akihiro gunji of tokai university winner of 2019 hakone ekiden
Tokai University anchor Akihiro Gunji breaks the tape to give his school the victory in the Tokyo-Hakone ekiden on Wednesday in Otemachi. | KYODO

It’s a New Year’s tradition in Japan – settling into lazy days of eating and laying about in front of the TV with family on January 2nd and 3rd, watching a running competition that spans over 200 kilometers – the Hakone Ekiden.

Since 1920, the annual Hakone Ekiden has transfixed the nation as teams of ten long-distance runners from universities in the Kanto region compete to complete ten legs of about 20 kilometers each. They run the roads of Japan from downtown Otemachi to Hakone on day one, and then back to Otemachi on day two.

Thousands line the streets to cheer runners from their alma mater while tens of millions more watch on TV from 8 in the morning to about 1:30 in the afternoon. It’s Super Bowl Sunday in America – without the glitzy half-time show.

And when 2020 rolls around, its feasible that some of the Japanese distance runners with medal hopes for the Tokyo Olympics will be competing in the 100th anniversary of the Hakone Ekiden that January. In fact, that was the raison d’etre of the Hakone Ekiden – “to bring up runners to compete in the world.”

Those are the words of Shizo Kanakuri, who created the ekiden race. Kanakuri, along with sprinter Yahiko Mishima, were Japan’s first Olympians, competing at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. While Kanakuri was not able to finish the marathon in 1912, he represented Japan again at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, placing 16th and finishing with a time of 2:48:45.

With expanded knowledge of what  international competition was like, Kanakuri grasped an opportunity to raise greater awareness of long-distance running, and thus develop Japan’s next generation of international competitors.

It started with a celebration – an event to highlight the 50th anniversary of Tokyo becoming the nation’s capitol. In 1917, Yomiuri Shimbun organized a massive road race that spanned over 500 kilometers and ran from Kyoto (the former capitol) to Tokyo. The idea of creating long-distance relay exchanges along the way came from the Edo-period practice of transmitting messages from Kyoto to Tokyo and back via humans who ran from station to station with their important missives.

zensaku mogi_first ekiden
Zensaku Mogi

So impressed was Kanakuri with the idea of a long-distant relay race, he had a vision of America – that the same could be done traversing the United States from sea to shining sea. While that vision was, as it turned out, an impossible dream at the time, it inspired Kanakuri and his partners from Tokyo Koshi and Waseda universities to create an organization that would invite university students to participate in a local ekiden. In the end, four major universities in Tokyo – Waseda, Keio, Meiji and Tokyo Koshi – elected to compete in the first Hakone Ekiden.

On February 15, 1920, when Zensaku Mogi of Tokyo Koshi University broke the tape on his arrival in front of the Hochi Shimbun office of Yomiuri Group, helping his team to a total 2-day time of 15 hours, five minutes and 16 seconds, he ignited a tradition of hope in the youth and future of Japan that continues to this day.

year of the boar japan 2019

2019 is the Year of the Boar (in Japan) and Year of the Pig (in China). More specifically in the Chinese Zodiac, it is the Year of the Earth Pig, which waddles into the spotlight once every 60 years.

And it was 60 years ago on May 26, 1959 in the last Year of the Earth Pig, that members of the IOC met in Munich, Germany for the 55th General Session of the International Olympic Committee to decide which city – Brussels, Detroit, Tokyo or Vienna – would host the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

In a decisive vote that required only one round, the IOC selected Tokyo, which took a majority 34 votes of the possible 58. Detroit came in a distant second with only 10 votes.

What were the reasons given for Tokyo’s winning bid in 1959?

Successful Asian Games: in 1958, Tokyo hosted the Asian Games, where over 1,800 athletes from 20 nations participated in 13 different events. As the Detroit Times wrote the day after its selection, “Tokyo, a strong favorite in recent months, after the world-wide fanfare it received after its holding of the recent Asian Games, was given the 1964 award.”

Fred Wada: Wada, a Wakayama native, was a Japanese American who hosted the Japan swimming team when they competed at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, and was instrumental in lobbying IOC members in Latin America in support of the Tokyo bid for the 1964 Olympics.

Cancellation of the 1940 Tokyo Olympics: Tokyo was awarded the right to host the 1940 Summer Olympics, but the threat of global conflict made the organization of those Games untenable, so they Olympics were cancelled in both 1940 and 1944. Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee, would mention that they lost their chance to stage those Games because of “unfortunate circumstances,” implying that 1964 would be a second chance.

Avery Brundage: Brundage was a dominant president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972. And he was someone deeply familiar with Asia, particularly its art. After visiting an exhibition of Chinese art in London in 1935, he began to amass a collection of Asian art, much of which would be donated to the new wing of the Memorial Museum in San Francisco. In his speech at the opening of the new wing, Brundage professed his admiration for Asia.

