On October 23, 1964, the day before the final day of the Tokyo Olympics, two Bulgarians tied the knot in a most unique venue – in the Olympic Village. Below is an excerpt from my book, 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes, which tells the story of two Olympians, Diana Yorgova and Nikola Prodanov.

The First Ever Olympic Wedding

For all of us who fly, it’s a sinking feeling when you arrive in a foreign land and your luggage hasn’t arrived with you. Imagine if you’re an Olympic athlete, and you land without your official uniform, training gear, and other personal belongings. “I was numb with distress,” said Diana Yorgova, a long jumper from Bulgaria. Fortunately, among the Japanese welcoming the Olympians at Haneda Airport were two legendary athletes, Mikio Oda, Japan’s first ever gold medalist, who won the triple jump competition at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, and Chuhei Nambu, who also took gold in the triple jump at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

Nambu came up to Yorgova to comfort her, and told her that it would be OK, that in fact, he too had landed in Los Angeles without his luggage, and had make his first jump barefoot! She understood. But she was still unsettled. That feeling disappeared the next day.

After a sleepless night of worry and jet lag, the new day offered me a pleasant surprise: a huge parcel addressed to me containing a brand new outfit, absolutely my size from spikes and runners to training suit and, moreover, amazingly, a T-shirt with the national state emblem embroidered on it. I was stunned, deeply touched and full of admiration. I wanted to fly with joy because I knew now I was going to participate! In my thoughts I sent thousands of thanks to those Japanese who brought back my self-confidence and dignity and whom I not only didn’t even know but had unwittingly disturbed.

Yorgova would place a respectable sixth in the women’s long jump competition, her medal to come later with a second-placed finish at the 1972 Munich Games. To celebrate her strong performance in her first Olympics, Yorgova and her fiancé, Bulgarian gymnast Nikola Prodanov decided to do some very special shopping: wedding rings. They planned to hold their big day after their graduation from Sofia University on Prodanov’s birthday in May of 1965.

That same day, the couple went to visit the Bulgarian ambassador, Christo Zdravchev. When the ambassador saw the rings, he brought out a bottle of Bulgarian wine and toasted to the couple’s happy future. But then, despite the diplomatic nature of the ambassador’s job, he apparently let the cat out of the bag by informing members of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, who in turn implored the ambassador to request Prodanov and Yorgova to change their plans. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, they enthused, for the young Bulgarian couple to hold their wedding in Japan, in the Olympic Village, during the Olympic Games?

The next day, the ambassador sheepishly approached Prodanov and Yorgova with the surprising request.

“Thus our fairy tale began,” said Yorgova. “I can’t forget the attention and care with which the Japanese ladies of the beauty parlor in the Olympic Village were preparing me for the ceremony. There, for the first time in my life, I had my hair dressed and my nails polished by professionals, who also massaged my scalp and even my arms. When I saw and put on the most beautiful dress of white lace and Nikola put on the first tuxedo in his life we felt like the prince and princess of a fairy tale.”

It was October 23rd, 1964, the day before the closing ceremony. Prodanov and Yorgova were nervous and filled with mixed feelings as this impromptu wedding meant that instead of sharing the moment with families and friends in Bulgaria, they were sharing it with diplomats, administrators and athletes, as well as press from around the world.

With the civil ceremony completed at the Bulgarian Embassy, the couple then embarked on what can only be described as a most original wedding: Western Olympic Shinto.

Japanese who choose a traditional wedding take their vows before a Shinto priest. But this was something more than just a traditional wedding. Held at the Yoyogi Olympic Village International Club, Prodanov in a black morning coat and Yorgova dressed in a white lace gown and veil entered in the glare of television lights and hundreds of flashing cameras, as they came to take their places in front of the presiding priest.

Nikolai Prodanov and Diana Yorgova_Japan Times
Nikolai Prodanov and Diana Yorgova_ The Japan Times

 

 

 

The traditional Shinto arrangements of sake bottles and rice, along with photos of the Olympic cauldron and the ever-present Olympic rings forming their wedding backdrop, were reminders that they were a long way from home in Bulgaria. An interpreter stood by to explain some of the more confusing aspects of the ritual. In Yorgova’s words:

We made our oath of allegiance to the Olympic Flag and a huge poster of the Olympic Flame in the presence of outstanding athletes from all over the world, official guests and journalists. To a background of gentle Shinto music we exchanged our rings, drank three sips of sake, and cut the most magical cake of our lives. At the end, we all danced Bulgarian traditional dances “horo” and “ruchenitsa.”

