Konjiki Tsukasa and Masa Akimoto _The Yomiuri_October 5, 1964
From The Yomiuri_October 5, 1964

Konjiki Tsukasa was on October 10. So he thought it would be great to get married on October 10. And since the Olympics were in town, why not get married at the National Stadium on October 10, 1964, the opening day of the Tokyo Olympics.

His fiance, Masa Akimoto, agreed.

But first they had to get tickets. According to an article in The Yomiuri on October 11, 1964, the couple had 70 friends apply for opening day tickets, perhaps the hottest tickets ever to go on sale in Japan at the time. The system at the time was to apply and get your names thrown in a lottery. Fortunately, two of their friends landed them a ticket each.

But now, in addition to a ticket for the priest, they needed two witnesses. Instead of trying to find two more tickets, Konjiki called the Japan Travel Bureau (JTB) many times to try to convince them to find two people who already had tickets to the Opening Ceremonies to be their wedding witnesses. According to an October 5 Yomiuri article, JTB personnel did not initially take the requests seriously, suspecting a possible scam. But Konjiki persisted, and finally convinced JTB to find two people who happened to be seated near Konjiki and Akimoto. JTB then provided an extra ticket for the priest.

Wearing red blazers with the Olympic emblem, likely similar to what the members of the Japanese Olympic team wore, the party of five entered the stadium at 10 am, about 5 hours prior to the start of the Games, and got hitched. They then proceeded to wait patiently, got to their seats for the Opening Ceremonies, and had one of the memorable wedding days a Japanese couple could possibly have.

That was one way to get in to see the Opening Ceremonies. The Yomiuri explained on October 11 another way…which did not end well. I’ll just let you read the report about these two students:

Two youths without tickets so eager to see the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games that they hid themselves in National Stadium before the event, were arrested before the start of ceremonies by patrolling policemen.

A 19-year-old boy from Tsuabame, Niigata-ken, whose name was withheld, entered the stadium Thursday (two days before) wearing a fake press armband, after showing a business card of a Niigata Nippo newspaper reporter.

A second youth, Shuro Iino, 21, freshman a Waseda University, was discovered hiding in a toilet at 11:15 pm Friday, after climbing over a fence.

 

Mel Pender Bob Hayes_1964 100 meter finals
Mel Pender in outermost lane, and Bob Hayes in innermost lane at the 100-meter finals of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

American sprinter, Trent Jackson, easily won his 100-meter heat at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Mel Pender qualified with ease. Jackson won his quarter0final heat as well, while Pender tied for first in his, and thus they both made the top 16, and joined favorite, Bob Hayes, in the semi-final heats.

For some reason, Jackson had his worst time, and did not come close to making the final 8. Pender finished fourth in his semi-final heat, barely qualifying for the finals. And he looked ugly in the process, tumbling to the cinder track in pain. Bob Hayes noted in his autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run, that Pender was carted off on a stretcher.

As Pender reveals in his autobiography, Expression of Hope – The Mel Pender Story, he had torn muscles around his rib cage, which created intense pain when he ran. How did he get the injury? It’s one of those inexplicable things you hear every so often – meaningless horseplay. Pender told me that he and his friend, Trent Jackson, were “messing around…when he punched me in the stomach. We were just messing around, but it caused some internal bleeding. This was right after the first race and before the semi finals.”

He said that a doctor had given him injections to kill the pain, and advised Pender not to run. On the verge of the 100-meter finals to declare the fastest man in the world, there was no way Pender was going to disqualify himself just because he was in pain around the chest. In fact, when Hayes said to Pender, “Hey shorty, you’re just going to watch my behind,” Pender put on a brave face, and replied, “better watch mine.”

According to Hayes, he went up to Pender in lane 8 just before the start of the finals and said, “‘Mel, I ain’t saying good luck to nobody to beat me, but I hope I finish first and you finish second. ‘Mel turned to me and said, ‘I’m finishing first and you finish second.’ Mel and I both knew he didn’t have a chance because of the his injury, and he showed fantastic courage just by running with the pain he had.”

