Bob Hayes_The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics_1
Bob Hayes, from the book The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics

It’s the Olympics. You’re a football player with blazing speed, and you’re prepping to win gold, to be crowned the fastest man in the world.

But on October 15, 1964, in the midst of the Tokyo Olympics, Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev was removed from power by Soviet leadership. American journalists, hoping to get a great quote from the biggest name in Tokyo, ask Bob Hayes, “What do you think?”

As he wrote in his autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run, “What did a twenty-one-year-old kid who was trying to win a gold medal at the Olympics know about what was happening in the Soviet Union? I mean, if the experts in the CIA couldn’t see Khrushchev’s downfall coming, what was I supposed to know about it?”

Hayes hit the nail on the head with his response to the press: “I’m just going to answer your question once. I’m here to win a gold medal and not to talk about politics.”

Hayes, like the best high performance athletes, was focused on his mission.  Gold in the 100-meter finals. Gold in the 4×100-meter relays.

And yet….there’s always something.

It is hours before the finals of the 100-meter dash on October 15. Hayes is sitting in his room in the Olympic Village with the hopes of keeping himself calm. His roommate, long jumper Ralph Boston, is lying on his bed, keeping to himself.

Then walks in Joe Frazier, boxing heavyweight contender, who bounced into Hayes’ room a “bundle of nerves, but especially that day because he had an important boxing match coming up. He started throwing punches at my head. I asked him to leave me alone, so he went over to Ralph’s bed and threw jabs up to within an inch or two of Ralph’s head.”

Needless, to say, the eventual gold medal and heavyweight champion of the world was a distraction. Not getting the reaction he wanted, Frazier began rummaging Hayes’ bag for gum, stuck it in his mouth, and left.

Bob Hayes_The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics_3
Receiving his gold medal for the 100 -meters finals, from the book, The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics

Flash forward to the National Stadium and the fastest runners in the world are prepping for the 100-meter finals. Hayes gets to the track and opens his bag to pull out his shoes. To his surprise, he finds only his right shoe. He dumps the contents of his bag and can’t find the left shoe. “The biggest race of my life, and I was missing a shoe.”

But who walks by but middle distance runner and teammate, Tom Farrell. Hayes has relatively small feet and is hoping against hope that Farrell happens to have the same size shoes – size eight. So when Farrell replied to Hayes’ sudden and unusual question, he said “Well, I wear size eight.”

Not only did Farrell wear the same size shoe, he also wore the Adidas 100 shoe that Hayes’ did. Now, properly attired for battle, Hayes lined up.

And then he learned that Hayes was placed in lane 1. Lane 1 is the innermost lane on the track, and the cinder track had been chopped up by some three dozen race walkers for three circles before heading out on the rest of their 20K journey. Don’t the fastest runners in the semis get the choice middle lanes? Not at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where sprinters were assigned lanes randomly.

So Hayes set up his blocks. His biggest rivals, Cuban Enrique Figuerola and Canadian Harry Jerome were in the less chewed up lanes 3 and 5. As he got set at his mark, the muscular Hayes was a tightly wound coil ready to spring, ticked off about his lane placement. “I was totally intense, the more so because iw as angry about having to run in the inside lane. Finally, I picked out a spot straight ahead of me down the track and vowed that I was going to get there before anyone else did.”

He did. Convincingly. Watch the video from the 3’ 55” mark to watch the black and white footage of the race. The angle is long enough to show the entire field. And you can see Hayes dominating the field from start to finish. Fastest Man in the World. By far.

 

Gold medal in hand, Hayes returned to his room. Hidden under his bedspread was the missing shoe. The next time he saw Joe Frazier, he shouted “’Don’t you ever go in my bag again!’ That was about the only time I ever saw Joe Frazier apologetic.”

Bob Hayes – fastest man in the world – bringing new meaning to the phrase “if the shoe fits, wear it.”