If one event symbolized the Olympics’ singularly international character, this may have been it.

After the ceremony, the couple were whisked away to the brand-new bullet train to enjoy a honeymoon evening in Kyoto and return to Tokyo the next morning to participate in the closing ceremonies in the afternoon.

Fifty-three years later, Yorgova recalled that magical moment with gratefulness. “As parents and grandparents of four grandchildren, we value the great efforts of the organizers more than ever before, and we apologize most heartedly for the extra anxiety, inconvenience and problems we caused to organize our wedding on such short notice,” she said. “We lived a moment we will never forget, thanks to the kind and gentle people of Japan, so full of goodwill.”

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Team medals
The actual team medals awarded to the Japanese men’s and women’s gymnastics team for their first (left) and third (right) place finishes at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Only one medal was awarded to a gymnastics team that finished first to third.
日本語は英語の後に続きます。

Gymnast Shuji Tsurumi emerged as one of the most decorated Olympians of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, winning a gold medal for Japan in the team competition, and three silver medals in the individual all around, the pommel horse and the parallel bars.

And yet, the two-time Olympian has in his possession only the three silver medals from 1964.

Gymnast Toshiko Shirasu-Aihara held it in her hand – the bronze medal awarded to Japan for the Japanese women’s team’s third place finish at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

But she has no medal at home.

While individuals of winning volleyball, basketball, water polo teams for example took home their own medals, individuals of teams that finished first, second or third in the Team category for artistic gymnastics were awarded only a “diploma,” an official document recognizing the individual’s participation in the team’s medal award.

There is actually a single medal awarded to the gymnastics team in this case, awarded to the nation. At the 100th Birthday Anniversary of gymnast great, Masao Takemoto, on September 29, 2019, the medals of the gold-medal winning men’s gymnastics team, and the bronze-medal winning women’s gymnastics team were on display.

20190929_043700762_iOS
Gingko Abukawa Chiba and Toshiko Shirasu Aihara of the bronze-medal women’s gymnastics team of 1964, with Shuji Tsurumi of the gold-medal winning gymnastics teams of 1960 and 1964.

Shirasu-Aihara, who had won the inaugural NHK Cup Championship in women’s gymnastics in 1962, saw the team bronze medal for the Japan women’s Tokyo Olympic achievements for the first time at the Takemoto anniversary event, nearly 55 years after helping her team win it. She told me it would be wonderful if somehow the IOC could reconsider their decision and provide a medal to members of her team and the Japan men’s gymnastics team that won gold.

A few weeks later, I contacted David Wallechinsky, Olympic historian and president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. He graciously agreed to send a note to the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). A few weeks later, he got a clear and logical response from the IOC.

While we very much appreciate your thought for each team member of the 1964 Japanese gymnastics team events to be handed an Olympic medal retroactively and the symbolic gesture that such an initiative would send, we have to respect that the rules of the sport in force at the time for the team competition were: “To the team classed first: Olympic medal in silver-gilt for the nation: diploma for each team member and leader”. See Olympic Charter 1962, Rule 41 Prizes.

We also have to stay sensitive to the fact that similar rules of “one medal for the whole team and only diplomas for the team members” is not unique to the Tokyo 1964 Games, but also were applied to other sports and Games editions.

According to the Olympic Charter of 1962, in cases where individuals compete as a team with the purpose of winning a team competition, then the individuals whose teams place first, second or third receive their own medal. Thus individuals on teams that medaled in volleyball or basketball received medals.

But victory for the team category in artistic gymnastics was determined by the total scores of performances in the individual competitions, in which medals were also awarded.

Olympic Rings
The silver Olympic Rings awarded to Shuji Tsurumi in recognition of his team’s gold medal achievements at both the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, when medals were not distributed to individuals who earned medals in team gymnastics.

Here is how the Olympic Charter of 1962 described Rule 41, which dictated which individuals and teams are awarded medals:

In team events, except those of an ” artificial ” nature (one in which the score is computed from the position of the contestant in the individual competition) each member of the winning team participating in the final match shall be given a silver-gilt medal and a diploma, of the second team a silver medal and a diploma and of the third team a bronze medal and a diploma. Those team members who have not participated in the final matches are given diplomas but no medals. In “artificial ” team events one medal only shall be given to the team and the members shall receive diplomas only. Members of teams placed fourth, fifth and sixth receive diplomas only.

Gymnast Toshiko Shirasu-Aihara
Gymnast Toshiko Shirasu-Aihara, wearing in 2019 for the first time ever the team bronze medal awarded to Japan’s women’s gymnastics team took third place in 1964.