We think in terms of years, Orientals think in terms of generations, or of centuries, and some Indian philosophers even think in terms of five thousand year cycles. The great religions all originated in Asia. The Chinese invented silk, paper, gunpowder, porcelain, printing, and a hundred other things, and had a well developed civilization when Europe was in the throes of the dark ages and most of America a wilderness, inhabited only by savages. (From The Four Dimensions of Avery Brundage, by Heinz Schobel.)

Avery Brundage Visiting an art exhibition in Tokyo, 1958
Avery Brundage Visiting an art exhibition in Tokyo, 1958, from The Four Dimensions of Avery Brundage

Supporters of the Detroit bid didn’t take kindly to what they perceived as Brundage’s outsized influence and bias for bringing the Olympics to Asia. One of the leaders of the Detroit bid, Fred Matthaei, was quoted as saying, “We got the impression the committee wanted to hold the Games on another continent.”

The editorial in the May 27, 1959 editorial page of the Detroit Times was blunter in its criticism of Brundage.

Brundage is a native Detroiter. The local delegation hoped that fact might help their campaign. It didn’t. It merely proved how little they know the egotistic Mr. Brundage. He insists piously and repeatedly that his position as president of the IOC prevents his taking sides. But he made no secret of his leaning toward Tokyo. His explanation for the about-face in principle is that Tokyo lost the 1940 games because of the war. He indicated he deemed it an accident of fate. He ignored the argument that in 1940 the Japanese were engaged in an aggressive war and, accordingly, deserve no special consideration.

Whatever the reason, the Olympics came to Tokyo in 1964, thanks to that crucial vote in 1959, the Year of the Earth Pig.

Stan Cole
Stan Cole

Stanley C. Cole

Stanley Clark Cole was a three-time Olympian who competed as a member of the United States water polo team. The Dover, Delaware native was a dominant scorer on the UCLA Bruins team, and went to his first Olympics in Tokyo in 1964. Cole went on to the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, scoring six of his 11 Olympic goals on the team that won bronze at the Munich Games. Serving as an officer in the US Navy, Cole was on the ship that picked up the famed astronauts of Apollo 13. Cole passed away on July 26, 2018, at the age of 72.

 

Valentina_RastvorovaValentina Rastvorova

Valentina Rastvorova was a three-time Olympic fencer on the Soviet Union team, competing in Melbourne, Rome and Tokyo from 1956 to 1964. The Odessa native won gold in team foil, as well as silver in individual foil in 1960, as well as silver in team foil in 1964. She was married to a water polo player on the 1964 Soviet Union team, Boris Grishin, which won bronze in Tokyo. Their son, Yevgeny Grishin, won gold in Moscow and bronze in Seoul as a member of the Soviet water polo team. Rastvorova died on August 24, 2018 at the ate of 85.

 

Kurt HelmudtKurt Helmudt

Kurt Helmudt, at the age of 20, was the youngest member of the Danish coxless four rowing team that won gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Helmudt was an engineer shipbuilder after his rowing career. He passed away at the age of 74 on September 7, 2018.

 

Ganpatrao AndalkarGanpatrao Andalkar

Ganpatrao Andalkar represented India in two different wrestling disciplines at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: as a middleweight in Greco-Roman and as a heavyweight in Freestyle competition.

Prior to Tokyo, Andalkar had captured gold and silver medals at the Jakarta Asian Games in 1962. Andalkar passed away on September 16, 2018 in Pune, India.

 

Győző_Kulcsár_1970Győző Kulcsár

A four-time Olympian, fencer Győző Kulcsár of Hungary passed away on September 19, 2018. He was 77. The native of Budapest competed in the individual and team épée events at the 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976 Olympics, garnering a total of six medals, including four golds.

Kulcsár would go on to become the Secretary General of the Hungarian Fencing Association in 1979, as well as the head coach of the Hungarian fencing team from 1980 to 1988.

 

Joseph MacBrienJoseph MacBrien

Sailing on the Dragon Boat, Serendipity, Joseph MacBrien, 39, teamed up with fellow Canadians Ed Botterell and Lynn Watters to compete at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the waters of Enoshima. A Toronto native, MacBrien served in the Royal Canadian Navy as an Officer Cadet, as well as on British and Australian warships in WWII. As a pilot, he also flew 66 combat missions for the US Navy in the Korean War, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross. MacBrien passed away on November 18, 2018 at the age of 94.

Barkley and Wang on TNT set
Lin Wang and Charles Barkley on the TNT set

One of the best sports stories of 2018 is a story of an Odd Couple.