Bob Hayes_number five_Los Angeles Trials_Pathe
Bob Hayes (5) winning the US Track Trials in_Los Angeles_Pathe

It’s simple physics. The fastest you run, the harder it is to turn suddenly. And when you’re built like a freight train, as Bob Hayes was, and the track began curving just at the end of the 100-meter finish line, you either have to turn that curve at top speed, or head straight into a brick wall.

Hayes wasn’t at Rutgers to study physics. It was June 27, 1964, and he was competing in the national championships of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in New Jersey. Hayes was already anointed Olympic champion in the 100 meters by prognosticators, months before the start of the Games. But he still had to qualify for the US track team heading to Tokyo.

At that time, there were two trials to be held – one in Randall’s Island, NY in July, and the other a couple of months later in Los Angeles, California. But first, Hayes had to negotiate a curve in New Jersey. At the 60-meter mark, Hayes felt a twinge in his left thigh, so he eased up. He still won the race, but he was bearing hard on the brick wall, so he stumbled around the curve, slowing down to a limp.

Bob Hayes with Henry Carr at the US Olympic Trials in LA
Bob Hayes with Henry Carr at the US Olympic Trials in LA_AP_September 9, 1964

Hayes headed right to the training room, got prone face down on the table, and understood fairly quickly, as his trainer picked and probed his leg, that something was wrong. It was indeed a pulled hamstring.

Only 75 days from the Olympics, his hammie had let him down. But Hayes thought that he did not have 75 days to heal. He had only a little over a week to heal before the first Olympic track trials were held during the July 4th weekend. And heal, he did not. At the end of the two-day track trials at Randall’s Island, Hayes could only watch and grimace in pain, both physical and psychological. The flash from Florida had to wait, wondering whether the powers that be would grant him an exception so that he can participate in the second trial in Los Angeles.

The US men’s track coach, Bob Giegengack, strolled alongside Hayes, making small talk, before saying, “We voted to advance you to Los Angeles, Bob.”

So Bullet Bob, dodged a bullet, as it were.

Hayes’ hamstring improved, but he only dared to train with light jogging. And when mid-September and his date with destiny at the final track and field trials rolled around, Hayes was so nervous he could not sleep. He had gained ten pounds and he had yet to go full speed in the recuperation period since the AAU national championships.

And when he was on his way to the Coliseum, the stadium where the Olympic trials were being held, Hayes had a scare. He got in an elevator joined by discus throwers Al Oerter and Jay Silvester, as well as shot put thrower, Dallas Long. As Hayes explained in his autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run, the three of them alone weighed nearly half a ton. The elevator refused to work, and so Hayes, in a hurry to get to his sprinting trials, was waiting nervously for nearly 10 minutes. The doors were eventually clawed open, so that Hayes could pull himself up three feet to get out, and then jogged to the stadium, negotiating highway traffic to the stadium and the trials in time.

Hayes made it in time. When he lined up to race, he saw sprinters whom he had beaten multiple times, but he did not know if his hamstring could take full speed. No time like the present.

When the gun went off, Hayes started somewhat tentatively. But nearly halfway through the race, the locomotive gathered steam. Once Hayes had the lead, it continued to grow. The Bullet blazed to victory in 10.1 seconds.

Thanks to the coaches, Hayes was saved in Randall’s Island to live another day. And Hayes paid back his coaches’ faith in him by drubbing the field. Hayes was headed for Tokyo.

 

Watch Hayes victory in Los Angeles at the 11 second mark of this video.

Multiple choice question:

The top activity for foreign tourists in Japan is:

  • a) Shopping  
  • b) Eating Japanese Food  
  • c) Getting Swallowed Up by Hundreds of People Wading Through the Famous Shibuya Scramble Crossing While Attempting to Take a Selfie  
  • d) Visiting All of the Sites/Buildings Godzilla has Knocked Down and Blazed to the Ground in His Career
  • e) All of the Above

According to the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA), which recently released the results of its Q1 2017 survey of foreign tourists visiting Japan, the answer is……

b) Eating Japanese Food

As explained in Terrie Lloyd’s blog, Terrie’s Take, “69.1% (of the foreign tourists surveyed) listed food as their top anticipated experience, followed 16 points further back by 52.5% wanting to go shopping. Perhaps even more importantly, the JTA’s survey of people exiting Japan lists the Number One experience during the trip as ‘Eating Japanese food’, which came in at an amazing 95.3%! Next after food was shopping, at 83.5%.”