In today’s world, time for a separate team competition is carved out for gymnastics, so individuals can receive team medals.

A decade later, the IOC did indeed issue a special recognition to the individuals of such “artificial teams” – Olympic rings made of silver.

 

オリンピックで優勝してもメダルを授与されなかった選手たち

Team medals
1964年の東京オリンピックで1位(左)と3位(右)に輝いた日本体操男子団体と女子団体のチームに実際に授与されたメダル。 体操団体戦の1位から3位のチームには、メダルが1つしか授与されなかった。

体操の鶴見修司選手は、1964年に開催された東京オリンピックで、体操男子団体戦の日本チームとして金メダルを獲得し、さらに男子個人総合、あん馬、平行棒で3つの銀メダルを獲得するなど、同オリンピックにおいて数多くのメダルを獲得したオリンピック選手の1人として君臨した。

しかし、オリンピックに2回出場している鶴見選手の手元にあるのは、未だに1964年の東京オリンピックで獲得した3つの銀メダルだけである。

Masao Takemoto at front of line in 1960
Pictures shared of Takemoto – he’s at the front of the line in the team picture.

Sunday, September 29, 2019 was gymnastics legend, Masao Takemoto‘s birthday. Had the three-time Olympian been alive, he would have turned 100 that day.

So many of Japan’s gymnastics greats attended this event, including:

  • Shuji Tsurumi, two time Olympian and winner of 6 medals, including three silver medals at the ’64 Olympics to go with his team gold
  • Haruhiro Yamashita, Tsurumi’s teammate on the 1964 team and winner of two medals, including gold in individual vault
  • Toshiko Shirasu Aihara, two-time Olympian and 1964 women’s team bronze medalist
  • Gingko Abukawa-Chiba, two-time Olympian and 1964 women’s team bronze medalist
  • Koji Gushiken, 5-time medalist at the 1984 Olympics, including men’s individual all around
Shuji Tsurumi, Gingko Abukawa Chiba and Toshiko Shirasu Aihara
Shuji Tsurumi, Gingko Abukawa Chiba and Toshiko Shirasu Aihara

Takemoto was an inspiration to them all. Appearing at the 1952, 1956 and 1960 Olympics, Takemoto amassed 7 medals, and 7 medals in World Championships in 1954 and 1958, helping the Japan team to a team silver medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. When he finished his Olympic career, helping his team to the gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, he helped ignite a 16-year stretch of absolute dominance for Japanese men’s gymnastics, as Team Japan took gold from Rome in 1960 to Montreal in 1976.

Legends at Takemoto Party
Legends at Takemoto Party

And he won that gold medal at the age of 41.

Japanese American gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto was a 13-year old in Los Angeles, after moving there from Tokyo, when Japan won their first team gold in Rome. Sakamoto, who was in Tokyo and attended the 100th anniversary of Takemoto’s birthday, told the attendees that he and his older brother had a copy of Takemoto’s book on gymnastics, and that they read every page and followed every line in the book like it was gospel.

Aihara and Sakamoto
Toshiko Shirasu-Aihara and Makoto Sakamoto

Sakamoto would go on to make the American men’s gymnastics team and compete at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as well as serve as assistant coach to Team USA men’s gymnastics team that won gold at home in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Tsurumi and Yamashita_Takemotos party
The author convinces two legends of ’64, Tsurumi and Yamashita, to advertise the book.
Mark Williams 3
Coach Mark Williams leading a stretch

On Saturday, June 22, children of all ages gathered at the world-class gymnasium at Funabashi Municipal High School in Chiba to meet the Americans. They jumped and rolled and stretched to the instructions of essentially the men’s gymnastics team and the coaches who will compete in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Yul Moldauer 2
Yul Muldauer before displaying his floor routine.

Eight members of the team arrived a week ago to practice, get familiar with Japan and its facilities, and to inspire. Great efforts are being made by Japanese municipalities to attract sports teams  from the two hundred plus countries expected to compete at Tokyo 2020 for look-and-see practice tours.

Sam Mikulak 6
Sam Mikulak on his horse.

In this case, the city of Funabashi, Chiba has been the host sponsor of the USA men’s gymnastics team for the past two years, covering costs of accomodations and logistics while they are in Japan.

Sean Melton 1
Sean Melton giving the kids of Funabashi a lift.

The gymnastics demonstration was in conjunction with the US Embassy’s Go for Gold program, which is an effort to engage students in Japanese schools with American athletes and diplomats.

