Entering the National Stadium on a rainy day. UPI

It’s the 57th anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

That’s right, a Summer Games in Autumn. The XVIII Olympiad was held in October to avoid, presumably to avoid the heat or typhoons of August. October is certainly cooler in Tokyo. But it is also wetter. In fact, October is the month Tokyo has the most rainfall.

And it rained a lot during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And because it rained, the cooler temperatures seemed colder. In the case of road cyclists in Hachioji, it is said they could see their breath as they raced in the rain. The cinder tracks were a muddy mess. Umbrellas were de rigeur.

I recently purchased hard copy black and white photographs of those Games. Here are a few featuring people braving the rain, because a rainy day at the Olympics is better than a sunny day at the office.

With all those umbrellas, how could they see the action? UPI
Judges sat at attention awaiting the arrival of sprinters at the tape, hoping the raindrops and chills did not distract them at the wrong moment. UPI
The mop up crews were busy during the Tokyo Olympics. UPI
David Gerrard in 2021

Inside the cool and controlled confines of the Ariake Aquatic Center, temperatures are a comfortable 27 to 28 degrees Celsius. Swimmers and divers don’t give a thought to their environs.

But in the Tokyo2020 triathlon and marathon swimming competitions, athletes are freestyle swimming in the mouth of Tokyo Bay, where water temperature and quality are close to levels deemed unsafe.

“We are literally in the lap of the weather gods,” Dr David Gerrard, one of 10 members of the International Swimming Federation’s (FINA) sports medicine committee at Tokyo2020. He is also one of perhaps a handful of people to be accredited at both the 1964 and 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as Dr. Gerrard was a swimmer on Team New Zealand here 57 years ago.

Tokyo is currently facing one of Japan’s hottest summers, which is wreaking havoc for athletes competing in the sun. And when the water in Tokyo Bay is continuously exposed to intense solar rays, the water heats up. Prior to the triathlon in the first week of Olympic play, water temperatures climbed to as high as 30.5 degrees Celsius (86.9 degrees Fahrenheit).

“If water temperature gets above 31 degrees Celsius, we are legally bound to say it exceeds the safety levels, and the event cannot proceed,” explained Dr. Gerrard. He went on to say that special paddle wheel devices floating on pontoons are helping to circulate the cooler water from the bottom of the bay to the top, and that the marathon swimming competitions, which will take place on August 4 and 5, will start at 6:30 AM, when water temperature should be at its coolest.”

Dr. Gerrard was part of a research team at the University of Otago (New Zealand) that measured  the impact of sustained high water temperatures on swimmers.

“The human body can’t sustain a core body temperature in excess of 39 or 40 degrees Celsius.” he said. “This results in hyperthermia, or heat stress, with potential life-threatening effects.  It’s also critical to replace fluids and electrolytes  which are lost through sweat.”

In marathon swimming, athletes have the opportunity to replenish fluids and electrolytes at feeding stations along the course. Coaches on the “feeding pontoons” also  observe their swimmer for any unusual behavior that might indicate the onset of hyperthermia.

If water temperature is Scylla, then water quality is Charybdis.

Apparently, Tokyo Bay stinks.

The drainage systems for rainwater and sewage are the same, which on the average day is not an issue because the sewage is treated before entering the drainage system. However, when there is a typhoon or a sustained rainfall in Tokyo, the treatment system can be overwhelmed and untreated sewage gets swept into the Bay. Years of that have resulted in polluted waters.

David Gerrard in 1964

In order to make Tokyo Bay safe enough for competitors during the Olympics and Paralympics, measures have been taken: implementing triple-layer screens to prevent pollutants from flowing into the Bay, as well as laying of sand at the bottom of the Bay making it easier for water-cleaning organisms to thrive.

Dr. Gerrard explained that event organizers monitor the bacterial count of  E. coli and enterococci, bacterial markers of water quality. And if the water exceeds standards stipulated by the World Health Organization, the swimmers would be at risk of gastroenteritis, an infection of the digestive system, which could induce malaise, nausea and vomiting, and if not treated, dehydration.

