Marathon turning point
A turn at the halfway point int he marathon shows Ethiopia’s Demissie Wolde leading Japan’s Kokichi Tsuburaya, the eventual third-place finisher. Wolde would fade to 10th. From the book, The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad, p48

It’s nestled in a nook in the sidewalk in Tobitakyu, Chofu, a town in Western Tokyo – a dove with massive wings perched on a pillar.

The dove generally signifies the peaceful intentions of the Olympic Games, but this dove in particular signifies the turning point of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Marathon competition. Today, the statue is hidden and nondescript, a footnote for a busy suburban area where there’s  a busy road, a major stadium (Ajinomoto Stadium, home of J League’s FC Tokyo soccer team) as well as a major arena (Musashino Forest Sports Plaza where Olympic and Paralympic events will be held) nearby.

Marathon turning point 4

But on October 21, 1964, it was a quiet residential area that drew the attention of the world. Nearly 55 years before, Abebe Bikila, the barefoot champion from Ethiopia arrived at the point near that dove statue, made the turn around a very large cone that read “ori-kaeshi-ten,” (or turning point) and headed back into central Tokyo continuing to build a lead so insurmountable that he ended up breaking the world record and winning gold handily for the second Olympics in a row.

Unlike the legendary marathon of the ancient Olympic Games, as well as at the 2004 Athens Games, when the marathon was a point-to-point race from a town called Marathon to Athens, most other Summer Olympics have designed marathon routes where the start and finish are the same point – at the main stadium. This was the case in 1964, and the organizers chose a route of straightforward simplicity – out of the National Stadium in Yoyogi  and then due West, through Shinjuku 3-chome and onto the Koshu-kaido (Koshu Highway).

1964 marathon route_google maps
The route from the National Olympic Stadium to Tobitakyu in Chofu.

The marathon was very popular. NHK rolled out the latest technology with a mobile relay van complete with vibration-proof cameras, helicopters with cameras, as well as UHF antennas sprinkled throughout the course which enabled for the first time in history the live broadcast of the entire marathon race, in color, to millions, according to the final report issued by the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. For approximately 1,200,000 people who lined the route, twice the size of any previous marathon in Japan, watching the athletes run by you trumped the latest in broadcast technology.

Marathon turning point 3
The road sign indicating that this point on the Koshu Highway is where the marathoners turned around and headed back into town.

The marathon was an event for the people, who did not need a ticket to line the road from early in the morning to settle in to catch a glimpse of their heroes, Kokichi Tsuburaya, Kenji Kimihara and Toru Terasawa, as well as one of the most famous athletes of that time – Abebe Bikila. The turning point at Tobitakyu is celebrated as the turning point of the marathon, in an Olympics that was a turning point for Japan.

Marathon turning point_Abebe
Abebe Bekila at the halfway point of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic marathon.
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Barcelona Olympic Village 1
The author on site at former Olympic Village of the 1992 Barcelona Summer Games, April 29, 2019.

A journey is coming to an end.

I celebrate the fourth anniversary of my blog, The Olympians, by announcing that my book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is coming out in July.

The book, 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes, is the product of the thousand-plus posts from my blog, The Olympians, which I started on May 1, 2014. It is also the product of interviews of over 70 Olympians from those 1964 Games, people whose memories and insights are lifeblood to the book.

I’ve had the honor for some of those Olympians, as well as writers and academics read the manuscript. Here are their advanced referrals for my book. Take a look!

Look for details going forward on the book here on my blog, The Olympians!

The author at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics stadium.
Yoshioka Nomura and sakura gold torch
Tokujin Yoshioka and judoka Tadahiro Nomura

The 1964 Olympic torch was utilitarian.

The 2020 Olympic torch will be exquisite.

On March 20, 2019, just as cherry blossom buds were  beginning to reveal their delicate pink petals in Tokyo, the organizers of Tokyo2020 revealed their own beautiful blossom – the Olympic torch.

On March 20, 2020, torch bearers will commence the torch relay and carry this 71-centimeter, 1.2 kilogram aluminum torch from Miyagi in Northern Japan, to Okinawa at the archipelago’s western-most tip, and then back to Tokyo in time for the opening ceremonies on July 24, 2020.

As cherry blossoms bloom and fall in March next year, torch bearers will hold aloft a torch gleaming in gold with a hint of pink – a color dubbed “sakura gold” – fashioned in the shape of the iconic Japanese cherry blossom. Fire will arise from the cylinders of the five petals to form a single flame.