Genki Suzuki 4
Genki Suzuki on the rings.

“This is a great way for USA Gymnastics to give back to the people of Funabashi and thank them for being such gracious hosts during this training camp stay,” said Jon Omori, special liaison and advisor for the United States Olympic Committee.

To get an idea of the engaging way the members of the men’s team worked the crowd, watch this video.

Ichiro Uchimura Hanyu Icho
Clockwise from upper left: Ichiro Suzuki, Kohei Uchimura, Kaori Icho, Yuzuru Hanyu

The 24-year old figure skater walked into a private room in Saitama Super Arena, the television to his left showing clips of the World Finals Figure Skating Championship that had just ended on the evening of March 23, 2019.

“I lost! I can’t believe it (“Maketa yo, kuyashii!),” said Yuzuru Hanyu. He glanced at the television set which showed his rival and winner of the world championship, American Nathan Chen. “How do I beat that?”

Despite Hanyu’s incredible free program and brief hold of first place, Chen’s was better.

“I really wanted to win when I was skating,” Hanyu stated. “I think I did my best, but the problem is that a figure skating competition consists of two days, and I lost both. It means that I simply do not have enough strength to win.”

Chen is a brilliant young skater, who has proven his metal by defending his world championship. But Hanyu will not go down without a fight.

Those who have followed Hanyu even a little know that he is not losing confidence. He may in fact be steeling himself for the greatest competition he has faced. Battling and overcoming an ongoing ligament injury to his right ankle, Hanyu won gold in PyeongChang last February, and the Cup of Russia in November. The flames of his competitive spirit have been fanned by Chen, and he’s out to take figure skating to the next level, which should surprise no one.

Hanyu is a living legend.

What’s incredible is that he is not alone here. We in Japan have been blessed, recent witnesses to once-in-a-century global talents in a wide variety of sports – four of them to be exact:

  • Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating)
  • Ichiro Suzuki (baseball)
  • Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics)
  • Kaori Icho (wrestling)

Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating): The Sendai native is a two-time world champion, has broken the world record in figure skating scores eighteen times, and is the first person since Dick Button did so in 1948 to win individual gold in two consecutive Olympiads. Can he do the unthinkable at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and win an unprecedented third Olympic championship? I wouldn’t bet against him yet.

Ichiro Suzuki (baseball): After 28 years of professional baseball, the athlete known as Ichiro retired last week amidst adoring fans at the opening season matches between his Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A’s. No one has had more hits in professional baseball than Ichiro (4,367), and in the Major Leagues in America, he set the season hit record in 2004 with 262 hits, surpassing George Sisler’s record that stood for 84 years. His speed and defense made him a threat to steal a base as well as hits and runs in the field. There’s an overwhelming consensus that Ichiro will be the first player enshrined in the baseball hall of fames of both Japan and America. His love of the game, his training regimen and his flare for the dramatic will live on forever.

Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics): He is called King Kohei. The native of Nagasaki is the only gymnast to win all-around gold in every major title in a four-year Olympic cycle….twice. In other words, Uchimura won the world championship and Olympic gold from 2009 to 2016. You may as well tack on his silver medal in the all-arounds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and call it a decade of dominance. Calling him the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), as many do, is not hyperbole. As Uchimura is 30, it is unlikely that his dominance will continue at Tokyo 2020.  But he might be there, giving us all still a chance to glimpse greatness.

Kaori Icho (wrestling): There is another Japanese GOAT – a woman from Japan named Kaori Icho. The freestyle wrestler from Aomori, Icho has won an unprecedented and incredible four straight Olympic championships since women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport at the 2004 Athens Summer Games. In fact, she’s the first female in any sport to win an individual gold in four straight Olympiads. Through that period, Icho had won 189 straight matches, a 13-year streak that ended in January, 2016 to a wrestler ten years her junior, only to re-start the streak and take her fourth gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She is indeed the best female wrestler ever.

We in Japan have been most fortunate in recent years to live among living legends.

Katelyn Ohashi UCLA’s Katelyn Ohashi performs at the Collegiate Challenge in Anaheim on Saturday. Ohashi earned a perfect score during a now-famous floor routine that went viral on social media. (Richard Quinton / UCLA)

 

She shimmied and swayed to Proud Mary. She flipped and pranced to Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson. She egged the crowd on with a tongue-wagging swagger. When she did her final run of flips, ending in a dramatic split landing, she rose with a hair-waving flourish that brought the gymnasium down.

