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.


Sae Miyakawa

The coach slapped the teenage gymnast’s face and pulled her hair while preparing her for the biggest competitions in her life. On August 15, 2018, gymnastics coach, Yuto Hayami, was banned indefinitely by the Japan Gymnastics Association (JGA) from coaching gymnasts.

And then the fireworks really began.

On August 29, 18-year-old gymnast, Sae Miyakawa, held a press conference emotionally protesting the banning of her coach, saying she was harassed by leaders of the JGA, and that she was threatened with being left off the Tokyo 2020 team. The vault specialist on the women’s gymnastics team at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Miyakawa also said that while her coach, Hayami, did sometimes hit her, she wanted him restored as her coach.

According to the Mainichi, she said at the press conference “I did not ask for such a punishment and I cannot agree with its severity.” The Mainichi also reported that “she may withdraw from consideration for a spot on the national team for the Doha competition as it is difficult to train without Hayami, who has taught her since she was in the fifth grade.”

Not only did she protest the ban, she shot back at the powers that be, stating that on the contrary the head of the women’s national gymnastics team, Chieko Tsukahara, is guilty of power harassment. According to Asahi, the Japan Gymnastics Association established a new system after the Rio Games of identifying the top gymnastics prospects and sending them on special training sessions in Japan and overseas, but that Miyakawa did not take part in the early stages. Miyakawa claims she was pressured to take part in that special training.

At the news conference, she quoted Chieko Tsukahara as telling her, “If you do not take part, the association will not be able to provide cooperation and you will not be able to participate in the Tokyo Olympics.” Miyakawa said she wanted that action to be recognized as power harassment because she “felt it was a form of violence using authority” on the part of Chieko Tsukahara.

Chieko Tsukahara is part of a power couple in the Japan Gymnastics Association. While she heads the women’s gymnastics team, her husband, Mitsuo Tsukahara is a Vice-Chair of the association. He was part of Japan’s legendary run of team gold medals in four straight Olympics from 1964 to 1976, himself a 9-time Olympic medalist. She was a member of the women’s gymnastics team at the 1968 Mexico City Games when Japan came in a strong fourth.

According to NHK, Mitsuo Tsukahara denies the allegation.

The gymnast said that she was questioned by the association’s deputy chief Mitsuo Tsukahara, and his wife Chieko, about her coach’s violence. Miyakawa stated that Chieko Tsukahara, who is in charge of training the women’s national team, told her that she had not grown as a gymnast because her coach was not good enough. Miyakawa said Tsukahara had annoyed and harassed her. Mitsuo Tsukahara has denied the allegations. He said that he and his wife have done nothing wrong, and that they have always tried to put the athletes first.

While the Tsukahara’s say they are providing guidance to gymnasts, panelists of the Sunday morning television program, Terebi Asahi Live on September 2 stated that the Tsukahara’s bear responsibility. They are not only senior people on the National Gymnastics Association, but also the head of one the most prominent gymnastics clubs, The Asahi Mutual Life Insurance Club, one considered a great stepping stone for promising gymnasts. And so with so much influence at the national level and as the head of the most influential clubs, can the Tsukahara’s be exerting undue influence, was the question.

Power Harassment Womens Gymnastics_5
From the television program, Terebi Asahi Live, broadcasted on Sunday, September 2.

Miyakawa asserts that the Tsukahara’s “were trying to separate me from the coach, using the issue of his violence as a pretext, because they wanted to put me in the Asahi Mutual Life Insurance team.” The Tsukahara’s assert they were simply removing a coach who used violence as a coaching tactic, which they said was unacceptable.

For now, it’s he said, she said. But JGA will appoint a three-person panel to investigate the allegations in depth, and then release a report in two weeks.

In the wake of fairly prominent power harassment cases in sports, including one involving four-time gold medal Olympic champion, Kaori Icho, it’s now gymnastics turn to deal with the uncomfortable need to examine its development processes and possibly engage in some soul searching.

To spouses and sweethearts alike, a very happy Valentine’s Day from The Olympians!

Nikolai Prodanov and Diana Yorgova_2
Nikolai Prodanov and Diana Yorgova, from the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964 Kyodo News Service

Gymnast Nikolai Prodanov and javelin thrower Diana Yorgova of Bulgaria are the first Olympians to marry during the Olympics, tying the knot in the Olympic Village of the 1964 Tokyo Games.

Hal and Olga Connolly kiss_Mainichi Graf_11.3.1964
Hal and Olga Connolly, from the November 3, 1964 edition of magazine, Mainichi Graf

Americans Hal (hammer) and Olga (discus) Connolly sneak a kiss through a fence that prevented men from gaining access to the women’s rooms in Tokyo. They famously met at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics when she was Olga Fikotova of Czechoslovakia, and they both took home gold.

Ken Matthews_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha
Ken Matthews and his wife Sheila moments before their famous hug, from the book, Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha

Brit Ken Matthews, gold medalist of the 20K walk at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, gets a celebrated hug from his wife Sheila after his victory.