Mel Pender injured
Mel Pender collapsing at the end of the semi-finals of the 100-meter competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics_from the collection of Mel Pender

So Pender ran. Stationed in the outside lane, Pender shot out of the blocks. But all attention quickly shifted to the innermost lanes where Bob Hayes and Enrique Figuerola were pulling away. Of course, as you can see in this video, Hayes continues to pull away to win the gold, tying the world and Olympic records of 10 seconds flat.

Pender finished in sixth. According to a October 20, 1964 article in the US Military newspaper, Stars and Stripes, the Army sergeant was devastated.

I promised my wife and daughter I’d bring them home a gold medal. If there would have been more time between the semi-finals and the finals of the 100, I think I could have won it. In the last run I just couldn’t get that little kick. I was in front of Jerome (Harry Jerome of Canada) and Figuerola (Enrique Figuerola, Cuba) at about 70 meters mark when the pain got so bad that I lost stride and didn’t know if I could make it to the finish line.

Pender was quoted as saying that he hoped his coach would allow him to run in the 4×100 meter relay, which I believe would have been unlikely the condition he was in. “I’d run from here (the hospital in Tachikawa) to the Olympic Village if they’ll just give me the opportunity to compete.”

 

Mel Pender_Medal of Honor
Mel Pender receiving his Medal of Honor_from the collection of Mel Pender.

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong had to overcome the challenge of being Black in America, and discovered in their trips to Europe that their talent was far more significant than their color. Over 100,000 African Americans were sent to Europe to fight during World War I. After the war, a large number stayed, feeding the fascination for jazz music that began to fill the most popular clubs in Paris. In Europe, blacks were viewed not as inferiors, but as individuals. And jazz artists were revered.

Two-time Olympian, Mel Pender, is African American, has been subject to subtle and overt discrimination throughout his life in Georgia and in the US military. His autobiography, Expression of Hope – The Mel Pender Story, is peppered with such anecdotes. He joined the US military which had just begun de-segregation, in advance of the Supreme Court ruling for schools to end de-segregation between whites and blacks. So Pender had expected an even higher respect for meritocracy and equality in the Army. And yet, he remembers his first trip on the bus en route to basic training. The bus stopped for lunch. The whites went in the restaurant through the front door, and the blacks through a side door. Pender silently fumed.

I would not get off the bus to use the bathroom, I guess in protest, so needless to say I suffered the remainder of my ride to Fort Jackson. Naively perhaps, I thought that when I joined the army, despite the color of my skin, I would be treated the same as any other soldier. Again, I would ask the question why? I thought I could do the same as whites and be given respect as a soldier, ready and willing to fight and die for this country.

colored entrance only

Pender recalled another time in America , just before shipping out to Okinawa, when he was a part of an integrated, racially mixed troop of soldiers who were taking leave for different parts of the country. He and his colleagues, all of whom were white, decided it would be faster to hitchhike to Atlanta than wait for a bus. When they got to the highway, they suddenly waved good bye to Pender saying “we’ll see you later!”

The soldiers walked off down the road, leaving me behind. I guess they felt that they would not get picked up being with a black person. Well, I wasn’t sure what to do next. It was pitch dark out, raining, and frankly I was scared.

When Pender arrived in Okinawa, Japan, in 1960, he had no reason to expect any different treatment from the Japanese. But as it turned out, Pender had, quite unexpectedly, a “Black American in Paris” experience. He couldn’t believe how wonderful the people were.

It was a completely different world to any previous experience I had gone through. The people were hard-working, intelligent, and very polite. This was the first time a group of people had shown me so much respect. It was new to me, and I loved it. For the first time I felt free as I interacted with them. The shackles of stereotypes and expectations of prejudice melted away, and I felt really good about myself. I quickly realized that the absence of racial barriers with these people was the reason for my feeling of well-being, acceptance, and almost happy self-abandonment.