Tokuijin Yoshioka, the torch’s designer, was not only inspired by the Olympic rings, but also by schoolchildren at an elementary school in Fukushima he visited, whom he said drew beautiful renditions of cherry blossoms. “I was very impressed with the powerful expression in the cherry blossoms drawn by kids in this area,” Yoshioka said in the Asahi Shimbun. “They are trying to overcome challenges and trying to move forward. I wanted to share that with the world.”

Three-time gold medalist judoka, Tadahiro Nomura, stood on stage with Yoshioka at the unveiling, and was breathless. “To actually be holding this superb work, is frankly giving me shivers,” he said in this Kyodo article. “I can only imagine the joy on the faces of people lining the route of the relay when they see it.”

Tadahiro Nomura and sakura gold torch

Each of the torches to be produced will be made primarily of aluminum, 30% of which has been recycled from the temporary housing provided to those left homeless in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant meltdowns that stunned Japan on March 11, 2011.

After the flame is ignited in Greece on March 12, 2020, the flame will be transferred to the sakura torch eight days later when the torch relay will begin in northern Japan, making its way through 47 prefectures.

Ten thousand torches will be made, which is probably close to how many people will be needed to cross the nation in the four months prior to the opening ceremonies.

I want to be one of that ten thousand.

Sakura torch side and top views

Sports Symbols 1964 and 2020
Can you guess which symbols represent which sports from 1964? Go to the end for answers.

A picture, they say, tells a thousand words. You could also say, it tells it in a thousand languages as well.

In 1964, as organizers were preparing for the arrival of tens of thousands of foreigners for the Tokyo Olympics, the Japanese were concerned with how to direct people to the right places and the right events with the least amount of error, particularly in a country where foreign language proficiency was poor.

The decision was to use symbols to show people where various places were, like the toilets, the water fountain, first aid and the phone. Symbols were also used to identify the 20+ sporting events on the schedule for the Tokyo Olympics. Due to this particular cultural concern, the 18th Olympiad in Japan was the first time that pictograms were specifically designed for the Games.

Over 50 years later, the symbols have become de rigeur for presentation in Olympic collaterols and signage.

Karate symbol_asahi shimbun Karate competitor Kiyou Shimizu poses in a similar manner as the karate kata pictogram in Tokyo’s Koto Ward on March 12. (Takuya Isayama)

On March 12, 2019, the day when officials announced that there were only 500 days to go to the commemcementof the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, they introduced the pictograms designed for the 2020 Games.

“I was thrilled with being able to participate in the history of Olympics,” said Masaaki Hiromura in this Asahi Shimbun article, a Tokyo graphic designer who designed the pictograms for the 2020 Games. “I was able to make them in which we can be proud of as the country of origin that first made pictograms for the Games.”

At the top of the post is a comparison of the symbols designed by Yoshiro Yamashita in 1964 (in gray), and the symbols designed by Himomura (in blue).

For 2020, as you can see below, there are far more sporting events…which means far more tickets. Those tickets go on sale in April.

Tokyo 2020 pictograms 2019-03-12-pictograms-tokyo-thumbnail
Masaaki Hiromura: Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games pictograms

Answers to caption question: 1 – athletics; 2 – fencing; 3 – wrestling; 4 – volleyball; 5 – canoeing; 6 – soccer; 7 – aquatics; 8 – weightlifting; 9 – artistic gymnastics; 10 – modern pentathlon; 11 – sailing; 12 – boxing; 13 – basketball; 14 – equestrian; 15 – rowing; 16 – hockey; 17 – archery; 18 – cycling; 19 – judo; 20 – shooting

Yuukan Fuji_March 6 2019
“2020 Tokyo Gorin – Saiaku no Shinario,” (Tokyo 2020 Worst Case Scenario), by Robert Whiting, Yuukan Fuji, March 5, 2019 – The text inside the blue box is where I am quoted.

What could go wrong at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

I was asked that question by best-selling author, Bob Whiting, for a weekly column he writes for the Japanese  newspaper, Yūkan Fuji. My answer to him?

Anything.

And we don’t have to go too far back in time for a prime example.

It was less than three years ago when the organizers of the 2016 Rio Olympics had to endure an endless number of threats to the reputation of Brazil and the Olympics:

  • The Brazilian economy had tanked. Police and firemen protested at the airports they were not getting paid, warning people to stay away. There was even significant speculation that the  organizers would cut air conditioning in the Olympic Village to save costs.