The only thing that could break Americans out of their annual NFL playoff craze was Katelyn Ohashi of UCLA, who scored a perfect ten in the floor routine at the Under Armour Collegiate Challenge on January 12, 2019. Her 90-second performance hit the internet like a hurricane, prompting tweets from celebrities and appearances on national television.

The most casual fan of gymnastics in America were re-tweeting the video of her routine and wondering who Ohashi was, and why she didn’t have the gold-medal cache of a Simone Biles or an Aly Raisman. But as experts have cited, her viral routine, which garnered a perfect 10.0 score, was perfect only at the collegiate level. Slate writer and former gymnast, Rebecca Schuman explained the difference in levels in this podcast.

Flip, flip, flip, split jump, and then she lands in the splits. First time she did that, everybody thought it was a mistake. That’s one of these things that’s only in the NCAA because it looks completely amazing, but it’s really easy. It’s really easy. Everybody in gymnastics can do the splits. You learn the splits when you’re five years old. And the floor on a gymnastics mat actually has 16 inches of mats and springs, so it’s almost like a trampoline.

One of the major differences between the elite levels and the collegiate levels of gymnastics is the level of difficulty. In the case of the floor exercise, women at both levels have the same 90 seconds to work their magic. But while the NCAA has a ceiling of the Perfect 10, the elite level has no such ceiling. The more you can work in a higher level of difficulty, the higher your potential score.

If you take a look at Simon Biles’ or Aly Raisman’s floor routines in the All Around finals at the Rio Olympics, there is definitely a lot more high-speed flipping and tumbling at the Olympic levels. Even to my amateur eyes, I can see the elites challenging themselves to four major tumbling runs, while Ohashi does only three. Ohashi spends a lot more time dancing and engaging the crowd between runs two and three than an elite would ever do.

Thus the reason for Ohashi’s seeming overnight fame is rooted not in the revelation that Ohashi should be challenging Biles for a spot on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic squad. It is rooted more in her back story, one that reflects the make-or-break nature of the highest levels of athletic competition, particularly in gymnastics.

Ohashi, the Seattle native, was indeed on track for Olympic greatness. By the time she turned 16, she was a junior national champion and an American Cup champion, where she beat Biles in competition, the last person to actually do so. Unfortunately, she peaked at the wrong time, as Schuman explained.

She was in the tragic of all positions. She was the best elite in the world in the year after an Olympics (2012 London Games). The way the elite world works is gymnasts age out of their peak performance so quickly you generally have your peak years for one or two years at most, unless you’re Simone Biles. Normal human gymnasts peak for one or two years, and then they either injure out, or they just grow, and their center of gravity changes, and they can’t do what they use to be able to do. So Katelyn Ohashi was at the absolute peak of her genius as an elite in 2013. If the Olympics had been held in 2013, she would have won.

And while Biles would go on to win gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, adding fuel to the argument that the USA women’s gymnastics teams of 2012 and 2016 were the best ever, Ohashi fell off the gymnastics map. Her back was fractured. Her shoulders were torn. She competed in physical pain, and through constant hunger pangs. But even greater than the physical pain was the emotional pain. As she explained in a video for The Players Tribune, in the third person, she “was broken.”

Fans would tell her that she wasn’t good enough, that she didn’t look a certain way. She wanted to eat junk food and feel okay the next day, and not have to worry about getting kicked out because she couldn’t make a skill. I was constantly exercising after a meal just to feel good enough to go to bed. She was on this path of invincibility. And then her back just gave out. She wanted to experience what life was like to be a kid again. I was broken.

Fortunately, Ohashi decided that enough was enough.  She dropped out of the elite levels of gymnastics into collegiate competition, attending UCLA with the hopes of finding joy in gymnastics again. She was welcomed by UCLA women’s gymnastics coach Miss Val, and the two formed a bond that emphasized joy and teamwork. As the coach said on Good Morning America, Ohashi said to Miss Val, “I don’t want to be great again. When I was great, there was nothing joyful about it.”

The viral video of her January 12 floor routine was an expression of joy. But the reason why the public, particularly on social media, went wild over Ohashi was the realization that we were seeing her emerge from a long and dark journey. Schuman’s insightful take is that we are relieved, because in a way, we are complicit in the dark journey Ohashi took for our ridiculously high demands for outrageous performance levels, in addition to unrealistic and unfair standards of body shape.

One of the reasons why Katelyn Ohashi’s performance is so magnetic…it’s not just her joy. You can see that her joy is a triumph over something. We also have to think – what do we get out of that? How important to us as viewers, casual or expert, is it, that she has been through the darkness before she gets to the light. How complicit is even the casual viewer who thinks this is the greatest thing they’ve ever seen, because what in her triumph has appealed to them.