However, he assured me that under current conditions, swimmers would have to drink a lot of Tokyo Bay to get that sick. He said that he gets daily reports of Tokyo Bay’s bacterial count, and is not concerned. “Right now, it’s a safe level. We’re very satisfied.”

Shortly after that, the rain came pouring down on Tokyo.

On the one hand, the rain is good for water temperature, he said. But on the other hand, there could also be some waste water runoff into the Bay, he added with a shrug.

Will the weather gods cooperate for marathon swimming? We will see.

Wendell Mottley

Ever since he remembered, he loved track. Little Wendell Mottley would tag along with his dad, who was in a local athletic association in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. As he got older, he began to run in competitions sponsored by the oil companies that had refineries on that Caribbean island.

“These refineries would give off a certain smell,” Mottley told me. “And as I got closer, that smell would trigger adrenaline.”

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the adrenaline was pumping. Mottley was all grown up, former captain of the Yale track team, and representing the upstart track team of a country that established its independence only two years before. “We were ambitious and we thought we had a chance to bring down the big boys – the USA.”

Mottley at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

As Mottley waited for Edwin Skinner to hand him the baton for the anchor leg of the 4×400 relay race finals, he knew he had a chance to upset the Americans. By the time he got the baton, Trinidad and Tobago was already in second, but the Jamaican, George Kerr, was just inside of Mottley and created a bit of havoc for Mottley.

“I tried to run around him, but he flailed the baton so much that I had to run very wide of him, and those extra steps in a race of that quality cost us,” Mottley said. “When I came around in the final lap, I was tiring, and that allowed Robbie Brightwell of Great Britain to run past me, and we ended with a bronze medal.”

Team USA took gold.

Mottley won a silver medal in the 400-meter sprint as well at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but he lost his heart to Japan.

Chrysanthemum

The first time he came to Japan was for the Olympics. He knew very little about the country, except WWII and kamikaze pilots. And ikebana. Mottley is a lover of flowers, and he enjoyed the flower arrangements he saw wherever he went.

“Tokyo blew my mind,” he said. “To see the chrysanthemum all laid out in their glory – what a people to be able to do this, I thought. I was also struck by Japanese landscaping, particularly Japanese gardens, the brushing of the sand and stone, and the spare architecture. I had read about these things as a hobbyist, but I was amazed when I saw these things in person.”

Observing the care that went into the gardens and the flower arrangement, as well as how organized the Games were, nothing like he had seen at track meets in the US or Europe, he came to this realization: “It must take a very disciplined people to do these things.”

In the final leg of the 1964 Olympic finals of the men’s 4×400 relay

Discipline

As a teenager, Mottley had a life-changing turn of luck.

Running at yet another high school meet, a track coach from Loughborough University in the UK said he knew another track coach at Yale University in the US, and would young Mottley be interested in running track there. Mottley applied and was accepted into Yale, and the head of track for the Elis was legendary coach, Bob Giegengack, who ended up being the US track coach for Team USA in 1964.

“For this coach from the UK, who knew another coach in the US who might be interested, to see me run in Trinidad and Tobago, the stars had to align for this to have happened,” Mottley remarked.

But after getting to Yale, luck would not be enough. Mottley would learn a life-long lesson in the value and impact of discipline.

Mottley was a sprinter, but Giegengack also had him run cross country, which he hated. In the winter, too cold for the boy from the tropics, he competed at indoor meets, when arenas were filled with cigarette smoke. “After running 600 meters, it felt like someone took a pitchfork to your lungs.” Then it was back to outdoor running in the Spring.

Every day was full.

“You get up in the morning, have breakfast, and take classes because at Yale there were no concessions for athletes,” he said. “Then we trained from 2  to 5:30 pm, had dinner at 6, and then studied. It was a disciplined process, a rhythm of life. All of those years of training, that was tough work for a kid coming out of the tropics. But it served me well for the rest of the life.”

 

Life Goes On

Mottley recalled the moments just prior to the start of the finals of the individual 400-meter sprint at the Tokyo Olympics. The athletes were inside the bowels of the stadium, the nerves of the competitors palpable. The officials were nervous, checking to make sure the right people were there at the right time. The runners were nervous as they began to hear and feel the buzz of the crowd.