Police on strike in Brazil airport

  • The largest scandal in Brazilian history filled the headlines in 2016, one that involved state-run oil company, Petrobras, in which officials received kickbacks in return for selection of specific suppliers, kickbacks that totaled some USD3 to 5 billion.
  • The question of whether the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, would be impeached and removed hung over the Games like a cloud. (She was removed from office 10 days after the end of the Rio Olympics.)
  • The threat of catching the Zika Virus, a mosquito-borne threat to pregnant women and newborns, kept tourists and Olympians away from the Rio Olympics.
  • The site of the triathlon and sailing competition, Guanabara Bay, was so contaminated with human waste that it threatened the health of athletes who would compete in those waters.
Garbage on the shore of Guanabara Bay_1June 2015 In this June 1, 2015 file photo, a discarded sofa litters the shore of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo, File)

It’s impossible for Olympic officials to control the media’s thirst for issues and scandal, but the circumstances of Brazil at the time made it easy for the press to generate negative storylines.

Will that be the case in Tokyo, when the Olympics come to town in July and August of 2020? What are the headlines that could shake Olympic officials or encourage the naysayers?

  • North Korea Boycotts the Olympics: The Korean teams marched together at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018, and even brought together North and South Koreans on the women’s ice hockey team. But if pressure mounts due to lack of progress in US-North Korea talks to denuclearize North Korea, who knows whether the Olympics will become an opportunity to raise the rhetoric and make North Korea’s participation a bargaining chip?

Is there precedent? Yes. The North Koreans abruptly boycotted the 1964 Tokyo Olympics the day before the opening ceremony.

  • Magnitude 8.0 Earthquake Hits Tokyo – Olympics Disrupted: The timing of an earthquake just prior or during the Olympics are highly unlikely. And yet, the fear of the big one in Tokyo is in the back of the minds of many in Japan since there hasn’t been one since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Last year provided multiple reminders of Japan’s vulnerability to mother nature. In an annual vote of the kanji character that bests represent the year of 2018, the symbol for “disaster” was selected. After all, in 2018, 200 people were killed in flood waters across 23 prefectures, dozens perished in a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in Hokkaido, and there were at least 11 fatalities when Typhoon Jebi swept through the Kansai region.

Is there precedent? Yes. The 1989 World Series, when a magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck San Francisco just prior to the start of Game 3 match between two Bay City teams, the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants.

  • Officials Deny Bribery Allegations in Black Tidings Affair: A dark cloud in the distance appears to be approaching. The former president of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), and longtime IOC member, Lamine Diack, has been held by authorities in France since November, 2015. One of the allegations under investigation is whether Diack and his son Papa Massata Diack, were responsible for payments of USD2 million made from officials in Japan to Papa Diack through a company in Singapore called Black Tidings. It is alleged that these payments, made in July 2013, were connected to bribes that would “help the Japanese capital secure the hosting rights for the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” according to the French newspaper, Le monde. The current president of the Japan Olympic Committee, and member of the IOC, Tsunekazu Takeda, is under investigation for corruption, and may end up retiring from the Japan Olympic Committee in June or July.

Is there a precedent? Yes. A year after the end of the 2016 Rio Olympics, the head of the Rio de Janeiro Organizing Committee and member of the Brazilian men’s volleyball team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Carlos Nuzman, was arrested for soliciting votes ahead of the 2009 IOC session to select the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Carlos Nuzman with Police Carlos Nuzman_Reuters

Make no mistake – prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there will be a lot of noise, much of it negative. That’s just the reality of hosting a high budget big tent event like the Olympics.

But also, make no mistake – in the end, it is always about the athletes – their stories of struggle, fair play, excellence and achievement – that drive the headlines during the Games.  Those are the headlines that will inspire millions of young Japanese, and provide the motivation that propels a select few to future Olympiads.

By the way, the last two paragraphs are what Bob quoted me on at the end of his column – after all, you can’t end a story like this with such black tidings.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be great, and you won’t want to miss it!

2020 Tokyo Gorin – Saiaku Shinario_Robert Whiting YukanFuji March 5 2018 Olympics

500 days to go mascots

It’s March 12, 2019.

It’s now 500 days to July 24, 2020, and the Opening Ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics!

The National Stadium is taking shape.

Volunteers have raised their hands.

Tickets are close to going on sale.

In only 16 more months, the world will come to Japan for the XXXII Olympiad. Which made me wonder. What was it like on May 29, 1963 – when it was 500 days to go for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics? I took a look at The Japan Times for a week from May 23 to 31 to see what was top of mind in the press with 500 days to go.