So Katelyn Ohashi suffered, trying so hard to be something she was not.

For some, particularly at the highest levels of athletic performance, when the margin for error is so slim, the hard part is coming to grips with the fact that balancing super human performance levels and normal human feelings and urges is beyond the ability of almost everyone who breathes.

No one can be anyone else. You can only be yourself. Understanding that you can only be yourself, if you wish to be happy, is a first big step.

Katelyn Ohashi took that step  when she joined the collegiate ranks and found an ally in Miss Val. That is why we see today the beautiful beaming and ultimately fulfilled young woman we admire today.

Tokyo wins 2020 bid
Tokyo wins 2020 bid

573 days to Opening Day of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. On July 24, 2020, all the questions, all the angst, all the planning will end, and all that will matter are the athletes. For now, we can only speculate about what will be, and recall what has been.

 

Fred Hansen with gold medal
Fred Hansen and his gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

It’s February, 1964 and Fred Hansen is fiddling with his grip.

The then-world record holder for the pole vault, fellow American named John Pennel commonly held the 17-foot pole nearly 15 feet up from where the tip hits the vault box. Hansen’s coach, Augie Erfurth, is trying to coax Hansen to place his grip higher than 14 feet. It’s scientific reasoning. “We’ve got him gripping at 14-2 and 3,” explained Erfurth to a reporter of the Fort Worth Star Telegram. “If the pole reacts, he’ll have more bend.”

Since George Davies won a pole vault competition using a fiberglass poll in May of 1961, it became clear to all that the space age technology of fiberglass was more flexible and stored more kinetic energy in the pole than the more traditional materials of bamboo, steel and aluminum.

If you watch gold medalist, Don Bragg, win gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics, you can see his aluminum pole bend, maybe, 45 degrees at best, as he lept to an Olympic record of 15′ 5″ (4.70 m). Pennel, Hansen and other pole vaulters vying for a spot on the Olympic team to compete at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were routinely getting over 16 feet, trying to figure out how to get their poles to bend 90 degrees, and maximize the kinetic energy stored in the pole that propels them over the bar as the pole unbends.

The higher the athlete holds the pole, the greater the potential in bend. But as the Rice University graduate, Hansen explained in the article, “vaulting is just like a golf swing. There are so many things to remember.”

You have to be clear in the number of steps you take down the runway, when to hit maximum speed and where to plant your foot when you slip the pole vault into the vault box. You have to be conscious of the position of your arms as you launch to get maximum bend, and of your legs as you approach the bar, efficiently rotating your body vertically so that you are upside down as you climb. Then you have to time your hip extension just as your pole is unbending and releasing its stored energy, sending the athlete to his or her maximum height. Rotating the body horizontally at the right time so that you come down feet first without touching the bar is the final act of the complexity of the pole vault.

In other words, you have to be muscular and flexible in all the right places. Hansen’s training routine was becoming more sophisticated – in addition to isometrics, weightlifting and running, Hansen added a full program of gymnastics, thanks to advice from a fellow American competitor, Brian Sternberg of Seattle, Washington.

“I went to an all-comers meet in California,” Hansen told me. “Brian beat me. He had the most beautiful form I had ever seen – this guy’s got something, I have to find out more.” When Hansen approached the Washington native, Sternberg said he did a lot of gymnastics training, and Hansen thought he should start doing the same to keep up. “I devised a program that was gymnastic oriented. I trained on gymnastics apparatus – the seven phases. I would replicate vault movements on the various apparatus. I don’t know if anybody else was doing that.”

Anybody other than Sternberg, who was a trained gymnast who pole vaulted. Leveraging his gymnastics background and the power of the fiberglass pole, Sternberg twice set a world record in the pole vault in April and June of 1963. The twenty-year-old Sternberg was at the top of his game, very close to being the first person to clear 17 feet, with his coach speculating he could fly over 20 feet one day. Certainly, Sternberg was a shoo-in for the Olympic team headed for Tokyo, destined for golden glory.

Until tragedy struck.

Brian SternbergSternberg did a lot of training on the trampoline, and was training for a competition in the Soviet Union. It was July 2, 1963 and he was doing flips and turns on the trampoline, when he attempted a double-back somersault with a twist. It’s a difficult move, according to this article, that Sternberg had made thousands of times. This time, he landed in the middle of the trampoline, on his neck. The accident turned Sternberg, the best pole vaulter in the world, into a quadraplegic.