Gentler than the relationship of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, more real than the bond between Melvin Dummar and Howard Hughes, was the friendship between a cat litter scientist in Muscatine, Iowa named Lin Wang, and one of the most famous basketball players on the planet, Charles Barkley.

The story told by Wang’s daughter, a journalist named Shirley Wang, set the internet world abuzz a few weeks ago with her feel-good story of how her father was in a hotel in Sacramento in 2014 when he spied Barkley at the empty bar, and then went up to say hi. What ensued was 6 hours of drinks and dinner, and a friendship that lasted four years, much to the mystery of Shirley’s family, and the bemusement of Barkley’s jet-setting friends.

Shirley Wang tells the story eloquently in this audio report for public radio called “My Dad’s Friendship with Charles Barkley.” Wang and Barkley texted each other. Wang would get invited onto the TNT set when Barkley was broadcasting. Barkley would sign Air Jordan and Air Max sneakers for Wang, which Wang would then send to his close friends on their birthdays.

Charles Barkley and Lin Wang selfie
Charles Barkley and Lin Wang selfie

But when Barkley’s mother passed away, Wang dropped everything, got on a plane, made his way to Leeds, Alabama, and attended the funeral. Here’s how Barkley explained the scene to Shirley on the phone last year: “You know, it was obviously a very difficult time. And the next thing I know, he shows up. Everybody’s like, ‘Who’s the Asian dude over there?’ I just started laughing. I said, ‘That’s my boy, Lin.’

Wang’s daughter, Shirley, had no idea who Barkley was, and humored her father who said he was friends with a big celebrity. To her, Barkley was not one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, as her father would fondly note. No, at best he was a B-List celebrity. And as she learned when she was interviewed on a Slate sports podcast, Barkley did not have the best of reputations as a player.

In his hey day, the “Round Mound of Rebound,” as he was known, the 6ft 6 (198cm) and 250 lb (113 kg) Charles Barkley was a loud-mouth, elbow-swinging, rim-shaking Mack Truck on the basketball court, who was an 11-time NBA All Star for the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets.

A member of the US men’s basketball team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, aka The Dream Team, he was labeled the Ugly American for elbowing a slight Angolan player in the chest for little apparent reason. “Next time, maybe I should pick on a fat guy,” he said flippantly after the game.

In defense of friends sitting with him at a bar, he stood up to a guy who was said to throw ice at him and his friends. Barkley chased the 20-year-old man down, picked him up and threw him through the window of the Orlando, Florida bar.  “For all I care, you can lay there and die,” Barkley was quoted as saying as he left the scene.

And in his current role as commentator on the NBA, TNT and their viewers love the unfiltered opinions and clownish antics of Charles Barkley.

Wang, on the other hand, was a quiet cheerful guy, “everybody’s suburban dad”, as his daughter would put it. But Barkley and Wang found a deep common bond, as she explained on the Slate podcast.

To me, they were kindred spirits. They had a chance encounter and they decided to act and follow through on that friendship to exchange numbers and continue talking. I don’t think a lot of people would sense that connection with other people. They wouldn’t go out of their way for other people. I think my dad could feel the gravity of a moment and he could be very convicted about what he needed to do. He felt really convicted about his feelings and his friendships so I guess that’s why he jetted off. It was confusing to us at the time. We didn’t really understand why.”

It really surprised me that he thought about our similar racialized experiences in the US. And of course they were very different. My dad came  with a visa to study for a PhD. He was already on a path set for success, or financial stability. Whereas Charley comes from a lower income family in the South of the US. It was really interesting that they made that connection. But I do think that they come from a very specific generation where that is the belief – the American dream. They can both build themselves up. Anyone can succeed if they work hard enough.

Shirley Wang and Lin Wang
Shirley Wang and Lin Wang

In May of 2016, Lin Wang was diagnosed with cancer, a fact he hid for a long time from friends, including Barkley. And in June of 2018, Wang passed away. And as the guests began to settle in to the funeral taking place in Iowa City, Iowa, Shirley looked behind her. “Standing there — drenched in sweat from the Iowa summer, towering over everyone in the room at 6 feet, 6 inches tall — was Charles Barkley.”

Alone, slightly panicked, disoriented in a town he had never been with people at a funeral he had never met, but gracious and humble, Barkley was true to the spirit of his friendship with Wang – authentic.

In her phone interview, Shirley asked Barkley what they talked about. He replied they talked primarily about their kids, and that Wang talked about his son and daughter a lot. And Barkley, to the surprise of the world, dispensed insight into the parental mind that melted hearts:

“Hey, listen. You stay in touch. Please tell your mom I said hello. Give her a big kiss. Tell your brother I said hello. And listen: Just keep doing you. It’s your time now. Don’t forget that. That’s the most important thing. Your dad prepared you to take care of yourself. He prepared you for that. I was blessed to know him — and know you, too.”