 

Sushi
Three of my favorites!

 

Lloyd went on to provide interesting insight from the survey. He noted that the most popular Japanese dishes were sushi, ramen, Wagyu steak or sukiyaki. He also added that depending on the region from where the tourists come, the Japanese food of choice differs.

For travelers from Vietnam, India, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, Canada, or France, the number one choice is sushi.

For tourists from Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, United Kingdom, United States, or Australia, the number one craving is ramen.

 

And for those travelling foodies from South Korea or Hong Kong it’s all about the beef – wagyu steak or sukiyaki.

I can’t argue with sushi, ramen and Wagyu. Frankly, they are so good here, I’d eat any of those items only in Japan if I had the choice.

 

Wagyu
One of my very good dinners.

Rhein Ruhr 2032 map

Despite the growing fears of the Olympics as financial albatross, and thus the diminishing number of cities interested in hosting an Olympics, interest in the 2032 Summer Games is, strangely enough, popping.

As explained in post 1, India is investing in a study to determine the feasibility of hosting the Summer Olympics after Paris and Los Angeles. Perhaps more surprising, after the citizens of Hamburg voted against the bid in a referendum in November, 2015, 13 cities in an area called North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany have already put forth a preliminary plan to host the 2032 Summer Olympics and Paralympics.

Instead of making a single city the focal point, Dusseldorf and Cologne will be two large centers of sporting activity, surrounded by nine other cities, including Bonn and Essen, that will host sports venues. According to the site, SportsPro, “Over 80 per cent of venues are already said to be available, including 16 stadiums with more than 30,000 seats and 24 large sports halls.”

By expanding the number of locales, and thus the number of ready-to-go sports venues, costs can be kept reasonably low, which is certainly in line with what both IOC and local populations expect.

The flip side of the so-called Rhein Ruhr bid is that the “Athletes First” guiding philosophy takes a hit, as explained in Gamesbid.com:

Germany’s option would lessen the risk that the IOC fears, but the widespread plan is poised to damage the overall athletes and Games experience that is core draw of the Olympic Movement.  There are no details in the plans that describe the Olympic Village, but with over one-hour travel time between Düsseldorf and many venues, transportation and the use of a single Olympic Village could be a concern.

Thomas Bach and Narendra Modi
Thomas Bach and Narendra Modi

Bidders for the 2022 Winter Games were so few that the IOC ended up with a winning city, Beijing, that does not get much snow, and thus will have to manufacture it to hold ski competitions.

Bidders for the 2024 Summer Games dropped like flies – Boston, Rome, Hamburg, Budapest – forcing IOC to take its two remaining bids of LA and Paris, and offer them both the next two Olympiads, for fear of not having a decent bid for 2028.

And yet, despite the mounting dissatisfaction in localities where hosting the Olympics are most possible, India is gearing up for a 2032 bid for the Summer Olympics. According to Around the Rings, India’s Sports Ministry is about to initiate a feasibility study into a possible bid in order to convince the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, who has his doubts. “A study backed by the Indian Sports Ministry could help convince Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to flip his position on bringing the Olympics to the country for the first time.”

If the study indicates that India could organize an Olympics in 2032, then the India Olympic Association will ask the ministry officially for approval to make an official bid.

Modi had actually declined an invitation from IOC president, Thomas Bach, to make a bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics on the heels of a corruption scandal that was reported during India’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games. It is also likely that Modi wondered whether the Olympics would be the right area of focus amidst all of its social, financial and infrastructure needs. But Modi appears to be a man of data and facts, so the study is an attempt to provide a rationale and a plan.

