Not Begging Tokyo, Warta Bhakti - 5 July 1964
CARTOON: We are Not Begging Tokyo, Warta Bhakti – 5 July 1964

On October 9, both North Korea and Indonesia decided to pull their entire teams out of Japan.

While it must have been an incredible disappointment to Indonesian athletes in Tokyo then told to return home on the eve of the Olympics, the press in Jakarta made it clear that the boycott was the right decision. The anti-IOC, anti-Western, anti-colonial backlash was

Japan Times, October 26, 1964
Japan Times, October 26, 1964

Indonesia and North Korea pulled out of the 1964 Olympics. The Vietnam War was raging a few thousand kilometers away. China tested its first atomic bomb. Lyndon Johnson was facing off against Barry Goldwater in a testy US presidential campaign. The Soviets launched the first three-man spaceship. The Warren Report on the Kennedy assassination was released.

Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda
Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda

On top of it all, in October, 1964, on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics, the health of the prime minister of Japan was teetering.

In the first week of October, it was reported that Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda had a throat condition and might not be able to attend the opening ceremonies. Fortunately, when the Games opened on October 10, the prime minister was able to preside over the Games.

Ikeda became prime minister of Japan in 1960 as the famed Japanese economic miracle really began to gain steam. In addition to building pension and health insurance schemes for the country, Ikeda created a vision of doubling the income of the Japanese by the end of the decade. Akin to Kennedy’s moonshot vision, Ikeda captured the imagination of the country, and continued to preach that Japan’s economic success was just getting started.

When the Olympic Games ended on October 24, the flame extinguished and the word “Sayonora” flashing on the large National Stadium screen, Japan was universally recognized for having emerged as a legitimate success story, from an Asian nation that re-built itself from the rubble of war to a powerful force in the global economy. Hayato Ikeda, who was born in Hiroshima a year before the turn of the century, was able to witness this as the leader of the country.

And then a day later, on October 25, he announced his resignation. The tumor in his throat was simply not going to allow him to continue as leader. He was hospitalized for three months, had an operation in August, 1965, and then passed away on August 13, 1965.

As Wikipedia notes, a leading economic historian described Ikeda as “the single most important figure in Japan’s rapid growth. He should long be remembered as the man who pulled together a national consensus for economic growth.”

John F. Kennedy and Hayato Ikeda
John F. Kennedy and Hayato Ikeda, from the JFK Library
Jesse Owens at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, from the book
Jesse Owens at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, from the book “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha”

It’s hard to believe, but there has never been a major film on Jesse Owens. Eighty years after Owens’ monumental achievements at the Berlin Summer Games in 1936, the film, Race, will be coming to a theater near you.

During the Tokyo Summer Games fifty one years ago, Owens was asked to write a daily column for the Newark Star Ledger offering his memories from the Berlin Games, as well as his thoughts on the athletes and events of the 1964 Games. In his October 11, 1964 column, he wrote about a moment when he felt the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“Forget the competition. Run your own race. Don’t look at the people who’re watching you. Just do your best and be satisfied, win or lose. I always followed that creed too, and I think it helped me to become a better athlete and a better man. I always followed it – except once. That one I didn’t compete just as Jesse Owens, or just me as an American. That one day I ran as a Negro.”

Jesse Owens went on to write how he was feeling the pressure of representing his race, and fouled in his first two attempts at the long jump trials. Then a reporter asked Owens if he thought the German refs were purposely calling foul and how Hitler was reported to have bad mouthed Owens.

“Since that day, I’ve told thousands of boys that I just turned the other cheek – and that that’s what they should do when those things come up. But that day, that minute, I really couldn’t forget it. Not just as a Negro, but as a human being, it hurt me in that place you can’t put medicine.”

That’s when the athlete from Oakville, Alabama decided to draw a line in the sand…literally. In order to ensure that he didn’t foul, Owens marked a line a foot before the launching point, and easily won the trial, which helped Owens to continue his journey to gold and Olympic glory.

Below is the trailer for Race. This highly anticipated film is scheduled for release on February 19, 2016. When it does, don’t walk…race to your local theater.

Igor Ter-Ovanesyan in 1964
Igor Ter-Ovanesyan in 1964

In 1964, there was an expectation that athletes would defect. It was the time of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, George Smiley and James Bond. The Cold War was real, and spooks were everywhere. According to a Sports Illustrated article from November 2, 1964, though, rumors were often just rumors.

In the Olympic Village, sportswriters had recurrent visions of Soviet athletes popping over the back fence and dashing for the U.S. Embassy. One report got around that Broad Jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan was practically under house arrest. The truth was that if concern was rampant among Soviet worriers over life in post-Khrushchev Russia, there was no panic and defections were not likely. Ter-Ovanesyan seemed to have complete freedom of movement and freedom of speech.

It wasn’t just 1964 that people thought Ter-Ovanesyan was susceptible to defecting. There was an actual attempt to do so in 1960. At those Games in Rome, American sprinter, David Sime, was in the running for a medal, if not the gold medal, in the 100 meters. Sime (sounds like “rim”) was pulled into the spy vortex, and was recruited by the US government to assist in persuading an athlete from the Soviet Union for defection. The mark was Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, a 22-year old at the time, who appeared to have a Western flair and a love for things Americana. He self-taught himself English. He listened to jazz. And his idol was Jesse Owens.