First thing I noticed – no big deal was made that there were 500 days to go. But I also noticed that in addition to the significant progress on Olympic-related infrastructure, geo-political issues that were brewing in May, 1963, would come to a head 500 days later.

The facilities were taking shape: It was reported at a government meeting that “80% of the National Stadium, 20% of the track and field course, 25% of the boat course at Toda, 50% of the shooting range at Asaka, 50% of the sports center at Komazawa, and 75% of yacht harbor at Enoshima inland are completed.”

Indonesia’s Participation Under Threat: The IOC was scheduled to expel the National Organizing Committee of Indonesia, which would mean that Indonesian athletes would not be allowed to participate at the Tokyo Olympics. President Sukarno arrived in Tokyo unofficially before taking off for his planned trip to Europe, with hopes of improving the tone of Olympic discussions. This was part of an ongoing dispute over the politicization of sports, and it did not end well for Indonesia. As you can read here, the Indonesians could not get what they wanted, and boycotted the Games.

Indonesia Withdraws From Tokyo Olympics
CARTOON: Indonesia Withdraws from Tokyo Olympics, Warta Bhakti- 10 October 1964, p1

JFK Thanks Hayato Ikeda for Congratulating JFK: Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda received a cable of thanks from US President John F. Kennedy, for the prime minister’s message of congratulations on the successful orbiting of an American spaceship, Faith 7, which circled the earth 22 times in mid May, piloted by a single astronaut. During the Tokyo Olympics, the Soviet Union would surprisingly top that by sending the world’s first spaceship with a crew of three – the Voskhod – during the Olympic Games.

USSR, USA and Cuba: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened that things could get worse than the Cuban Missile crisis of the year before if the United States did not cease in interfering in Cuban affairs. Little did Khruschev know that he would be ousted from power a bit over 500 days later.

Khruschev Ousted_NYT_16Oct1964
New York Times, October 16, 1964

Nuclear Tests: The Japanese government decided in May of 1963 to cease its protests against American underground testing of nuclear explosives, after one such test took place in mid May in Nevada. The Japanese government finally realized that simply protesting the US government to change its behavior was not working. They didn’t realize that about 508 days later they would have to protest China’s decision to test its first atomic bomb, which they did on October 16, 1964, six days into the Tokyo Games.

Wyomia Tyus Today

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

The nineteen-year-old landed in Tokyo, Japan wide-eyed.

A rising star in the best women’s athletic program in the United States, Wyomia Tyus had incredible opportunities for a young woman traveling the world, including Poland, Germany, England and the Soviet Union. But nothing prepared her for the crowds of Tokyo, she told me.

I grew up in Griffin, Georgia, where maybe there was 40,000 people, with half of that in the countryside. When we flew in to Tokyo, I will never forget seeing the lights from the plane, so beautiful. And the big buildings, which reminded me of New York. But there were so many people! That was a little scary.

Tyus told me that her coach, the legendary Ed Temple, made sure that his athletes’ lives were more than just running and jumping. He would tell his athletes to experience things, to go on sightseeing tours and see as much as possible. And being in the Olympic Village was eye opening, as she described in her autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis.

Coming from Georgia and Tennessee, not knowing anything but “you’re black” and “You’re white,” and then seeing all these different hues and colors, all these different ethnicities, there was nothing I could do but grow. It made me have a better understanding of people in general – and of myself. Everybody always talks about the differences between blacks and whites, but the truth is, certain aspects of the black and white cultures in the South were pretty much the same: people who came from the farms ate mostly the same, dressed mostly the same, depending on their class. But in the Olympic Village, here were all these people who ate different foods and spoke different languages and word different clothes – they lived differently, and they had a different understanding of the how we lived.

Tyus told me how she could go so long without knowing that the world was so diverse. “It was such a growth period for me,” she said. “I didn’t know these things. How come nobody talked about these things in high school, I wondered.” Having a wide number of experiences and interacting with a diverse group of people became a basic tenet for success in Tyus’ life, and thought she needed her children to understand that. She made sure that she sent her kids to her home, and to her first husband’s home in Canada to experience different ways and thinking. She said her son and daughter were sometimes put off by the way their aunts and uncles talked, and smelled and acted. But their mother had this belief:

Knowing that someone who is so different from you is also a part of you makes you a stronger person. It helps you to be able to appreciate life, to really laugh at life, to see the things that people do as part of a culture. I wanted my kids to know that my dad’s side of the family is different from my mom’s side, and both are different from Duane’s family in Ohio and his grandmother who grew up in Tennessee. This is your family. This is part of you, so you should appreciate difference and not put other people down.