According to The Times of India, a ministry source has stated:

We are keen on understanding where the country stands before we decide upon the future course of action. All things that go into hosting the Games will be discussed as we pose ourselves the question whether it is desirable and practical and whether we ought to consider bidding for Olympics at any point.

As a “practice run” to the Olympics, the India Olympic Association is also requesting the sports ministry to approve a bid for the 2030 Asian Games.

So will we see a New Delhi 2032 Campaign? We’ll find out 8 years from now in 2025, when the IOC is currently scheduled to begin the 2032 selection process.

So, yeah, don’t hold your breath.

Voskhod_1_004

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were not the only news on October 13 and 14. The Soviet Union’s rocket, The Voskhod, orbited the earth 15 times from October 12-13 – the first spaceship to send more than one person into space. In a recorded conversation between Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and mission commander, Valdimir Komarov, Khrushchev swelled with pride, while Komarov spoke with modest confidence of the need to complete the mission.

What is fascinating to me was the constant reference to the sound quality. In the 14 exchanges, 10 had references to the sound. Here are the last three exchanges of this very long-distance conversation, as published in this October 13 New York Times article:

KHRUSHCHEV: I could hear you wonderfully, absolutely wonderfully. Well, I wish you, dear comrades and friends, good luck in the cosmos. The most important wish is for a happy landing on earth.

COLONEL KOMAROV: Thank you very much, Nikita Sergeievich, we could hear you excellently as if we are talking in Moscow on a normal telephone. We understood you. Everything is in order here.

KHRUSHCHEV: I could hear you quite well. Just as everything is in order at this very minute I hope everything is in order at this very last minute of your flight. The people here are triumphantly excited and are proud of you. We are waiting here for you on earth. Good-by.

Competition between the Soviet Union and the United States was so intense in the early 1960s that the quality of the video and audio transmissions from space were scrutinized closely, a mini-technology Olympics of sorts. According to Kyodo-Reuters, they noted that “Western observers” were impressed with the video transmission, remarking that “the quality of the space TV relay was higher than when pictures were relayed to earth from American spaceman Leroy Gordon Cooper’s ship Faith 7 in May 1963.” However, “the quality of the recording was poor and individual speakers could not be distinguished….”

Voskhod Konstantin Feoktistov, Boris Yegorov, Vladimir Komarov
Voskhod Konstantin Feoktistov, Boris Yegorov, Vladimir Komarov

Were the Soviet leaders and cosmonauts lying about how clearly they heard each other? Were the reports by “Western observers” an exaggeration? Who knows. Cold War trash talking was de rigeur in the sixties.

At any rate, the achievements of the Voskhod appeared to be advantage Russia. After all, NASA did not send a two-man crew into space until five months later. This AP report on October 13 quoted a British newspaper, The Guardian, as stating:

It now seems certain the Russians will get to the moon before the Americans….the (Soviet) crew….will probably knew enough about the behavior of the human body in a weightless condition (and perhaps also in an artificial atmosphere containing helium instead of nitrogen) to predict something approaching certainty a date when prolonged space travel will be feasible. All men in all countries will accept the Russian’s achievements for what they are – a triumph not just for Communists but for questing mankind.

Another third party agreed that the Soviets may have taken the lead in the space race, but they added concern with the competition. The only nation to be devastated by the most technologically advanced weaponry of its time, the atomic bomb, the editors of The Japan Times explained in an October 14 opinion piece that continued technological one-upmanship between the two superpowers could eventually lead to wars among the stars.

Among the objectives of the Voskhod’s flight mentioned by Tass is the carrying out of an extended medico-biological research in the conditions of a long flight. We may perhaps take it for granted that Soviet Russia has by no means given up the idea of placing a man on the moon. Recently, this has been regarded as an American ambition rather than a Soviet one, and it may be that the Russians are more eager to place in orbit around the earth a space laboratory or even an orbital military station. We must wait the denouement – which may not be long in coming.