“You emerge into the sunlight, the crowd is roaring, and the nervousness climbs, and all things race through your mind,” he explained. “Then you start hammering in your starting blocks, and suddenly everything gets shut out and the focus comes back. It’s silent. You’re absolutely focused, bam, and the race is on.”

After Mottley wins his silver medal at the end of the race, he sees Coach Giegengack, who gives him a salute. “That’s it. It’s relief that it’s all over.”

Mottley ended his track career a year later, going on to an amazing career in government, serving as Finance Minister for his country in the 1990s, and then in financial services as a senior advisor and investment banker at Credit Suisse.

But before he left his sporting life behind, he had one more score to settle. It was August, 1966, and Trinidad and Tobago was competing at the 8th British Empire and Commonwealth Games, which were being held in Kingston, Jamaica.

Mottley, with 1964 Tokyo teammates Kent Bernard and Edwin Roberts, joined by Lennox Yearwood faced off against Jamaica on their home turf in the 4X400-yard relay. Mottley had an agenda. He remembered how Kerr swung the baton and forced him wide in Tokyo.

So when Mottley completed the anchor leg of the finals, Team Trinidad and Tobago not only beat Team Jamaica, they set a world record, a coda to a great career in track.

Simone Biles_AP Photo/Ashley Landis

In 1964, freestyle Shunichi Kawano was banned from the Olympic Village. The head of Japanese wrestling okayed that act as Kawano showed “a lack of fighting spirit” in a match the day before. It didn’t help that the crown prince and princess were in the audience. His coach said his presence in the village would “adversely affect the morale of other athletes,” according to The Japan Times. He returned to the Village after shaving his head, although he said he did not agree with the assessment of his spirit.

For a few days after the Kawano incident, the press was filled with accounts of the mystery female Olympian who reportedly shaved her head bald in tears. It was finally reported that Soviet javelin thrower, Elvira Ozolina, had cut her shoulder-length chestnut hair completely off. Ozolina, who ended the javelin competition in fifth, was a favorite to win gold.

Various headlines from AP news wire stories on Ozolina

And then there was the poignant tale of Kokichi Tsuburaya, who ran a long 42 kilometers in the Tokyo Olympic marathon, entered the National Stadium to the roar of the crowd expecting their Japanese hero to win a silver medal in track, only to see UK’s Basil Heatley storm from behind, leaving Tsuburaya in third place. A disappointed Tsuburaya took accountability and said he would do better at the 1968. But injuries and a failed wedding engagement, both caused by a superior where he worked in the Japan Defense Forces, may have led to Tsuburaya’s decision to end his life in early 1968.

At all levels of competition, sports show us how people respond to pressure. At the Olympics, the pressure can be extreme. We expect Olympians who do not “win” to be grateful and graceful losers, but we also know that the drive and determination that got them to that point can also manifest itself in anger, frustration, fears and questions of self worth.

In this first week of Olympic competition, mental health is an emerging theme at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, journalists and spectators alike were less concerned about the psychological well being of athletes. But at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there appears to be a more sophisticated understanding of these issues.

Naomi Osaka may have laid the groundwork for that understanding. After the French Open had started, she  announced she would not engage in press conferences in order to diminish what she said was battles with anxiety and depression. After some online parrying with organizers, she pulled out of the French Open. Then last week, she lost in the second round of the singles tennis Olympic competition, sparking questions of whether the stress of the constant attention had affected her.

On July 16, WNBA Las Vegas Aces star, Liz Cambage, announced she was leaving Australian national basketball team. Suffering from panic attacks, and unable to sleep, she admitted that she would be unable to perform to the best of her abilities.

“It’s no secret that in the past I’ve struggled with my mental health and recently I’ve been really worried about heading into a ‘bubble’ Olympics,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “No family. No friends. No fans. No support system outside of my team. It’s honestly terrifying for me.