Mike Larrabee and wife kiss_Mainich Graf_11.3.1964
Mike Larrabee kisses his wife Margaret, from November 3, 1964 edition of Mainich Graf

Double gold medalist (400m, 4x400m relay), Mike Larrabee, gets a lengthy kiss from his wife, Margaret. Larrabee of Team USA as you can see in the picture also placed the gold medal he had just won from his 400-meter finals around her neck.

Brigthwell and Packer_Tokyo Olympiad 1964 Kyodo News Service
Robbie Brigthwell and Ann Packer from the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964 Kyodo News Service

 

Arguably the biggest power couple of the 1964 Olympiad were Team GB track stars Robbie Brightwell (silver medalist in 4×400 relay) and Ann Packer, seen here hugging after Packer’s gold medal win in the 800 meter finals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad.

Madison Rae Margraves gives her impact statement as her parents and sister Lauren listen during the sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar, in the Eaton County Court in Charlotte
Madison Mangraves gives her impact statement as her parents and sister Lauren listen. February 2, 2018 REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

It was a sentencing hearing for former USA Gymnastics sports medicine doctor, Larry Nassar. Judge Janice Cunningham was presiding over the hearing in Eaton County Circuit Court in Charlotte, Michigan, where victims of Nassar’s abuse testified to the pain and suffering at his hands. Nasser was sentenced to 40 to 175 years for molesting 7 girls, although hundreds have said they had been molested by Nassar.

Two sisters, Lauren and Madison Mangraves, had just testified at Nasser’s sentencing hearing in Eaton County, and their father Randall Mangraves asked to speak as well.

“I can’t imagine the anger and the anxiety and the feeling of wanting retribution, and if you need to say something to help you,” said Cunningham to Randall Mangraves. “I’m more than willing to let you say something, but in a courtroom we don’t use profanity. If you have some words you’d like to say, I would like to give you the opportunity to say something.”

Mangraves then took the opportunity.

“I would ask you as part of the sentencing to grant me five minutes in a locked room with this demon. Would you do that? Yes or no.”

The young women behind the left shoulder of Randall Mangrave, were his daughters, Lauren and Madison. As their father began his request, you can see Madison react with surprise, her somber and tearful face suddenly smiling involuntarily, pleased that her father was sticking up for his daughters, perhaps thinking he was being even a bit playful when he suggested he have “even one minute” with Nassar.

But Randall Mangrave wasn’t playing. Madison’s face turned to shock as she watched his father dash across the room and lunge at Nassar. Security quickly wrestled him to the ground, Mangraves failing to get anywhere near the sexual predator. You can hear weeping in the background, presumably one of the daughters who had gone through a roller coaster of emotions, even in the previous 2 minutes.

Randall Mangraves attacks
Randall Margraves lunges at Larry Nassar in court as his sentencing continues REUTERS

After security determined he was cuffed and not going to resist, they let him get up. Before he was taken away, there was a pause as he stared at the security men in disbelief.

“What if this happened to you guys,” he said to the officers who took him away.

There was no reply.

 

Sports Grand Prix Top AthletesAmerican Justin Gatlin is the fastest man in the world today, but can he beat the speed of a ball in freefall that accelerates at 9.81 meters per second squared in the Shotgun Touch competition?

Russian Denis Ablyazin won the silver medal in the men’s vault at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, but can he win the “Monster Box” competition, hurdling a vault over 3 meters high?

New Zealander Tomas Walsh won the bronze medal in the men’s shot put at the Rio Games, but can he defeat All Blacks rugby player and fellow New Zealander, Nepo Laulala, in the excruciating “Power Wall” contest?

If you’re a big fan of Ninja Warrior, you know the incredible obstacle course is based on a Japanese television program called Sasuke, produced by Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS). The same network, TBS, also produces a program called Sports Grand Prix Top Athletes which puts athletes to the test in creative competition.

And being an Olympian does not put you to the front of the class. Ablyazin made it look easy vaulting a horse built up some 2.5 meters high. But near the 3-meter mark, he faltered and lost to a Japanese trampoline competitor. Walsh also made it look easy pushing a movable wall against other competitors who sought to push the wall back, an event that is akin to a reverse tug of war.

But one would have thought that racing a falling ball to a spot requires pure speed, and that the fastest man in the world should win hands down. The “Shotgun Touch” competition requires a runner to touch a button which releases a ball from the ceiling (an unknown number of meters above the ground). The object is for the runner to get any part of their body, usually hands and fingers, on the ball before it touches the ground.

For competitors like track stars Kenji Fujimitsu and Gatlin, as well as Kansas City Royal Whit Merrifield, or J-League soccer star, Kensuke Nagai, getting to the ball 12 meters away was not so difficult, but another 50 to 100 centimeters, and the ball can seem to be accelerating faster than the law of physics. In some of the early attempts around 12 meters, Gatlin made it look easy with the ball hitting him in the back or his arms.

And yet, he actually missed at 12.60 meters and twice at 13 meters, disqualifying him from the rest of the competition. As he learned, diving technique is as important as speed. There’s no way Merrifield would beat Gatlin in a 100-meter sprint, and yet he was able to succeed at 13 meters. In the end, it was J-League soccer star Nagai who triumphed the shotgun touch competition.

Kinda silly, kinda fun…that’s how I spent my New Year’s evening.