“Thank you for your time,” I said.

“You’re welcome, baby. You take it easy, you hear?”

“You too.”

I know how much his friendship with Charles Barkley meant to my dad. It was not just a relationship with a celebrity — it shed light on the possibilities of this world. A world where someone like him could just say something cool, something charming, and befriend someone like Charles Barkley.

Haripal Kaushik

Haripal Kaushik

Haripal Kaushik was a three-time Olympian and won two gold medals on the dominant India field hockey teams of the 20th century. An assistant captain of the team, he witnessed India’s string of six consecutive Olympic championships end at the 1960 Rome Olympics when Pakistan took gold, but was on the field when India defeated Pakistan at Komazawa Olympic Stadium in 1964. Karushik served in the Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army, and after the Olympics had a career as a field hockey administrator and television commentator. He passed away on January 25, 2018 at the age of 83.

 

Kaoroly Palotai_1964

Károly Palotai

Károly Palotai was midfielder on the Hungarian football club, Győri ETO FC, and was on the strong Hungarian national team that won gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Palotai went on to a long and successful career as a referee, on the field officiating at the 1974, 1978 and 1982 FIFA World Cups, as well as the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. Palotai died on February 3, 2018 at the age of 82.

 

 

Sir Durwold Knowles_1964

Durwold Knowles (right)

Durward Knowles

Durward Knowles was a sailor from the Bahamas who, with Cecil Cooke, won the first Olympic gold medal for the Bahamas in the Star class at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The native of Nassau died on February 24, 2018, nearly 4 months into his 100th birthday. Knowles was an 8-time Olympian, first representing Great Britain in 1948 before representing the Bahamas from 1952. It was thought that the 1972 Munich Games was his last, until Knowles returned to competition at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, becoming one of only four Olympics to have competed over a span of 40 years. Knowles was, at the age of 80, easily the oldest competitor at the Seoul Olympics and was the Bahamas flag bearer in the opening ceremony.

 

Sven-Olov_Sjödelius_1960

Sven-Olov Sjödelius

Sven-Olov Sjödelius was a two time gold medalist in the K-2 1000-meter canoe event representing Sweden at both the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The native of Svärta, Sweden. Trained as a mechanic, Sjödelius also served as a member of the Swedish Olympic Committee. He died on March 29, 2018 at the age of 84.

 

Jan Cameron
Janice Cameron

Janice Cameron

Janice Cameron (née Murphy) won a silver medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on the Australian 4×100 freestyle swim team. The native of Sydney, Australia went on to coach swimming in Australia, Canada and the US before settling into a long career as coach and sports administrator in New Zealand. She was appointed national coach for the New Zealand swim team in 2001. Cameron passed way on April 30, 2018 at the age of 71.

 

Irena Szewińska 1964
Irena Szewińska

Irena Szewińska

Irena Szewińska, née Kirszenstein, passed away on June 29, at the age of 72. The native of Warsaw, Kirszenstein was one of the greatest women athletes of the 20th century, the only sprinter in history to have held the world record in the 100, 200 and 400-meters. She competed in five Olympics from 1964 to 1980, winning three golds, two silver and two bronzes in the sprints and the long jump. The “Athlete of the 20th Century in Poland” was a busy sports administrator from the mid 1980s, serving on the IAAF, the EAA as well as the IOC. She was also a stage actress before focusing on athletics, once portraying Ophelia in Hamlet.

 

Hans_Günter_Winkler_1966
Hans Günter Winkler_

Hans Günter Winkler
Hans Günter Winkler was an equestrian show jumper who appeared in six consecutive Olympics from 1956 to 1972, compiling five old medals, a silver and a bronze, primarily in team jumping. Representing Germany, and then West Germany, Winkler won his sole individual jumping medal at his Olympic debut at the 1956 Stockholm Games where his mare, Halla, carried him to victory despite a painful groin strain. Winkler went on to a successful career as a representative in a pharmaceutical company and a US mail-order company. Winkler passed away on July 9 at the age of 91.

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.

 

Ralph Boston_Mexico 1968_from his collection
Ralph Boston jumping at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, from his collection.

I’ve researched the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for four years. I published an original blog post everyday for over a thousand days straight in the course of my research. And I finally completed the manuscript of my book, “1964:  The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise From the Ashes.” Here are a few of the articles I wrote in 2018 relevant to those Games in 1964:

Rich Stebbins_2016
Stebbins at the Northwest Express Track and Field Classic in Florida, June, 2016.
Fred Hansen on the medal podium
Fred Hansen on the medal podium.