As mentioned in Part 1, Pender discovered that he had a talent for sprinting. When he emerged victorious in a track meet between US military athletes and Japanese athletes training for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he was asked to compete in the inner-service competitions, where he was crowned champion in 100- and 200-yards. His commanding officer rewarded Pender with seven days of “R and R” (rest and relaxation) in Yokohama – the so-called mainland!

Mel Pender_famous start
From the collection of Mel Pender

That’s where Pender found his muse. He was enjoying his time in Yokohama immensely where “the people on the mainland were even nicer.” And on his last day, he and his friends went to the NCO Club where he met a Japanese lady named Monako Yamamoto. Pender was bewitched, telling me “I was in love. She was beautiful.” He said that Yamamoto said the Olympics would be in Tokyo in 1964, so Pender promised that he would then make the team and be back to see her for the Olympics. In fact, as he wrote in his book, Pender knew very little of the Olympics at that time.

She smiled and said, we will see. Well I did not know much about the Olympics or the track team, and I had no idea how to even go out about getting onto the team. I just knew that I wanted to come back to Japan, one way or the other. Overseas was great because we were not black or white, just Americans.

Japan gave Pender a vision of what a life of equality and mutual respect would feel like. But Pender also knew that the potential was always there in America. Back to Pender’s story, about being abandoned by his fellow white soldiers at the highway, in the dark, in the rain. Eventually, a black driver picked Pender up and drove him to a nearby gas station where he hoped to catch a bus. Still alone, he sat there wondering how he was going to get home, when a car pulled up.

Mel Pender card

Well, I sat down to wait, and to my surprise, a car pulled up full of white guys: “You need a ride?” the driver yelled out?

“I’m going to Atlanta,” I told him.

“Hop in!” he said, and they took me all the way to Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. Now these guys also were in the military, and they did not know me, yet they were kind enough to look out for me. But the same guys I had spent every day with, that I would have to fight side by side with, face life-and-death situations with, deserted me as soon as civilian streets beckoned.

What happened was ironic, but at the same time, the end result of the incident was inspiring. There is always reason to hope, to believe that change for the better is possible. You see, I believe that as long as there are some good people in this world, then good decent principles will win out over the bad ones, even if it takes time. Patience is a virtue, and hope for progress in human relations is a necessary first ingredient for anyone who dreams of a better future in a better society.

Mel Pender_1968
Mel Pender_Olympic Trials 1968

When Mel Pender passed the baton to Ronnie Ray Smith, Pender had done his job. He was a captain in the US Army, and a reliable leader. And that’s what he did. He put his team in the lead, and his teammates did the rest. Pender, with Charlie Greene, Ray and Jim Hines, won the gold medal in the 4×100 meter relay at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. With a time of 38.24 seconds, the Americans set a world record.

Pender’s close friend, Greene, was 23 years old. Ray was the kid at 19. Hines was 22. But Pender was nearly 31 when he finally won his gold medal, an old man by sprinter’s standards. While many athletes in the United States who approach world-class speeds got their start in track in high school or earlier, Pender never got those opportunities, growing up economically disadvantaged in Lynnwood Park, a community in Decatur, Georgia.

The first time Pender ever ran competitively was at the age of 25, in Okinawa of all places. It was 1960, and Pender had been sent to the American army base in the western-most islands of the Japanese archipelago. When officers noticed the speedy halfback on the Army Ranger football team, one of them ordered Pender to participate in a friendly competition between the American military and Japanese athletes training for the Olympics.

As Pender explained in his recently released autobiography, Expression of Hope – The Mel Pender Story, he hadn’t a clue. “Coach, what are you talking about? Run track? I asked. I never ran track in my life! I wouldn’t know the first thing to do? I continued.” Pender writes that when he first saw track shoes for the first time, with the long spikes and the flapping tongue, he thought they were “ugly, ugly, ugly.”