It is a sad reflection that in an age in which mankind has achieved the capacity to investigate outer space that we should have to think of the possible military use of the capabilities which are now being constantly added to, but we must accept the grim facts of our situation. There are still serious tensions on earth, and if these should ever burst into conflict we may be sure an effort would be made to use outer space for military purposes. While this possibility exits, the two great nations – the United States and Soviet Russia – feel the need to watch closely each other’s progress in space, if for no other reason.

The Americans and Soviets did not need added incentive to beat each other at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And yet, the achievements of the Voskhod probably put a little spring into the steps of the Russians. At least for a few days. Only three days after the Voskhod successfully landed, leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, the man who famously said to the United States “We will bury you,” was unexpectedly removed from power.

A clip from the film, The Right Stuff: a glimpse of the American sense of urgency in the space race of the 1960s.

Voskhod Japan Times headline

Yoshinobu Miyake was the first Japanese to win a gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. But that wasn’t good enough to secure the biggest headline on the front page of The Japan Times on Tuesday, October 13, 1964.

Instead, the full-page headline blared: “Soviets Orbit Three-Man Spaceship”.

On Monday, October 12, the rocket ship, Voskhod, blasted off from a town named “Baikonur” in the southern part of the then-Soviet Union, a town near the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. The ship held three cosmonauts: command pilot Vladimir Komarov, engineer Konstantin Feoktistov, and medical doctor Boris Yegorov.

The launch was 10:30 am Moscow time, which, with the six-hour time difference, was 4:30 pm Tokyo time. About three hours later, in the early evening, Voskhod transmitted a message to the world, as the second day of competition at the Tokyo Olympics was coming to a close:

Voskhod (l to r) Konstantin Feoktistov, Vladimir Komarov,Boris Yegorov.
Konstantin Feoktistov, Vladimir Komarov, Boris Yegorov.

Flying over Tokyo we convey ardent greetings to the youth of the world participating in the 18th Olympic Games which are called upon to play a big role in strengthening the cooperation and mutual understanding of sportsmen of all continents, in the rapprochement of peoples, and is consolidating the cause of peace.

Perhaps as a dig to their American competitors in the Olympic Village, Soviet officials and athletes there were reported to take the news in stride, according to the Yomiuri. “I knew it was coming off two weeks ago, before I left Moscow,” one Soviet sports official said. “It’s nothing special any more. We’re doing these things all the time,” a Soviet athlete commented.

And yet, this was not just geo-political gamesmanship, sending a ship into orbit during the biggest international event in the world. The Voskhod was a significant advancement in space travel, as it was the first space flight to:

  • send more than one person into space
  • not require the spacemen to wear spacesuits (in fact, they appeared to the press to be wearing overalls, or “ordinary clothes”)
  • send an engineer or a medical doctor into space
  • Climb as high as 336 kilometers from the earth’s surface.

The Voskhod, “Sunrise” in English, orbited the earth 15 times. As it took 90 minutes for the ship to orbit once, the entire time in space was close to 23 hours. During that time, the three cosmonauts were very active, conducting experiments, taking pictures, and noting observations, according to this site called RussianSpaceWeb.com.

During the mission, Komarov piloted and oriented the spacecraft in space, while Feoktistov had responsibility for observations and photography of the Earth, as well as the work with the sextant, an experiment studying the behavior of the liquid in weightlessness, monitoring and recording characteristics of newly installed ion sensors relative to the velocity vector of the spacecraft. All these responsibilities left Feoktistov little time for sleep. Still, the crew was able to fulfill a lot: cosmonauts took several hundred photos of the Earth’s surface, hurricanes, clouds and ice sheets, sunsets and sunrises, the Sun and the horizon. The crew was able to discern several layers of the atmosphere with different levels of brightness, which could help to provide more accurate angular elevation of stars over the horizon, if it would be necessary to determine the ship’s exact position in space. In the meantime, Yegorov conducted his medical studies. To the surprise of his crew mates, Yegorov succeeded with most of his program of taking blood samples, measuring pressure and pulse.