“This is a change,” Sternberg said ten months after his accident to AP. “Any change can be a good sign. The pain is mine: I must endure it.” And beyond the expectations of medical science at the time, Sternberg endured it, in pain, for 50 years, passing away on May 23, 2013.

“Brian helped me out with several things I was doing wrong when he was the world’s best,” Hansen said in a Seattle Times article about Hansen’s Olympic triumph in Tokyo. “The only thing that could make me happier at this moment would be if he were here too.”

Hilton Announces Sponsorship With USA Gymnastics Team
Former CEO and President of USA Gymnastics, Steve Penny

Since March of 2018, the American federation overseeing gymnastics, USA Gymnastics, has lost three leaders to resignation. The first one, Steve Penny, knowingly covered up allegations of sexual abuse by USA Gymnastics coaches. He was recently arrested. Kerry Perry was hired to bring calm to the brewing storm, and yet left USA Gymnastics for hiring a supporter of serial abuser, Dr. Larry Nasser. A month later, Mary Bono resigned as head of USA Gymnastics. One would think that after Penny and Perry, USA Gymnastics would be highly sensitive to the issues, and the reasons for the demise of the former heads, but they went and hired Bono, who lasted only four days.

USA Gymnastics. Tone Deaf.

USA Gymnastics Head, Steve Penny, Arrested for Evidence Tampering on October 17, 2018

Former CEO and president of USA Gymnastics, Steve Penny, was arrested for tampering of evidence in relation to the countless number of sexual abuse cases between coaches and gymnasts, apparently arranging for documents to be removed from the USA Gymnastics training venue at Karolyi Ranch in Walker County, Texas, and delivered to Penny. Authorities say the documents are still missing, and Penny had already been indicted for tampering on September 28.

It was also reported that Penny was aggressively attempting to build influence with the FBI office in Indianapolis, where USA Gymnastics is headquartered, by asking for advice from the FBI about how to position the scandal to the public, writing in an email to the FBI, “We need some cover.” The New York Times reported that Penny had talked to the head of the FBI field office in Indianapolis about a possible job as head of security of the USOC. While Penny had no authority in the hiring of that position, and that there may have been no direct conflict of interest, one could assume that the reason for Penny’s influencing activities was to curry favor with the FBI.

Mary Bono
Former CEO and President of USA Gymnastics, Mary Bono

USA Gymnastics Interim Head, Mary Bono, Resigns On October 16, 2018

Interim president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, Mary Bono, resigned after serving only four days. The selection of Bono, a trained gymnast who also served as a US congresswomen for 15 years after she filled the vacancy of her late husband, Sonny Bono, was criticized very quickly by top American gymnasts. Four-time Olympic gold medalist, Simone Biles noted in a tweet only one day after Bono’s hiring that Bono was one of the vocal protestors of the Nike ad featuring football quarterback and political activist, Colin Kaepernick. In fact, Bono, showed a picture of her covering up the Nike logo on her shoes. Biles tweeted in response:

*mouth drop* don’t worry, it’s not like we needed a smarter usa gymnastics president or any sponsors or anything

Biles’ teammate on the gold-medal winning US team from the Rio Olympics, Aly Raisman, was more direct in her criticism, attacking Bono’s connection to the law firm that advised USA Gymnastics regarding the sexual abuse allegations of the national team doctor, Larry Nassar. Nassar is now currently serving a prison term of 40 to 175 years. Raisman claimed in her tweet that the law firm Bono worked for, Faegre Baker Daniels, knew about the sexual abuse by Nassar for 13 months and did nothing.

My teammates & I reported Nassar’s abuse to USAG in 2015. We now know USOC & lawyers at Faegre Baker Daniels (Mary Bono’s firm) were also told then, yet Nassar continued to abuse children for 13 months!? Why hire someone associated with the firm that helped cover up our abuse?

Kerry Perry
Former CEO and President of USA Gymnastics, Kerry Perry

USA Gymnastics Head, Kerry Perry, Resigns September 4, 2018

After Penny resigned on March 16, 2018, USA Gymnastics hoped to turn a page on the leadership affiliated with the sex abuse scandals by hiring their first female leader in 20 years, Kerry Perry. Perry was an executive at a sports marketing company, Learfield Communications. Unfortunately, in the nine months as leader of USA Gymnastics she assumed leadership, Perry was criticized for not spending enough time at hearings of sexual abuse victims during the Larry Nassar trial, as well as her ability to make changes to the USA Gymnastics organization. One of the few changes she made was met with immediate protest – the hiring of gymnastics coach, Mary Lee Tracy, a person initially defended Nassar publicly. Tracy, who called Nassar “amazing,” was fired only a few days after being hired.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, who was the ranking member of the Senate subcommittee overseeing the USOC, said this about Perry’s tenure.