According to David Maraniss’ fascinating account in his book Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, Sime approached Ter-Ovanesyan on the track during a practice. They talked. They liked each other. They agreed to meet again for dinner. When they met for dinner, they talked about Ter-Ovanesyan’s life in the Soviet Union, which he claimed was pretty good: “In the Soviet Union, he was taken care of; he had an apartment, a car, a teaching slot at the sports university. ‘And they give me a lot if I win a medal here,’ he said. Sime said he did not know what the United States could offer, except freedom, maybe set up him up as a track star out in sunny California, out near the film stars and beautiful people and fast cars.”

David Same, Armin Hary and Peter Radford - silver, gold and bronze medalists in the 100 meter race in Rome 1960.
David Sime, Armin Hary and Peter Radford – silver, gold and bronze medalists in the 100 meter race in Rome 1960.

In other words, was Ter-Ovanesyan really looking to defect? Well,

Chief Priestess, Aleca Katselli igniting the Sacred Olympic Flame at the Temple of Zeus, from the book,
Chief Priestess, Aleca Katselli igniting the Sacred Olympic Flame at the Temple of Zeus, from the book, “Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency”

On August 21, 1964. the Priestesses of the ancient Temple of Zeus in Athens lit the Sacred Olympic Flame in a bowl using the rays of the sun. The torch was then transported to the site of the Ancient Olympics, where King Constantine II of Greece waited for it with IOC President Avery Brundage and Daigoro Yasukawa, President of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. Chief Priestess, Aleca Katselli lit the Olympic Torch from the sacred flame, handing it to the King, who handed it to the first runner, George Marcellos, who was the Greek 110-yard hurdle champion. And off he went, initiating the torch on a multi-country, multi-continent relay ending in the National Stadium in Tokyo.

Greek hurdler, George Marcello, takes the first leg of the Torch Relay, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency.
Greek hurdler, George Marcello, takes the first leg of the Torch Relay, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency.

There is no other way to describe this ceremony – except that it feels Olympian.

This ceremony, wrapped in myth and ceremony, actually emerged out of Nazi Germany. Joseph Goebbels, who was Adolph Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda from 1933, saw the 1936 Berlin Olympics as an opportunity to legitimize the German way in the eyes of the world, that life with Germany, under Germany, was good and glorious. And so Goebbels formed an organizing committee inside his propaganda ministry with the mission to extract, as Daniel Brown wrote in his brilliant book, Boys in the Boat, “the maximum propaganda from the games. No opportunity was to be overlooked, nothing taken for granted.”

Brown went on to write, “at one of those meetings, one of Goebbels’ ministers proposed an entirely new idea – a potent bit of imagery designed to underscore what the Third Reich saw as its ancestral roots in ancient Greece – a torch relay to carry a flame from Olympia in Greece all the way to Berlin.”

And so since 1936, the Olympic Torch Relay has been a permanent fixture in the ritual of the Olympic Games.

See this short clip of

Stars and Stripes Front Page_October 7, 1964
Stars and Stripes Front Page_October 7, 1964

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, East and West Germany competed as one team, under a single flag, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Ode to Joy) their national anthem. But the unity of the “German” team was more of a mirage, as geopolitical realities extended Cold War distance to the athletes.

At the time, the Iron Curtain was a philosophical metaphor for the Cold War, but the Berlin Wall that separated East and West Berlin was a very real barrier. Only three days before the opening of the 1964 Olympic Games, it was reported that 57 people had successfully escaped from East to West Berlin through a tunnel dug under the wall. As was written in the AP report, “it was believed to be one of the biggest mass escapes since the Red Wall was erected in the summer of 1961.”

During the existence of the Wall, from 1961 to 1989, around 5,000 people escaped in a variety of ways – balloons, tightrope, and tunnels. The 57 who escaped made it through what is now known as “Tunnel 57”.

A civil engineering student in East Berlin named Joachim Neumann was able to sneak past border guards to West Berlin posing as a Swiss student in 1961. And while Neumann continued his studies in West Berlin, he also began to apply his learnings to the building of tunnels under the Wall.

Neumann’s first project was on a team building a tunnel in 1962, resulting in the successful escape of 29 people over two days, September 14 and 15. Neumann had a girlfriend in East Berlin, but was unable to inform her in time of the day of escape. But Tunnel 29, as it is now known, was Neumann’s realization that he would have other opportunities to bring his girlfriend to freedom.

Unfortunately, the next attempt to build a tunnel ended in calamity as the East German secret police uncovered the existence of the tunnel under progress. One of the people arrested was Neumann’s girlfriend, Christina, who was held for 8 months before being sentenced to two years in prison.

Joachim and Christina Neumann
Joachim and Christina Neumann

And Neumann continued to work on tunnel projects from the West Berlin side, including an excavation from April to October in 1964, the very one cited in the AP article above. Here is how the site, Berlin Wall Memorial, tells the rest of the story.

The escape operation was supposed to begin on October 3, 1964. But Joachim Neumann had to take an exam that day. When he returned to his apartment, he found a letter from his girlfriend. She wrote that she had been released early from prison and was back in Berlin. Joachim Neumann had to be at the opening to the tunnel in three hours and wasn’t able to find a courier on such short notice. He asked his friend to help and rushed to Bernauer Strasse. It was his job to greet the people escaping on the East Berlin side. It was quite late when his girlfriend appeared before him. She was one of 57 people who