Wyomia Tyus in Kenya_Akashic Books Wyomia Tyus at the Goodwill Games in Kenya. (Photo by Ed Temple/Courtesy Akashic Books)

Of course, this tolerance is tested at times, and like mothers around the world, Tyus needs to balance principles with common sense. While race relations in America have improved significantly in some ways, they have stayed the same in others. Like many other black parents, she has had to provide uncomfortable advice to her children about how to behave in the presence of police, as she explains in Tigerbelle:

  • If the police pull you over, you need to keep your hands on the wheel, you need to say ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No sir,’ and you need to say everything you’re going to do before you do it.
  • You need to say: ‘Can I roll my window down?’ You need to say, ‘I am reaching for my wallet now.’
  • You need to tell them which hand you are going to use to do it.

Her son is incredulous, but Tyus feels that in the 21st century it is still necessary for a person of color to be extra careful. She’s known this ever since she first moved to California, a place she knew would be very different from Griffin when she moved West as a 23-year-old – temperate weather, more glamorous, and more tolerant of difference. While that was generally true, Tyus still experienced the discomfort of being perceived as a maid in the elevator of her apartment complex, or stared at for swimming in the pool, as she noted in Tigerbelle.

Before I came out west, I thought it would be different—lots of people in the South thought that. To this day, people in Griffin will say to me, “California? Oh, you could have it so free there!” And before I moved, I agreed. California’s so open, I thought. But no. It’s not. Things are just more subtle than they are in the South. Because a lot of the people in California came from the South. And moving to California didn’t necessarily change their ideas. It just meant that they were surrounded by change and maybe they had to bend a little bit.

Unpleasant as that revelation is, Tyus gained this insight because she changed her environment, interacted with different people, reflected on what she understood, and revised her worldview.

Tyus is not an activist. She’s an introvert. She’s inquisitive. And thanks to a world of experience, encouraged by her parents and her mentors, like Ed Temple, she is very self aware and insightful about the world around her. Tyus is not just the first person ever to win back-to-back gold medals in the Olympic 100-meter sprint. She is a learner and a teacher – and we need more people like Wyomia Tyus than ever before.

“Every new experience brings its own maturity and a greater clarity of vision.” Indira Ghandi

wyomia tyus with four medals Two-time Olympian, four-time medalist, Wyomia Tyus

Being a black athlete in America in the 1960s was a challenge. Being a black woman athlete was often an insurmountable barrier.

“Black women were less than second-class citizens, and they had to work – they had to work hard,” she wrote in her excellent autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis.

There were not a lot of options for women in sports at that time, and the options we did have were especially restricted because they were for girls. When I started playing basketball, girls couldn’t run up and down the court – you had to play half-court: three guards on one side, three forwards on the others, and you could only dribble three times before you had to pass or you’d be called for traveling.

But if anybody made do with limited opportunity, it was Wyomia Tyus. She grew up in Griffin, Georgia, in a house with no plumbing and unsteady access to electricity, that, on her tenth birthday, burned to the ground, leaving the family of six with nothing but memories. And yet her family persevered, and Tyus continued to grow up in a supportive household, as she told me.

By growing up in a small town, my parents worked very hard, they always said that it is not always going to be this way, you will have opportunities, that you don’t see this when you are young. I didn’t mind being poor. I didn’t think about it. I thought I had as much as everyone else. Thanks to my parents, I felt free. I felt I could do whatever I wanted to do. They taught us that we could that we just had to work hard. You can’t quit. You just have to work it.

Tyus learned from her brothers how to compete, and never to give in, as she wrote in Tigerbelle.

They could knock me down twenty times, and I’d be back up fighting. ‘Could you just stay down?’ they would always say. But I never would. My attitude was: You’re going to know you’ve been in this war. I might get the worst of it, but you’re going to know that you’ve been in a way. They taught me all of that.

Being brought up in a nurturing home was important. Natural athletic ability was critical. But Tyus was lucky that one of the few people in the country who could help grow her career was in town one day – legendary track coach, Ed Temple of Tennessee State University.

“I was lucky,” she told me. “I don’t take that lightly. I always think about how Mr. Temple saw me run and thought that I had the potential to come to Tennessee State and run and maybe go to the Olympics. He was going to other meets in Mississippi and Alabama. That’s how he would choose the girls. And I wasn’t winning when he saw me. I was doing ok, but he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

Tyus would go on to star in one of the few institutions in America that developed women track and field athletes in the 1960s. Generally speaking, however, women, and especially black women, were constantly ignored and belittled.