Mel Pender_Winning his first race
Mel Pender winning his first race in Okinawa_from the personal collection of Mel Pender

 

But that was the beginning of a new life for then Sgt Pender, who would go on to compete at both the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games.

According to Mexico City teammate and 200-meter bronze medalist John Carlos, what Pender accomplished was “phenomenal”.

For him to do what he did at his age was exceptional! Mel was twenty-seven years old in 1964 and thirty-one in 1968. The competition we faced then was beyond world class, and everything he received is very much deserving. I was twenty, I think. We ran against each other in meets, and with each other in meets, all over the world. I don’t know of many, or anyone, who accomplished what he did in that day and time in history.

Mel Pender_Winning his first race 2
The fruits of Pender’s first race victory in Okinawa_from the personal collection of Mel Pender.

 

Muhammad Ali Jr.
Muhammad Ali Jr., a son of Muhammad Ali, spoke during a forum on the consequences of President Trump’s immigration policies at the Capitol on Thursday. He was stopped at the airport the next day. Credit Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

There is little doubt the politics of fear – fear of different, fear of crime, fear of Muslims – have infected the tinier crannies of our lives these days.

At times, it appears that fear trumps common sense.

Being the son of perhaps the most famous sports icon in the world does not inoculate one from the human conditions triggered by this fear. Muhammad Ali Jr., son of the eponymous boxer whose name very few adults would not know, was detained on March 10 before boarding a flight from Reagan National Airport in Washington D. C. to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Ali was asked for his date of birth, his social security number, and where he was born despite handing a JetBlue agent his Illinois identity card. The agent then called Homeland Security. When Ali presented his passport, he was allowed onto the flight.

This was the second time in a month that Ali was detained at an airport, and only a day after Ali had testified at a forum in D. C. regarding President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

Of course, African Americans have been subject to this fear for centuries. And while race relations have improved visibly and measurably over the decades, one could argue there is still room for improvement. Ali’s story reminded me of the fastest man in the world in 1964, Bob Hayes, who won two gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics. He then came home and signed with the Dallas Cowboys to become a Hall of Fame wide receiver, and one of only two NFL Super Bowl champions who also brought home the gold in an Olympics.

Bob Hayes Dallas Cowboys
Bob Hayes #22 Dallas Cowboys

Only a few weeks after Bob Hayes won gold in the 100-meter dash and won national bragging rights to one of the biggest events of the biggest global sports competition, Hayes signed a contract with the Dallas Cowboys on December 8, 1964. This included a six-thousand -dollar Buick Rivera as part of Hayes’ signing bonus. Unfortunately, in the South in the Sixties, a black man driving an expensive car drew the suspicion of the police, regularly. In this account in his autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run, is how Hayes, arguably one of the most famous athletes in America at the time, was treated like a “boy” by local authorities.

That car caused me a little trouble when I got back to school. You see, there weren’t many black kids my age (I turned twenty two less than two weeks after I signed with the Cowboys) driving cars like that in good old Tallahassee. About once a week or so, some of Tallahassee’s finest would stop me and ask, “Boy, whose car is that?” I would tell them it was my car, and they would give me a ticket for anything they felt like – speeding, running a stop sign, driving on white folks’ streets – you name it.

I finally got smart. I went downtown and bought a chauffeur’s black cap and put it in the back seat. Every time the police pulled me over after that asked me whose car I was driving, I would say, “It’s my boss man’s car,” and they would let me go. This was the era when, while driving from Dallas back to Florida, I would pass restaurants all over Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama with signs that read, “No colored” or “Colored around back.” I was good enough to represent their country in the Olympics, but not good enough to eat with them.

1964 Buick Rivera

 

Individual Men's Road Race
From the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Service

It was the morning of October 8, two days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Top Swiss cyclists Hans Lüthi and Heinz Heinemann were on the Koshu Highway in western Tokyo getting some training in when a truck, entering from a side road, hit them.

