The opening ceremony was fantastic! Spectacular! The reception was extremely good and clear. The pictures are very sharp all the way through, unbelievable! – letter from Sayoko to Thomas Tomizawa on October 10, 1964
The above reviewer, my mother, was clearly biased. Sayoko was a Japanese native of Tochigi who met a 2nd generation Japanese-American named Thomas in Tokyo in 1958, got married, and moved to the United States. Thomas was in Tokyo during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, working for NBC News, which broadcasted the Summer Games to America.
In another letter a week later, my mother wrote to my father, “I have seen the Olympic show tonight 5~7 pm. I see your name every other day. Miura-san’s sister’s friends are watching the show every night. Yoko-san said ‘Tomizawa-san no go-shujin no namae ga deruwa yo!’ (Tomizawa-san’s name is coming up on the credits!)”
My mother, who passed away in May of this year, wrote several letters to her husband while he was working in Tokyo. She wrote about the errands she ran: buying replacement light bulbs for the refrigerator at Woolworths, setting a dentist’s appointment for her 5-year-old, Mike, picking up the daily newspaper for her husband, paying the phone bill.
She worried about an ongoing school bus strike that was inconveniencing all the parents. She complained that Mike’s teacher was giving too much candy to the kids. And she bemoaned the fact that her son, Roy, was crying so often she couldn’t take any decent pictures to send her husband.
I had turned one years old at the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And while I had no idea what the Olympics were then, I have a pretty good idea now. (See book.)
Compare and Contrast
1964 Tokyo Olympics.
2020 Tokyo Olympics.
They could have been, should have been so similar an experience: celebrations on a global scale that brought the world together and warmed the spirit. Indeed, in 2019, Tokyo2020 was gearing up to be the greatest Olympics ever.
But alas, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the course of history. The Olympics of 1964 and 2020 could not have been more different.
If 1964 were a French dessert, it was a splendid Millefeuille with airy, flaky layers sandwiching luscious cream and fresh strawberries. 2020 was a deflated Soufflé.
It was this time 7 years ago when I started researching the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
My vision was clear: write the definitive book in English on a defining moment in modern Japanese history, meet amazing people, be a talking head during Tokyo2020, and have total access to the Games.
My dream was vivid: sit in the stands with Olympians I interviewed, watching the 2020 Olympics and reminiscing about the 1964 Olympics.
Much of my vision was realized. My dream was not.
COVID-19 was simply a hurdle too high. With over 5 million deaths globally, and unfathomable heartbreak, the pandemic made a mockery of our pre-COVID priorities.
Had the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics been scheduled for Rio or Paris or LA, I believe the Games would have been cancelled: local political will would have wilted in the tired face of surging infection and death rates.
The Games Must Go On
Japan was different.
There were no lock downs in Japan. In fact, in the months from May to June of this year, infection rates in Tokyo were decreasing as athlete training was accelerating. There were great expectations that Japan would live up to its reputation as a “safe pair of hands,” hands that would ensure the health, safety and fair competition for athletes from around the world.
And under those tremulous conditions, the Government of Japan and the organizers summoned up enough political will to continue to say, “the show must go on.”
The Olympics and Paralympics, after a year’s postponement, did take place. The greatest compromise the organizers made with the circumstances was to ban spectators from sporting events and greatly restrict the movement of foreign athletes, coaches, officials, support staff and press – a move that furthered dampened the spirits of those anticipating the Games.
In the days just prior to the start of the Olympic Games, there were protests calling for the cancelation of the Games. Only one day before the Olympics opening ceremony, Ariake, the man-made islands where much of the Tokyo2020 competition would take place, was like a ghost town.
But on the afternoon of Friday, July 23, 2021, hours before the start of the Olympics, the aerial acrobatic jet team called The Blue Impulse flew over the center of Tokyo painting the Olympic rings in the sky to the delight of growing crowds, just as they did on October 10, 1964.
People began buzzing about the stadium, fighting for photo ops in front of the Olympic rings, and setting up camp for the evening. They wouldn’t be allowed in the stadium. But they knew they could watch the ceremony fireworks and drone show from anywhere around the stadium. And despite the occasional shout of protest, no one was going to stop them from joining the fun.
Over the course of the Olympics and Paralympics, the news cycle in Japan featured more stories about Team Japan and its historic Olympic medal rush (58 total, 27 gold) than the number of infections in Tokyo (which happened to peak at the exact same time as the Olympics and Paralympics). Japanese women, in fact, shined more brightly than the men.
It’s the Journey
I did not attend any Tokyo2020 sporting events, despite holding a great number of tickets. But I met friends and acquaintances from overseas here and there. And thanks to my book, I appeared on CBS and NBC in the US, CBC in Canada, NHK in Japan, countless times on BBC radio in the UK, as well as Danish and Brazilian television.
The highlight of these Olympics for me was when I organized and hosted, on behalf of the World Olympians Association, a panel of athletes who competed at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games, walking with them down memory lane, recalling the historic enormity of that Olympiad, the magical moments of competition, and the graciousness of their Japanese hosts. (See video below.)
When I started this journey nearly 7 years ago, I did not achieve everything I had hoped for at Tokyo2020. Nobody could under the circumstances.
But I remind myself of this age-old adage: it is not the destination. It is the journey.
Along this journey, I have met hundreds of athletes, coaches, Olympic and Paralympic committee administrators, sports marketers, journalists and academics – people who have enriched my understanding of the world, and of humanity.
I am grateful to you all.