After the 15th orbit, Voskhod entered the earth’s atmosphere and returned safely, landing in a field on a state farm. Different from landings by American spaceships, which send the returning capsules splashing down into the ocean, the Soviet Union brings them back to terra firma. Figuring out soft landings are thus an imperative, and it appears that Soviet scientists and engineers had made advancements in braking methods, employing parachutes and applying retro-rockets just before hitting the surface.

So on the third day of competition the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, “Sunrise” again was the biggest headline in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Nihonbashi 1960
Nihonbashi in 1960
Nihonbashi recently
Nihonbashi in more recent years.

There were many who saw the spreading spiderweb of elevated expressways crisscrossing Tokyo in the 1960s as progress. There were many others who groaned at the growing eyesore of concrete ceilings blotting out the sky. The expressway section in particular that gets the elderly sighing in memory of yesteryear is the one totally covering Nihonbashi.

Built originally in 1603 out of wood, Nihonbashi, was the start and end point for travelers between Edo (as Tokyo used to be called) and Kyoto (the imperial capitol). In fact, Nihonbashi, which literally translates as Japan Bridge, used to be called Edobashi.

Nihonbashi circa 1922
Nihonbashi circa 1922

In 1911, the bridge was rebuilt with steel and stone, and stayed intact despite the firebombing of American planes during the end of the second world war. For centuries, Nihonbashi, when you crossed from east to west, provided an unimpeded view of Mount Fuji. But as Japan-hand and author, Robert Whiting wrote in The Japan Times, the expressway built over Nihonbashi just prior to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was a travesty.

I remember taking a walk along the canal to see the famous bridge, shortly before the games began. I was dismayed to see its once-charming appearance completely ruined by the massive highway just a few feet overhead, like a giant concrete lid, obliterating the sky. The smell from the toxic water in the canal was so offensive I had to cover my nose. I imagined Mt. Fuji, looking on from afar, doing the same.

The reconstruction effort for the Olympics cost Tokyo much of its navigable waterways. By planting the supporting columns of the highways and other structures in the water below, many river docks were rendered useless, costing even more jobs. Water stagnated, fish died and biochemical sludge, known as hedoro in Japanese, formed.

According to Whiting, while government officials would have preferred to build the expressways underground, they could not raise enough funds to cover all of the infrastructure projects and the additional cost of buying up land in the middle of the city. Elevated highways made it less necessary to purchase land that would instantly increase in value. So up went the highways, over canals and roads, darkening shops and skimming buildings.

Metropolitan Expressway over Nihonbashi being built
The Metropolitan Expressway route being constructed over the historic Nihonbashi bridge in Chuo Ward in 1963 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Over half a century later, the Japanese government has finally resolved that it is time for Nihonbashi to see the light. Land and Transport Minister, Keiichi Ishii, announced on July 21, 2017 that Tokyo will initiate a project to remove the elevated roads above the bridge, and find another place for it underground. As he said in this Asia-Nikkei article, “Nihonbashi is the source of Japan’s roads. It will be reborn as a place where you can see the clear sky.”

The work won’t begin until after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But the plan is there. And a wrong will finally be righted.

Kengo Kuma's Staidum
Kengo Kuma’s National Stadium design

One thousand and ninety six more days to the commencement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics!

That’s 365 X 3 + 1. Don’t forget, 2020 is a leap year!

Three years hence from today, July 24, Tokyo will be welcoming the world to the biggest sports fest there is – The Summer Olympics.

The first country to ever host both the Summer Olympics and the Paralympics twice, Japan will be the focal point for sports from July 24 to August 9, 2020.

In 1964, Tokyo hosted the Olympics from October 10 to 24, for a total of 16 days, which was standard in the 1960s and 1970s. However, since Barcelona, the opening ceremonies was pushed one day earlier from Saturday to Friday, likely allowing for two full weekends of sporting events, and an opportunity to maximize television viewership.