Then on July 27, just after the start of the women’s gymnastics team competition, American gymnast Simone Biles suddenly announced she was no longer going to compete. The world media had already declared her Olympic champion years before the start of Tokyo 2020. She has been repeatedly called the GOAT (greatest of all time). But after a poor vault at the start of the competition, she realized that she had to put her mental health first. Here’s how she explained it to NPR:

It’s been really stressful, this Olympic Games. I think just as a whole, not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it. It’s been a long week, it’s been a long Olympic process, it’s been a long year. So just a lot of different variables, and I think we’re just a little bit too stressed out. But we should be out here having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case.

In the judo competition, Team Japan has had unprecedented success – out of 14 possible gold medals, they grabbed 9, as well as a silver and bronze.

Judoka Hisayoshi Harasawa lost to two-time Olympic champion Teddy Riner of France in the bronze medal round, one of the few not to medal for Japan. Amidst Japan’s amazing gold rush in judo, Harasawa was devastated, speechless and in tears, struggling to find any words in a painful post-match interview.

But in 2021, at least, we are finding the words to talk about mental health in sports.

The crowds were out on Omotesando to see a repeat of history. Photo by Roy Tomizawa

When Japan Air Self-Defence Force’s acrobat jet team, The Blue Impulse, flew across that beautiful blue sky on October 10, 1964, Japan ooh-ed and ah-ed.

It was a spectacular moment on a spectacular day as Japan welcomed the world to a country, not bowed and backward, but proud and modern.

Victor Warren, a member of the Canadian field hockey team, was on the filed during the 1964 Opening Ceremonies. “I’ll never forget,” he said. “It stuck in my mind –  five jets in the air which drew the Olympic rings. It was magic. It was terrific. It was a beautiful start to a beautiful day.”

On July 23rd, a little bit before 1 pm, the organizers hoped to capture that magic again. I made my way to Harajuku, near the entrance to Meiji Shrine. As I got close to the intersection in front of the main train station, the sidewalk got more congested.

Blue Impulse about to ring the sky. Photo by Roy Tomizawa

The place was packed. People filled the overpasses and the sidewalks, looking upwards, hoping to pick up telltale sounds of approaching jet engines. And then suddenly, there they appeared from the north, five jets in formation. Way up high amidst puffy white clouds and a light blue sky, the jets made a couple of passes. Their third time through, they flew in individually, spewing colored smoke.

In 1964, you could see the rings and their colors clearly. But the clouds seemed to get in the way in the 2021 version. People ooh-ed and ah-ed, but in an uncertain way. I could see the rings formed partially, but I never saw five fully formed rings in the sky.

The crowd applauded, politely.

More importantly, there was a crowd. And they were excited to connect to the spirit and energy of 1964.

Just watch this clip from the movie, “Always – Sunset on Third Street ’64.” This scene captures that moment in Japan perfectly.

As the protagonist in the film clip says, “and now, finally, it’s the Olympics!”

(For better pictures of the 2020 sky writing, go here.)

1964 Olympic gymnast, Shuji Tsurumi, gets ready for his torch lighting. (photos by Roy Tomizawa)

Like so much about this year’s Tokyo2020 run up, the Tokyo2020 torch relay is not a joyous event.

 

The crowds are small, as required.

The cheering is muted, as required.

But the show goes on, as required.

 

Compliance is running the show. It’s safe. It’s just not…..fun.

Having said that, it was wonderful to see two-time Olympian, six-time medalist, Shuji Tsurumi, who won 1 gold medal and 3 silver medals in men’s gymnastics for Team Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics!

 

As has been the case in other prefectures, the running displays on the public roads were cancelled, replaced by “torch kiss” ceremonies, where torch bearers are brought together to have their torch lit by the flame of another. By removing this act from the roads, the organizers can control the number and behavior of the spectators.

 

On the afternoon of Saturday, July 3, ceremonies were held for torch bearers from Chiba prefecture in Matsudo Central Park, very near Matsudo Station in Chiba . At the 4pm ceremony, Tsurumi was the first person on stage, befitting his legendary Olympic record.

Tsurumi’s torch was lit by a staff member on stage.