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the coach of the US men’s track team decided that the women were not really part of the US Olympic squad as he refused to allow the entire shipment of sprinter’s starting blocks to be used by the women sprinters, as explained in Tigerbelle. “What are you talking about?” Mr. Temple said to him. “I thought we were the American team – that we were all the American team.”

The women’s track team were just about resigned to using the starting blocks available to the Japan team when American sprinter, Bob Hayes, spoke up. “What kind of craziness is this? You can use my blocks any time you want.” The male athletes then began sharing the equipment, trumping the sexist attitude of the coach.

Tyus and teammate, Edith McGuire, went on to finish gold and silver in Tokyo. And Tyus came home to a parade in her hometown. But, while everyone in the universe knew that Bob Hayes was the star of stars at the Tokyo Olympiad, little did the rest of the United States know or care about the fastest woman in the world.

Tigerbelle Wyomia Tyus Story CoverAs the Americans began their preparations for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the track and field women were again dismissed as an afterthought. As she wrote in Tigerbelle, it was necessary to train in a high altitude venue to match conditions in Mexico City. Lake Tahoe, California was perfect and scenic. But only the men were invited to train there. The women of the track and field team were shipped to Los Alamos, New Mexico.

When we got off the bus, we all looked around and said, “Wow, there’s nothing here.” Because there was nothing in that town—nothing but all the nuclear weapons development facilities. As time went on, we began to understand why it was so isolated. There was a long-distance runner who would just go off and run, and one day she headed into an area that she shouldn’t have been in. That’s when the coaches called us together and told us, “You should not be running anywhere but where you’re told.”

Instead of focusing on peak performance, the women were wondering “what am I breathing in?”

Tyus went on to win the gold medal in the women’s individual 100-meter sprint as well as the women’s 100-meter relay. But her accomplishments were drowned out by the feats of a very strong American men’s squad in Mexico City, and also more generally by an American press that could not see the value in, or perhaps, could not overcome the fear of promoting the accomplishments of black women.

At the time, they were not about to bathe a Black woman in glory. It would give us too much power, wouldn’t it? Because it would have been a moment, if you think about it: “She won back-to-back gold medals; nobody in the world has ever done that. Let’s paint the US all over her—let’s drape her in a flag!” You would think. But no. I would never see them hanging a flag on me. Because one thing the Olympics is not about is giving power to the powerless.

Her coach Temple wrote tellingly in his book, Only The Pure in Heart Survive, that Tyus’ incredible feat of back to backs would likely be forgotten. He wrote the following in 1980, eight years before Carl Lewis became the first man to be crowned fastest in the world two Olympiads in a row.

If a man ever achieves this, everyone will probably say he’s the first – until they look back over the records and discover that Wyomia Tyus did it long before any of them. Maybe by then she’ll get the recognition she really deserves. 

And yet, Tyus understands that the unsupported minority need to leverage what they get. And she understands that history is on her side.

If you make history, there’s no way they cannot put you in it. It may not be the way I want, but every time they talk about the 100 meters, they have to mention my name. Maybe softly. Maybe just once. But they have to.

Wyomia Tyus Park_Akashic Books

In 1999, over 30 years after her historic back-to-back 100-meter Olympic gold medal, the name of Wyomia Tyus was shouted out loudly and proudly, with the opening of the Wyomia Tyus Olympic Park, a 164-acre swath of greenery with picnic areas, ball parks and soccer fields, not far from where Tyus grew up in Griffin, Georgia.

Surrounded by friends and family, Tyus was overwhelmed by the recognition. “I was speechless, to tell you the truth. I was shocked and pleased and didn’t know that people cared so much. It was great.”

Edith McGuire and Wyomia Tyus in 100-meter finals_1964 Tokyo Olympics_The Olympic Century
Edith McGuire and Wyomia Tyus in 100-meter finals, from the book, 1964 Tokyo Olympics – The Olympic Century

“I want foxes, not oxes,” is how Ed Temple would tell his athletes to watch their weight.

Temple was the coach of the Tennessee State University women’s track and field team – aka The Tigerbelles, and he was upset that 19-year-old Wyomia Tyus, who traveled to Tokyo in October 1964 on the US Olympic team, spent too much time at the dining halls of the Olympic Village. Tyus gained 5 pounds right away.

“That’s just too big,” complained Temple to Tyus. “You’ve never been this big, and here it is, the most important race of your life…you need to push away those potatoes, you need to push away the rice, and you need to push away from that bread.”

