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,

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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

the narrow road to the deep north cover

An Olympian I interviewed told me about a time he returned from the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and gave a talk at a Rotary Club. He spoke about how wonderful the experience was, and how friendly and helpful the Japanese were. The Olympian’s father who was at the presentation had a friend who remembered the Japanese differently, and resented the Olympian’s talk.

1964 was only a couple of decades removed from World War II. For those who served in the Pacific War on either side, atrocities were the product of everyday life, particularly in the latter years of the war.

A book I am currently reading, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North“, tells the story of an Australian POW, Dorrigo Evans, who worked on the infamous “Line”, the construction of the Burma Railway. Hundreds of thousands of slave labor, made up of PoWs and captive Asian civilian labor, perished in the effort.

This Man Booker Award winning novel by Richard Flanagan is extraordinary in its descriptions of the human psyche, not only from the hero’s survivor complex to the sword-wielding, poetry-citing slave-driving commander.

Dorrigo Evans is the surviving protagonist of the novel, and I was struck by this reference to fleeting nature of life and beauty. He and his lover Amy are lying on the beach, an idyllic time prior to the horrors that awaited months later.

Dorrigo held his arm up to the white-streaked sky and thought he had never seen anything so perfect. He closed one eye and with his other watched his finger touch the beauty of a cloud.

Why don’t we remember clouds? He said.

Because they don’t mean anything.

And yet they’re everything, thought Dorrigo, but this idea was too vast or absurd to hold or even care about, and he let it drift past him with the cloud.

Is it reference to Basho? This was one of

It’s corny. It’s unrealistic. It’s moving nonetheless.

It’s August 18, 1945, three days after the Emperor of Japan has declared the war over, and for all to endure the unendurable. The Japanese troops are hiding from the British in a village in Burma. But to show appreciation for a meal and a place to stay, the Japanese sing songs for their Burmese hosts.

At 6’15 of this clip from the 1985 film, “The Burmese Harp” (ビルマの竪琴), the Japanese soldiers go silent and tense up when they hear the approach of other men. Are they British soldiers? Are they Japanese? The oncoming men are singing. It’s “Home Sweet Home” (埴生の宿), a song they know. And it hits them…the song is being sung in English, and the enemy is coming their way.

burmese harp 1985The soldier and hero of the film is named Private Mizushima, who is holding his harp as his fellow brothers in arms wait anxiously. So what does Mizushima do? He begins to play his harp, accompanying the singing of the British soldiers.

His brothers soon join in. Highly unrealistic and yet wondrous in its effect, they are enemies in the night, blending in English and Japanese, harmonizing in spirit, and feeling intensely that there indeed is no place like home.

The director of “The Burmese Harp” is Ichikawa Kon, the same director of the groundbreaking film called “The Tokyo Olympiad”. The film clip is from a re-make Ichikawa did of his own 1956 version in black and white. There are no subtitles in this clip, but you’ll get the gist.

On this day – August 15 – 70 years ago, the Japanese surrendered and the Pacific War ended

Team picture of 1964  US Judo Team from DC Judo; from left to right: Paul Maruyama, Jim Bregman, George Harris, Ben Nighthorse Campbell)
Team picture of 1964 US Judo Team from DC Judo; from left to right: Paul Maruyama, Jim Bregman, George Harris, Ben Nighthorse Campbell

Paul Maruyama grew up in Tokyo with three other brothers who were always fighting each other. His mother, a Seattle-born Nisei, was fed up and said, “if you’re going to fight, then fight at the dojo.” She dragged the brothers to a neighborhood judo dojo, where the brothers all started their journey to black belt. For Paul, his journey would continue as member of the US Judo Olympic team in 1964, and Head Coach of the 1980 and 1984 US Judo Olympic Teams.

Competing at the Olympic level is a challenge. But Paul Maruyama readily acknowledges that his efforts and accomplishment pale in comparison to those of his father.

After the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria, where the Japanese had a significant colonial population. The Soviet army captured Japanese Imperial Army soldiers and sent them to labor camps in Siberia, while non-combatant Japanese who were in many cases pioneer families who volunteered to cultivate farmlands in Manchuria, were trapped on the Asian continent, denied exit by the Soviet Union.

Maruyama’s father, Kunio Maruyama, had made his way to Japan with two other men, Hachiro Shinpo and Masamichi Musashi. As Paul Maruyama describes in his book, Escape from Manchuria, the three men maneuvered covertly out of Manchuria. They were on a mission to inform the government in Japan that some 1.5 to 1.7 million Japanese were unable to leave the former Japanese colony, where thousands were dying daily due to disease and starvation, as well as at the hands of Soviet soldiers, and revenge-seeking Chinese and Manchurian mobs.

Escape from Manchuria coverThe three then had to convince the head of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), General Douglas MacArthur, that an urgent rescue was needed. It took over two years, but by August 1948, three years after the end of the second world war, American warships had repatriated over a million Japanese. So many more remained – children abandoned or taken in by Chinese families, Japanese women married to Chinese and their children who were not considered Japanese citizens, as well as men who were imprisoned in Siberia.