 

Another resident of Chiba, Asako Yanase arrived, and Tsurumi tilted his torch towards the tip of Yanase’s torch in an igniting “kiss.” This was followed by “kisses” to nine other torchbearers, a group photo, and then an exit to ready the stage for another 11 torchbearers.

 


Spectators were by invitation only, and the overall numbers were limited, so guests could stay as socially distant as they preferred. But the atmosphere was low key, a sign of things to come for the actual Games.

 

With limited to no spectators expected in a few weeks, the athletes will have to psyche themselves up.

 

Welcome to Tokyo2020.

 

The Quiet Games.

 

Shuji Tsurumi, fittingly with torches from both 2020 and 1964.

The closer we get to the start, the farther we grow apart. Will Tokyo2020 be the Inclusion Games, or the Exclusion Games? Here’s an article I wrote for “Tokyo Updates.”

 

She was five years old, and she watched the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics with amazement.

Jackie Joyner Kersee! Carl Lewis!

And so Megumi Ikeda thought one day, this little girl from Nanyo, Yamagata in northern Japan would be as fast and as cool as Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

As it turned out, Ikeda (née Harada) simply didn’t have the athletic gifts to excel in track and field. And yet, the flame of high performance can be sparked in unexpected ways. Ikeda would go on to represent Japan at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the Beijing Olympics in individual épée fencing.

Fencing is an old sport, but it is not a money-making sport. People don’t fill arenas around the world to watch fencing, wrestling, weightlifting, curling, hammer throwing, cross-country skiing, or the luge.

But every four years, billions of people watch the Summer and Winter Olympic Games.

Art inspires

Why do so many people watch the Olympics?

So many people watch the Olympics because they become witness to the very best athletes in the world. Human senses are lifted to their keenest. Human physicality is stretched to its limits. Human desire swells up from the deepest recesses of one’s will.

Sport, like painting, singing, dancing, acting and writing is an act of human expression. Like a sculptor in an attic, a rock band in a basement, or actors in a park, kids on the street playing football are expressing themselves.

At the Olympics, sport is art. The Olympics provide highly skilled, highly trained athletes an…   (to read more, click on this link.)

Bill Barry and the rower he is coaching, Husein Alireza, the first rower to represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympics, at the 2020 Games.

Bill Barry was back in Tokyo. A silver-medalist for Great Britain in the coxless four rowing competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Barry flew into Japan as the coach of one of the rowers competing to qualify for Tokyo2020.

Amidst a State of Emergency in Tokyo, around 100 athletes, coaches and staff from 25 countries converged on Tokyo Bay for the Asia and Oceania Olympic and Paralympic Rowing Qualifier, which took place at the Sea Forest Waterway from May 5 to 7, 2021.

Barry was grateful to be here. Chungju, Korea was originally scheduled to host this qualifier in 2020, but they cancelled it with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shanghai was a possible venue before China declined to host. That’s when the Japanese government stepped in and made the qualifier possible.

“It’s a miracle it took place,” said Barry, was the national rowing coach for Great Britain at the Athens, Beijing and London  Olympics. “It was turned down in Korea and China and the Japanese government came to the rescue. That’s fantastic, considering the feelings of concern of the Japanese people.”

Except for a windy Wednesday of “white horse” waves, which forced organizers to postpone the competition one day, the event’s conditions and organization were perfect. “It’s been great,” said Barry, who was coaching Husein Alireza, a rower from Saudi Arabia. “The people have bent over backwards. It’s been incredibly well organized, to the last detail.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was one reported case of a staff person from Sri Lanka who tested positive for COVID on May 5. According to World Rowing, safety protocol kicked in, and other members of the Sri Lanka team were immediately tested.

Members of the Japan Rowing Association medical team treating Husein.

The competitors and related coaches and staff are all a part of an extended bubble that envelops the visitors from airport to hotel to venue to hotel to airport, a smaller scale example of the more complex bubble that will protect the 15,000 plus athletes and para-athletes and support personnel this summer for Tokyo2020.

Barry said that the visiting teams spent three hours at Haneda Airport, going from station to station, answering questions, getting a covid test and filling in forms.