That’s how Tyus explained her predicament in her autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis. She was not as concerned as her coach. Temple had wanted her to add pounds to be stronger anyway, she thought. After all, he had done all he could to keep Tyus’ expectations realistic.

When Tyus made the US squad as the third fastest American woman in the 100-meters at the US Olympic Trials, Temple told her, “Tyus, we really don’t expect much from you. Your year is ’68.” Tyus explained that Temple wanted his inexperienced athletes to gradually get used to high-pressure competition, like handling the press and the moment of the big race.

Tigerbelle Wyomia Tyus Story Cover

So Tyus wasn’t expecting to win the 100-meters – that honor was supposed to go to Edith McGuire, the fastest Tigerbelle at the time and heir apparent to fellow Tigerbelle, Wilma Rudolph, who famously blazed to three sprinting gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

And yet, Tyus, the quiet woman from Griffin, Georgia, was sensing an opportunity. Temple ran his Tigerbelles through rigorous practices, and because Tyus was running in both the individual 100-meter and 100-meter relay competitions, she took on an extra practice load. In trying to suss out the right combinations for the relay, Temple would work on a variety of combinations, with Tyus often on the receiving end of the baton.

He tried several people, and they were always passing to me, so I was always running. I guess that was his way of getting me to run off the weight. Instead, it just made me really strong—good and strong. When it came down to qualifying for the final in the 100, I was running well in every heat; in fact, I was winning each heat, and easily—easily meaning that I wasn’t struggling or really trying hard to win. Even Mr. Temple had to say, “Tyus, you look so good.”

Temple was beginning to wonder if Tyus could medal. Tyus’s confidence was growing in leaps and bounds in these practices, and she began to believe she could take gold. In fact, she won her three heats prior to the final handily. When she lined up in lane 6 against the 7 other fastest women in the world, looking at the immaculately managed cinder track, wary of her teammates McGuire and Marilyn White to her right, and the two speedy Poles, Halina Górecka and Ewa Klobukowska on her far left, she was ready. She just needed to hold off her best friend, McGuire.

When the gun went off, I just remember running, not thinking, until I was at the 80-meter mark, and then asking myself: Where’s Edith? Because Edith was always catching me at 80 meters. Where is she? I wondered. I can’t hear her. I can’t see her. But it don’t mean anything because she’ll be here.

McGuire was there. But with a perfectly timed upper-body lean, Tyus hit the tape 0.2 seconds ahead of her teammate. At 11.4 seconds, Wyomia Tyus was the fastest woman in the world, and the world record holder in the 100-meter sprint.

Free and easy won the race. Tyus told me she was in great shape and had little to lose, as opposed to the weight of the world on her teammate McGuire.

They expected her to win three gold medals like Wilma. She had the pressure on her. I had none. After all, I had never beaten her. I got third in the Olympic trials. Edith and Marilyn White, they were running so well. But I think I won because I was running so relaxed and care free.

Standing on the medal stand, Tyus felt a burst of euphoria, the protective bands of caution and reserve loosened, at least on the inside. Here’s how she described in her book:

I was excited. And for me to say I was excited means I was excited. Once I was on that victory stand, I started thinking, I’ve got to do this four years from now. Instead of standing there feeling everything and enjoying my win, I was thinking: I’ve got to try to be here in four years – I’ve got to come back here and do this again. That’s what went through my mind. Not, Yay! I won it! I did it! I won a gold medal! That was not even going through my head. It was: four years? Oh my.

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Reiko and Theo with daughter Naomi visiting grandparents in Tokuyama.

After the Tokyo Olympics, Japan was at a peak in confidence. The economy was roaring. Team Japan tallied the third highest number of gold medals at the XVIII Olympiad at 16. The world had rave reviews for the organizers, with IOC president Avery Brundage heaping high praise on Japan:

Japan had demonstrated its capacity to all the world through bringing this greatest of all international spectacles to Asia for the first time and staging it with such unsurpassed precision and distinction. It is certainly the Number One Olympic Nation today.

The world had come to Japan and was excited to see a young, curious and energetic people. And the young, curious and energetic Japanese were eager to see the world.

In 1964, Reiko Kuramitsu was a freshman at Ferris College in Yokohama majoring in English, and was recruited to be a guide and translator for the Silk Center, which opened in Yokohama in 1959 to promote the silk industry.

Reiko worked 9 to 5, and was given special permission to skip classes so she could do her civic duty and help foreigners visiting the Silk Center learn about the great industriousness and skill of Japanese craftsmen. Born in Tokuyama-shi (now Shunan-shi), Yamaguchi in the Western part of Japan, Reiko had progressive parents who encouraged their daughter to study English and expand her horizons.

