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.”

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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.

reiko theo and naomi in tokuyama
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.

photo by takeko honma 2
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.”

greyhound ad_99 for 99_bakersfield californian_1966_highlighted
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.

reiko kuramitsu and karen mittet_summer of 1967_bremerton ferry seattle
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.

reiko and theo_napa valley
Reiko and Theo in Napa Valley

year of the boar japan 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stan Cole
Stan Cole

Stanley C. Cole

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

 

Valentina_RastvorovaValentina Rastvorova

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

 

Kurt HelmudtKurt Helmudt

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

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

 

Ganpatrao AndalkarGanpatrao Andalkar

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

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

 

Győző_Kulcsár_1970Győző Kulcsár

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

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

 

Joseph MacBrienJoseph MacBrien

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

Tokyo wins 2020 bid
Tokyo wins 2020 bid

573 days to Opening Day of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. On July 24, 2020, all the questions, all the angst, all the planning will end, and all that will matter are the athletes. For now, we can only speculate about what will be, and recall what has been.

 

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

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

Rich Stebbins_2016
Stebbins at the Northwest Express Track and Field Classic in Florida, June, 2016.
Fred Hansen on the medal podium
Fred Hansen on the medal podium.
Ralph Boston_Tokyo 1964_from his collection
Ralph Boston and his winning leap at the 1964 Tokyo 1964 Olympics, from his collection

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were held in October to avoid the heat and the typhoons of summer. Unfortunately, except for the beautiful Autumn weather of Opening Day, most of the two weeks of the Olympiad were wet and chilly.

On October 18, the day of the men’s long jump finals, it was 13.5 °C (56.3 °F) and it rained hard all day. According to reigning Olympic champion, Ralph Boston, “It was really coming down. The weather was raw. The air was heavy with moisture and it was just tough.”

And then, there was the wind. The way the long jump was set up for the finals, the wind blew directly into the faces of the athletes as they ran down the runway towards the sand pit. Boston observed that the long jump area was designed to go in either direction, with sand pits at both ends of the runway. In the morning during the qualifier, they ran in one direction, but in the afternoon for the finals, the officials flipped the direction. “I remember asking the official from Netherlands in charge, whether we could turn this around and run the other way, but he said we couldn’t do that,” Boston told me.

Of the 32 competitors who started that day, only 12 qualified for the finals. In those first three jumps, the Soviet favorite, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan had the longest leap at 7.78 meters. The group narrowed to six competitors, and as the day got longer, Boston recognized the day as a war of attrition – no one was going to hit anything close to world record levels. “I don’t think anyone will jump eight meters today,” said Boston to one of his teammates.

Lynn Davies and Ralph Boston
Lynn Davies and Ralph Boston in 1964

Lynn Davies, the 22-year-old Welshman representing Great Britain, overheard Boston’s remark, and found himself re-energized.

Davies told the BBC that up to that moment he had looked up to Boston and Ter-Ovanesyan as unbeatable competitors. “They were my heroes. But when I heard Ralph say that I realized the conditions were tough for them too and I thought I had a chance because I’d jumped eight meters back home in Wales in similar conditions.”

At the end of four rounds, Boston was in the lead with a jump of 7.88 meters. As Davies gathered himself for his fifth attempt, he took three deep breaths, his face set in a scowl of concentration. Lynn launched himself down the runway, flew through the air, and hit the sand just right so that he was able to pop right up. Lynn was impassive as he walked out of the pit, but when the scoreboard flashed 8.07 meters, he brought his hands to his head in a mixture of joy and disbelief.

Boston had fouled his fifth attempt, but he had one more chance. He had fallen behind, not just Davies but also Ter-Ovanesyan, whose leap of 7.99 put him in second place. Perhaps because Davies had shown that 8 meters was not insurmountable that day, Boston charged down the runway with his best leap of the finals – 8.03 meters. The American overtook the Soviet, but could not overtake the new Olympic champion, dubbed in the British press as Lynn The Leap.

Ralph_Boston,_Lynn_Davies,_Igor_Ter-Ovanesyan_1964 (1)
Ralph Boston, Lynn Davies, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, 1964 Olympics (Asahi Shinbun) public domain

Boston won the silver medal, and told the BBC that Davies deserved the gold.