“I gave my address, telephone and email information many times,” said Barry. “They checked everything. Security was super tight. But it’s got to be done and done properly. And it was.”

Barry said they had to download three applications onto their phones, one that was to indicate where you were, and two others where one had to self-report on one’s health, and in Barry’s case, also one to report on the health of one’s team.

From Haneda Airport, the teams were transported in individual buses to the Hearton Hotel on the edge of Tokyo Bay. They were not allowed to leave the hotel except for travel to the rowing venue. Protocol required the wearing of masks and social distance (of course), travel only within teams, one person per hotel room, meals taken alone, and repeated testing.

The only two places these rowers saw: the Hearton Hotel and the rowing venue.

“We were tested when we arrived, the day before a racing event, and when we left,” said Barry. “Since the day my rower was competing was postponed, I had to get tested twice for competitions.”

The morning after the competition ended on May 7, Barry was headed to the airport and home. He was grateful to be back in Japan, and optimistic about Japan’s ability to host the Olympics.

“You wouldn’t think there was a problem,” he said. “Everyone enjoyed it. Everybody praised the organization, the volunteers, the Japanese Government, Japan Rowing Association, they all put on a great show.”

Since Barry could not leave the hotel except for the rowing venue, this is all he saw in his time in Tokyo.

Akiko Kuno at Komazawa Olympic Park – click on image to watch a video.

Soft Power

Wherever they went, they drew huge, enthusiastic crowds.

It was the summer of 1964. Young men and women wearing white tops with the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Emblem, looking something akin to the Japanese flag, ran through the streets, calling to the crowds that the Olympics were coming to Asia.

This was only 19 years after a time when Japanese troops carried their nation’s flag in battlefields of Asia.

Akiko Kuno was a 24-year old Japanese woman working in the Olympic Organizing Committee’s public relations department, and was selected as a member of the Overseas Olympic Torch Relay Mission.  This relay wended its way through Okinawa and then Japan, before ending at the Opening Ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics in the National Stadium.

Kuno, who joined the mission from India, was concerned about the reception the Japanese would get in South East Asia.

Kuno with Torch Runners in Bangkok – with permission of Akiko Kuno.

The young runners, in cities like Yangon (then Rangoon) and Bangkok ran with a uniform that had the hinomaru on it. At the airport, when we parted I can’t forget what they said. They told me proudly that this was going to be Asia’s first Olympics. They said their hope was that Japan, which lost a war but recovered, can be a model of success, so that one day their own country could one day host an Olympics. “That is the dream that this torch relay gives us,” they told me.

Kuno was one of the few Japanese present to witness a near perfect execution of geopolitical “soft power” in a time when the phrase didn’t exist. She was part of a team of roughly 40, members of the Olympic Organizing Committee (OOC), a JAL crew of pilots, engineers and a stewardess, as well as the Japanese media. They journeyed together for 40 days during the international torch relay that started in Greece on August 21, and passed through Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, India, Myanmar (then Burma), Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Okinawa.

A Dream Job

It was March, 1964 and Kuno had graduated from Keio University. While most of her friends got married after graduation, Kuno wanted to be part of the Olympics. She had good English skills, having studied at Stanford University in California as well as Hope College in Michigan. Equally important, her father was a good friend of Kazushige Hirasawa, a diplomat and an influential senior journalist with NHK, who helped Japan land the 1959 bid for the 1964 Olympics with an inspiring speech.

OOC credentials, with permission of Akiko Kuno.

With Hirasawa’s help, Kuno became a staff member of the Olympic Organizing Committee, which was located in the Akasaka Rikyu Palace, the residence of the Crown Prince before the war. She was assigned to the public relations department, which was located in the study of the Crown Prince.

Kuno had several duties. She took visiting International Olympic Committee (IOC) and National Olympic Committee officials on tours of the various venues that workers were rushing to complete in time for the Games. She coordinated with the international news agencies. For nations that were sending athletes but did not have diplomatic relations with or embassies in Japan, she sourced English-speaking Japanese men who belonged to the Junior Chamber International Japan, people who had the time and means to assist the people from those countries.