Another difference between 1964 and 2020 is the timing. In 1964, the “Summer” Olympics were held in the Fall to avoid September monsoons. But this time, the Olympics will be held in the hottest period in Japan – late July and early August. This has been the general timing for the past eleven Summer Olympics, excluding a September Sydney Games and Seoul Games.

My guess is that the various international federations want consistency in Olympic scheduling so that their own world championships and Olympic trials do not end up in conflict. That would be the same for many school systems that go on holiday break during the summer months. And television broadcasters may also prefer to have the Olympics to fill what are usually filled with summer repeats.

But I speculate.

One thing is certain. The Summer Olympics are coming to Tokyo on July 24, 2020.

Hope to see you here.

And just in case you need to know, click here for the countdown to Tokyo 2020.

See you in Tokyo Rio Olympics
Tokyo’s Presentation at the Rio Olympic Closing Ceremonies
Betty Cuthbert 2_with torch at Sydney Olympics
Betty Cuthbert with torch at The 2000 Sydney Olympics

Rhonda Gilam was a typical woman living in Mandurah, a city south of Perth, Australia. In 1985, she was middle aged, married, and her three children were adults. She ran a bus charter business with her husband Keith, and she enjoyed golf, tennis and taking trips in her buses. But she gave it up when she said she received a message from God telling her to give up that life, which she did.

In 1991, Gilam heard a second message, according to this article in the Weekend Australian. The message is: “Ring Betty Cuthbert.” So she does.

Thus began an incredible friendship between Gilam and one of the 20th century’s greatest sprinters, Betty Cuthbert, the only athlete, male or female, to win Olympic championships in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races. The two had met only briefly once before. As they had both recently experienced a dramatic re-awakening of their relationship with God as born-again Christians, they connected immediately over the phone. Gilam told Cuthbert that “she had been called by God to care for Betty Cuthbert.”

In her autobiography, Golden Girl, Cuthbert wrote that was surprised by the call, but when she was invited to take a weekend break with Gilam in Mandurah, Cuthbert agreed to join her. After a wonderful weekend with Gilam, Cuthbert decided to leave her home in Perth and move to Mandurah so she could be near Gilam, allowing herself to be dependent on someone.Golden Girl

This is no ordinary friendship. For the next 24 years, Gilam took care of Cuthbert, who was a far cry from her physical self of the 1950s and 1960s. Cuthbert had MS, or multiple sclerosis, a debilitating condition that impacts the nervous system, leaves her fatigued, impacts her motor skills and her eyesight, and currently requires her to be in an electric wheelchair. Cuthbert had lived with MS since the early 1970s without telling people beyond close family members and friends, and in fact left her family in Sydney so she would not be treated like a person with a disability.

Betty Cuthbert 3_with Rhonda Gilam
Betty Cuthbert with Rhonda Gilam

Gilam’s life became one of devotion to the care of Cuthbert. Until Cuthbert moved into a nursing home in 2015, Gilam kept Cuthbert’s apartment clean, transported her, showered her, massaged her, answered her fan mail, cleaned her clothes…everything. Another legendary Australian track star, Ron Clarke, a close friend of Cuthbert’s, was also grateful to Gilam according to the magazine article.

“I was just upset that she had done so much to be such a legend of Australian sport and then no one was helping her. I was disgusted. She was our greatest athlete. But she was also fiercely independent. So needing assistance was something foreign to her.” For years Clarke watched Betty fight her disease largely alone as she actively fought off first a wheelchair and later the notion of full-time care, relenting, at last, to the divine intervention of Rhonda. “When you get the call, you get the call,” Clarke says. “You have no idea what Rhonda’s done. She took her in, her and her husband, and they looked after her. Phenomenal. Had it not been for Rhonda, I don’t know what would have happened to her after that.”

Thanks to that special bond between Gilam and Cuthbert, the legendary winner of the 400-meter finals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is still flashing her radiant smile.