What a legacy! Think about it. The greatest growth in Japan’s

From the book
From the book “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha 1”

The British influence on India has not been insignificant. From the mid-19th to mid-20th century, the British introduced the railway system, the legal system, the English language, and sports like cricket and field hockey. In fact, while India was under British rule, India was the dominant force in field hockey, winning gold at the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Olympics.

In 1947, India gained independence, although parts of the country were parsed off to create the dominion of Pakistan. This “partition” resulted in mass migrations of Muslims into Pakistan as well as Hindis and Sikhs into India. These migrations were traumatic for the tens of millions of people who were uprooted. And as you can imagine, the players on the Pakistan field hockey team had played on previous India championship teams, and knew their counterparts on the Indian team intimately.

And yet, after the partition, India continued to dominate, winning gold in 1948, 1952 and 1956. But Pakistan was getting closer, losing 1-0 to India in the finals in the 1956 Melbourne Games. In Rome, Pakistan did what Indians feared, finally winning gold in Rome.

So the stage was set in Tokyo for a re-match of the two field hockey powers. “The tension was there as many of the players had migrated during the partition, many of them joining the other side,” Gurbux Singh, a full-back on the 1964 India team told me. “We lost for the first time in 1960, and we lost to Pakistan again in the finals of the Asian Games in 1962. It was so emotional as the whole country wanted us to win.”

And win they did. 1-0.

Many of the 2,000 attendees of the finals match at Komazawa Hockey Stadium poured onto the pitch, embracing the players from India, and breaking into spontaneous dance. The weight of an entire nation off their shoulders, the team stood proud listening to their nation’s anthem at the medal ceremony. “Tears came to my eyes when the Indian flag rose,” he said.

“In India, the reaction was great,” said center-forward Harbinder Singh, another member of that gold-medal winning team. “When our airplane arrived in India, people came on the runway. They were beating drums. A lot of people entered the plane and lifted us on their shoulders. And then there were big crowds and processions, people throwing garlands and flowers, dancing in front of our cars.”

“I really felt we did something for our country and ourselves,” reflected Gurbux Singh. “This is the greatest thing an athlete can do.”

From the Hindu Photo Library
From the Hindu Photo Library
New York Times, October 16, 1964
New York Times, October 16, 1964

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was at the height of his influence and powers in 1960. At the kickoff of the Olympic Summer Games in Rome, he released a letter to all Olympians that grew feelings of good will towards the Soviet Union.

Rome 1960_MaranissAs David Maraniss wrote in his brilliant book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, “Khrushchev’s message was meant not just for the Soviets but for all athletes gathered in Rome, even if it was boilerplate Soviet rhetoric… ‘The Olympic Games were worthy because they improved brotherly contact among sportsmen of different countries,’ he noted, concluding: ‘I wish all sportsmen taking part the best success in sports as well as in work, studies, and their private lives.’”

Maraniss emphasized that “American diplomats had been frustrated for days by the seeming propaganda coup the Soviets gained when newspapers around the world reported on the message of peace and friendship that Premier Khrushchev sent to the Olympians in Rome.”

Khruschev, in the summer of 1960, was heading to New York City to address the United Nations, and he was at the top of his game.

But four years later, at the end of the first week of the Tokyo Summer Games, the world learned that one of the most powerful men in the world was deposed. As Ron Barak, US gymnast at the 1964 Games related to me, it was all a bit of a mystery.

“The day in the Village began like any other day during that two-week period. Then people began noticing the Soviets were gone. No one had witnessed their departure and until they returned late in the day, no one knew what was behind it. But there

Japan Times, October 17, 1964
Japan Times, October 17, 1964

Communist China didn’t enter the Olympics until 1984 in Los Angeles, but they entered the nuclear race 20 years earlier in Olympic fashion.

The Tokyo Games began on October 10, 1964. Six days into the competition, on Friday, October 16, China exploded an atomic bomb. While the Chinese government released a statement promising never to be the first to use a nuclear weapon, this atomic test did not diminish the shock and fear that reverberated globally. On top of that, Japan being relatively close to mainland China, there were immediate concerns of radiation fall out in Japan.china's atomic bomb test

The ability for high performance athletes to focus is

tamara press_tokyo 1964
Tamara Press – The Olympic Century XVIII Olympiad

Tamara Press was a phenomenon, winning gold in the shot put and discus in Rome, as well as gold in the shot put in Tokyo. She was a large woman, and as American gymnast, Ron Barak, told me in an interview, a hulking woman, fortunately with an equally hulking sense of humor.

“I was in line one day in the Olympic Village cafeteria, and right behind me, Tamara Press was waiting in line with a couple of Soviet teammates. My wife, who was fairly tiny, came rushing in. US officials had given wives of the gymnastic teams sweat suits so they could get in and out of the village. Barbie was coming to meet me for lunch, and was a bit late. She spotted me and hurried over. Focused on me, she somehow didn’t see Tamara, and butted right in front of her.”

Ron Barak 1
USA gymnast, Ron Barak

“Well, Tamara Press is a very nice person. She comes up to her from behind, grabs her elbows gently and firmly and bench presses my wife above her 6 foot frame, holding her high up like a piece of lumber. Her head was pointed to the ceiling and her back was pointed to the ground. Tamara proceeded to spin her in a revolution above her head, before finally putting her down behind Tamara in line. Barbie’s eyes were wide open in shock.”

“Because I saw Tamara smiling,