Lüthi had contusions on his left arm and his chest, waist and thighs, while Heinemann, a veteran of the 1960 Rome Olympics, had contusions on his waist, legs and hands. Doctors at the Jinwakai Hospital in Hachioji, according to The Yomiuri of October 9, 1964, were quoted as saying “Heinemann’s injuries would require one week’s medical treatment and Luthi’s three weeks’ treatment.” The article also said that they “might be unable to participate in the Olympic events.”

As it turned out, the men’s individual road race took place on October 22, two weeks after the accident, and both Lüthi and Heinemann were able to compete. While the records of who was in what place and when they finished in this 194-kilomter race is unclear for this particular event, according to this site, Lüthi appears to have finished in 16th in a field of 107, not far off from legend-to-be Eddy Merckx . Heinemann finished 63rd.

If one believes what one reads in the press at the time, every single Japanese in Tokyo took it upon themselves to be the perfect ambassador to any foreigner they came upon. Thus the truck driver, one Katsu Wada, might have been mortified that he was the one who may have ended the Olympic dreams of these cyclists.

Cyclist Hans Luthi and driver Katsu Wada
Cyclist Hans Luthi and driver Katsu Wada.

As you can see in the above photo, Wada publicly showed his contrition.

But as The Yomiuri article goes on to say, it may have been the Swiss who were in the wrong. According to the Metropolitan Police Department, “the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee (TOOC) had approved an advance schedule for practice by Olympic cyclists to enable police to impose restrictions to protect cyclists from vehicles. According to the schedule, Olympic cyclists were to practice on the road race course on eight days, October 2, 4, 5, 6, 12, 14, 19 and 22 under police protection, said the MPD.”

EPSON scanner Image
L to R: Kim Ui-Tae, James Bregman, Isao Okano, Wolfgang Hofmann

Isao Okano had all the pressure in the world on him, as did all Japanese representatives of the judo team. They simply could not lose on their home turf, in the Budokan. But Okano, competing in the 80kg weightclass, made it all look easy. The 3rd dan form Chuo University swept through the competition. And in his semi-final bout against Frenchman Lionel Grossain, Okano wasn’t feeling the pressure – he was applying it.

Watch the above video. The chilling action starts from the 35 second mark and ends very quickly after that. Okano sends Grossain down with a right leg kick. As they hit the mat, Okano spins around and gets on top of Grossain, who is kneeling, with his head facing the mat. Grossain pushes upwards, sending Okano off, his body twisting so that his body is awkwardly facing upwards, and it appears the Frenchman has an advantage, his right arm pushing down on Okano’s chest.

But while Okano’s body is spinning, his right hand has solidly gripped the back collar of Grossain’s judogi. As the two middleweight judoka twist and turn on the mat, Okano has turned Grossain’s collar into a vise. As Okano twists away from Grossain to lift himself off the mat, Grossain’s collar puts tremendous pressure on the left side of his neck. In an instant, the pressure to Grossain’s cartoid artery restricts blood and thus oxygen to his brain, rendering him unconscious.

American Jim Bregman, who won bronze in that middle-weight competition, witnessed this match. “Grossain was very tough,” he told me. “Grossain was on top of Okano trying to hold him down, and Okano reached his hand across grabbed his gi, and put Grossain out. He’s stone cold out. With Okano’s skill and mat work, he choked him out.”

Okano had just advanced to the gold medal round, but the more immediate need was to get Grossain conscious again. Fortunately, Grossain was quickly revived by Okano, likely relieving every in the Budokan.

Okano executed a judo technique called okuri eri jime, which is the employment of the judogi in placing pressure on the neck. You can see Okano in this training video, showing very clearly how to execute this powerful technique.

Okano would go on to win the World Judo Championships in his division in 1965. More amazingly, he won the All-Japan Judo Championships in 1967 and 1969, while coming in second in 1968, a tournament that does differentiate by weight. In other words, he had to beat much larger judoka. At 80 kg, Okano (and Shinobu Sekine) is the lightest ever to win the All-Japan Judo Championships.