And with the arrival of the Olympics, Reiko was excited.

It is hard to believe that it was only 19 years after the war. It was amazing to make such a quick recovery. All the spirit came back. The whole country was so excited about the Olympics and Tokyo. Most of the people were able to buy TVs, black and white. All of Japan was talking about the Olympics!

And Reiko felt that something special was coming for her. “Before the games started, I had a premonition that something is going to really happen to change my life,” she said. “I sense things are going to happen in the future. I felt it very strongly.”

As the Tokyo Olympics were coming to a close, a group of Olympians entered the Silk Center. One of them, an Australian, looked so much like the American actor Steve McQueen, that the workers at the Silk Center were star struck, asking him for autographs. Reiko wasn’t interested, and walked away from the gaggle of girls. Ted (Theo) Mittet, a young American rower, was accompanying faux McQueen, and noticed Reiko. He left the Silk Center without saying a word to her.

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Ted “Theo” Mittet in front of the Kenzo Tange National Gymnasium during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

But Theo returned the next day. Reiko wasn’t there, but her friend Sumiko, also from Reiko’s hometown, was. Theo asked Sumiko for Reiko’s name and where he could contact him. “The next thing I knew, I got his express letter from the Olympic village from Theo,” she said. “It just said, ‘Dear Reiko, would it be possible to have dinner together?’ He didn’t even know me. This must be fate.”

They met for dinner in Chinatown – Douhatsu – one of the popular restaurants in Yokohama at the time.  Reiko brought her friend Sumiko along – after all, she had never met this man before. Reiko sensed that Theo was unhappy that a party of two suddenly became a party of three. And she felt he was annoyed that she didn’t know anything about his hometown of Seattle. But she liked him.

He was cute. He had beautiful brown eyes. More interestingly to me, I learned he was studying to be an architect. I almost went to art school, but instead ended up studying English literature. To me, his interest in architecture meant he was artistic, and that interested me about him more than anything.

They met one more time before Theo took off on his 2-month journey through Japan. He even stopped by Tokuyama and met Reiko’s mother. After Theo returned to Yokohama, they met several times, but their relationship seemed to stall. And then one day, Theo was gone. He had embarked on a ship that took him around the world before returning home to Seattle.

Still they stayed in touch as pen pals, “just good friends.” But as her parents did, Theo encouraged Reiko to be more curious, to be more independent. And at some point, she decided that she would go to the United States, “to see America with my own eyes.”

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Greyhound Bus ad in 1966

While it is routine for single Japanese women to travel abroad today, in the 1960s, very few Japanese did. Overseas travel was not encouraged by the Japanese government, as they wanted to keep their hard-earned export dollars for use by Japanese corporations. And to get a visa to America, you had to go through a few hoops. She had to have sponsors in America, so she talked with her college teachers, and fellow church goers and got introductions to their friends in America. At the particular church she attended, she knew a Naval Commander named George Imboden, whose daughter she had become friends with.

Thanks to all these connections, she was able to convince the American Embassy she had a clear travel plan and people to meet her along the way. She boarded a ship that took 12 days, passing through the Aleutian Islands before arriving in San Francisco. Then she started her American journey in earnest, pulling out her Greyhound Bus ticket, taking advantage of an unlimited travel promotion called “99 days for 99 dollars.”

She was 21. She was on a bus. And she was seeing America: Colorado, Kansas, Tennessee, Georgia, New York, Massachusetts, Washington D. C., Illinois, Iowa. And then back to the West Coast with a visit to Seattle, Washington.

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Reiko Kuramitsu and Karen Mittet on the Bremerton Ferry in Seattle.

Reiko was met by Theo’s family at the 8th avenue bus terminal, and was shocked to see these big Americans. Like Theo, his father and his brother were both over 6 feet tall. Reiko met Theo’s mother, and her sister. But Theo wasn’t there. He was in California, studying at UC Berkley.

So Reiko made her way south to California. She was able to stay with Commander Imboden at their home in Long Beach. When Theo took a summer job at a nursery in Laguna Beach, he arranged for a homestay for Reiko near him. And they got to know each other for another two months.

With her visa at her limit of 6 months, Reiko had to head back to Japan. But before she left, Theo and Reiko got engaged. A year later, they married.

If Reiko stayed in Japan, she likely would have ended up in an arranged marriage, and probably would still be in Yamaguchi.

My life is so much richer (for meeting Theo). I can’t imagine what would have happened if I stayed in Japan my whole life.

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Reiko and Theo in Napa Valley