And she was asked to take care of the most senior person in the Olympic movement – Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee. Kuno said she was routinely asked to take dictation and type up documents for him, not an easy task for a famous taskmaster.

He said type this and that, and there were a lot of mistakes. I was so scared. I never worked as a secretary. Brundage had a warm heart but he did not smile and he had a short temper.

Of course, when Brundage flawlessly delivered his speech, in Japanese, soliciting the Emperor of Japan to open the Tokyo Olympics, he thanked Kuno for her support in making sure his pronunciation was well practiced.

Olympic torch route (Eurasia)

The Sacred Mission

One day in July, 1964, her role suddenly expanded. Kuno’s supervisor came up to give her an order – that she would be assigned to the overseas torch relay mission. Her only thought? “YAY!”

The Japanese mission that oversaw the operations of the international torch relay traveled together with the sacred Olympic flame, their journey spanning 12 countries and about 16,000 kilometers. This meant that they had to journey by plane. They flew on a DC-6B, a prop plane called “City of Tokyo,” which was outfitted with special safety measures to carry two specially designed containers filled with kerosene and modeled on the design of a coal-mine safety lamp.

Kuno was one of two English interpreters on the team. The first one traveled with the team from Greece to India. Kuno relieved her in Calcutta, India and took responsibility for the second half of the international torch relay. She explained the daily plan.

  • The City of Tokyo arrives in the destination’s airport.
  • Fumio Takashima, the OOC chairman of the Olympic Torch Relay Committee, lights a torch from the flame of the safety lamp.
  • A local dignitary or the NOC Head waits with an unlit torch and Takashima lights his torch.
  • Then he passes the flame to the first actual local runner.
  • The runners follow a route to the national stadium of that country, or a city hall or a large public space with a big stand.
  • The evening included a reception where members of the torch relay mission dined and mingled with the local dignitaries. (Kuno translated for Takashima during these events.)

The next day was the process in reverse, where runners followed the same route back to the airport. According to Kuno, on average, there were about 15 runners one way, and another 15 on the return, although there were also official runners who accompanied the torch bearer.

All the runners were young men and women, their uniforms and the torches donated to them by the Tokyo OOC.

During the course of the relay, the roads were filled with spectators hoping to get a glimpse of the Olympic flame. The organizers escorted the runners with cars preceding and following the torch bearer. Kuno, who was always in the car behind, was particularly anxious during those times.

The fuel within the torch, a mixture of red phosphorus, manganese dioxide and magnesium burned a flare-like red for only 6 minutes. Kuno’s mission was to make sure that the runner got to the next runner within 6 minutes. Having the sacred flame fizzle out in front of thousands would have been humiliating. It wasn’t going to happen on her watch.

The crowd came out onto the road. My job was open the window say in English, “GET AWAY!” And when that didn’t work, I shouted in Japanese, “DOITE!” That got their attention. And the flame never died out.

Kuno remarked that every member of the mission felt it was imperative that the flame never go out during the relay. She said that the President of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, Yasukawa Daigoro, took exceptional risk management measures. After the flame was ignited by the sun in a ceremony in Olympia, Greece, he made sure that he got a part of that flame, which he kept on his person.

In those days, Japanese would keep warm on cold evenings with metal mini-heaters the size of a lighter called kairo, which contained a piece of heated charcoal. According to Kuno, Yasukawa, who did not accompany the international tour, ignited a flame for his kairo, and put it in his pocket…just in case the DC-6 City of Tokyo crashed.

Kuno said she was saddened to see the flame go out twice in Fukushima during the start of the Tokyo2020 Torch Relay. For her, the flame represents a powerful symbol for humanity that should never go out.

While working as a part of the torch relay mission, I was so occupied with my responsibility to not let the flame die out. I remember I was so moved to see all these excited people on the streets. I think they saw the flame as a symbol of eternal peace and hope. Throughout the relay, I felt that Asian people were united with the same hope and dream – that war will never happen again. 

Akiko Kuno, with permission of Akiko Kuno.