Throughout her disastrous nine-month tenure as president of U.S.A. Gymnastics, Perry demonstrated nothing but a willful and heartless blindness to the concerns of survivors who were abused by Larry Nassar. As president, Perry perpetuated U.S.A.G.’s complicity with Nassar’s horrific actions with her stunning and utterly shameful appearance before Congress in July and utterly misguided hiring of Mary Lee Tracy as the organization’s new elite development coordinator.

USA Gymnastics Head, Steve Penny, Resigns March 16, 2018

Only three months after the end of the 2016 Rio Olympics, and the impressive victory of the Final Five, the USA women’ gymnastics team that won gold, the gymnastics world was rocked by allegations of sexual abuse, and that USA Gymnastics had covered up the abuse over decades. The Indianapolis Star revealed over 50 accounts of sexual abuse of children under the care of USA Gymnastics coaches, allegations that eventually led to the resignation of Penny.

To understand the culture of sexual abuse and cover up within USA Gymnastics, here are a series of articles I wrote over the past two years.

 

no tattoo sign

Some of the famous people in the world have tattoos. The US tattoo industry alone is a $1.5 billion business. And many of the 20 million plus foreigners visiting Japan every year are sporting tattoos. But as some visitors are surprised to learn, their tattoos are sometimes frowned upon, and result in being turned away from the hot springs and beaches of Japan.

Rugby World Cup Organizers are excited about the 2019 Rugby World Cup tournament coming to Japan, and have been eager to show respect to their hosts next year. At the one-year-to-go milestone, tournament director Alan Gilpin stated in a press conference that rugby players with tattoos need to cover up their body ink.

“We will make (Japanese) people aware around the facilities that players will use in the country that people with tattoos in a Rugby World Cup context are not part of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia,” added Gilpin.

It’s a socially sensitive statement as there is generally a negative attitude of Japanese towards tattoos – a common rationale being that Yakuza were commonly associated with tattoos. In fact, there is a law against tattoo artists without a medical license, which has been enforced. And signs at pools, hot springs and public beaches commonly explain in multiple languages that people with tattoos are prohibited from entry, or at least asked to cover them up.

The Japan Travel Association (JTA), eager to avoid private establishments from kicking surprised foreign guests out of their establishments, have encouraged hot spring proprietors to relax their rules against people with tattoos. But the reality is, with the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Olympics in 2020, Japanese will see a lot of foreign athletes with tattoos – on the beach, in the pools, all round town.

Here are a few of the Olympic hopefuls who sport tattoos.

Joseph Schooling tattoo
Joseph Schooling – swimmer, Singapore, gold medalist in 100 meter butterfly at the 2016 Rio Olympics
Shaun White tattoo
Shaun White – three-time gold medalist in showboarding halfpipe, American, and potential Olympian in skateboarding at Tokyo 2020 Olympics

 

Simon Biles tattoo
Simone Biles – gymnastics, American, four-time gold medalist

To think that Japan is anti-tattoo is taking a negative perception too far. The fact is the number of tattoo artists (despite the law) has increased significantly in the past 30 years. And foreigners with tattoos who come to Japan feel that attitudes are shifting. According to best-selling Australian author, Tara Moss, “there is a quiet rebellion against these prevailing rules and social norms in Japan.”

I received several compliments when mine were visible, and one of my favourite moments on our most recent trip was when I had a summer dress on in the subway and my forearm tattoos were showing. One particularly cool young man seemed quietly fascinated, and rolled up his shirt sleeves silently to reveal the very lower edges of his arm tattoos. We were part of some similar ‘tribe’. No words were exchanged, only a nod that my husband could take his picture as he posed nonchalantly against the train door.

If you have tattoos and plan a visit to Japan, Moss writes that you should take the following under advisement:

  1. Expect to completely cover tattoos at any pool, gym and most water parks and beaches.
  2. Tattoos are banned at onsens (bath houses).
  3. Many ryokans (Japanese inns) will not accept tattooed guests.
  4. You should consider covering your tattoos at any temple or sacred site.

And what does Moss suggest are the best ways to avoid Japanese seeing your tattoo?

  1. Use a rashie at the pool
  2. Book a private onsen instead of attending a public one.
  3. Use clothing/scarves.
  4. Try arm covers
  5. Use a bandaid or bandage.