It was rainy, rainy, rainy. When it rained in America I tried not to go out in it so I wasn’t prepared for it. It was one of the most horrendous days I’ve ever competed in. But I always said it behooved a champion to take advantage of whatever’s there and that’s what you [Davies] did and all the best to you for doing it.

Fred Hansen with gold medal
Fred Hansen and his gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

It’s February, 1964 and Fred Hansen is fiddling with his grip.

The then-world record holder for the pole vault, fellow American named John Pennel commonly held the 17-foot pole nearly 15 feet up from where the tip hits the vault box. Hansen’s coach, Augie Erfurth, is trying to coax Hansen to place his grip higher than 14 feet. It’s scientific reasoning. “We’ve got him gripping at 14-2 and 3,” explained Erfurth to a reporter of the Fort Worth Star Telegram. “If the pole reacts, he’ll have more bend.”

Since George Davies won a pole vault competition using a fiberglass poll in May of 1961, it became clear to all that the space age technology of fiberglass was more flexible and stored more kinetic energy in the pole than the more traditional materials of bamboo, steel and aluminum.

If you watch gold medalist, Don Bragg, win gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics, you can see his aluminum pole bend, maybe, 45 degrees at best, as he lept to an Olympic record of 15′ 5″ (4.70 m). Pennel, Hansen and other pole vaulters vying for a spot on the Olympic team to compete at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were routinely getting over 16 feet, trying to figure out how to get their poles to bend 90 degrees, and maximize the kinetic energy stored in the pole that propels them over the bar as the pole unbends.

The higher the athlete holds the pole, the greater the potential in bend. But as the Rice University graduate, Hansen explained in the article, “vaulting is just like a golf swing. There are so many things to remember.”

You have to be clear in the number of steps you take down the runway, when to hit maximum speed and where to plant your foot when you slip the pole vault into the vault box. You have to be conscious of the position of your arms as you launch to get maximum bend, and of your legs as you approach the bar, efficiently rotating your body vertically so that you are upside down as you climb. Then you have to time your hip extension just as your pole is unbending and releasing its stored energy, sending the athlete to his or her maximum height. Rotating the body horizontally at the right time so that you come down feet first without touching the bar is the final act of the complexity of the pole vault.

In other words, you have to be muscular and flexible in all the right places. Hansen’s training routine was becoming more sophisticated – in addition to isometrics, weightlifting and running, Hansen added a full program of gymnastics, thanks to advice from a fellow American competitor, Brian Sternberg of Seattle, Washington.

“I went to an all-comers meet in California,” Hansen told me. “Brian beat me. He had the most beautiful form I had ever seen – this guy’s got something, I have to find out more.” When Hansen approached the Washington native, Sternberg said he did a lot of gymnastics training, and Hansen thought he should start doing the same to keep up. “I devised a program that was gymnastic oriented. I trained on gymnastics apparatus – the seven phases. I would replicate vault movements on the various apparatus. I don’t know if anybody else was doing that.”

Anybody other than Sternberg, who was a trained gymnast who pole vaulted. Leveraging his gymnastics background and the power of the fiberglass pole, Sternberg twice set a world record in the pole vault in April and June of 1963. The twenty-year-old Sternberg was at the top of his game, very close to being the first person to clear 17 feet, with his coach speculating he could fly over 20 feet one day. Certainly, Sternberg was a shoo-in for the Olympic team headed for Tokyo, destined for golden glory.

Until tragedy struck.

Brian SternbergSternberg did a lot of training on the trampoline, and was training for a competition in the Soviet Union. It was July 2, 1963 and he was doing flips and turns on the trampoline, when he attempted a double-back somersault with a twist. It’s a difficult move, according to this article, that Sternberg had made thousands of times. This time, he landed in the middle of the trampoline, on his neck. The accident turned Sternberg, the best pole vaulter in the world, into a quadraplegic.

“This is a change,” Sternberg said ten months after his accident to AP. “Any change can be a good sign. The pain is mine: I must endure it.” And beyond the expectations of medical science at the time, Sternberg endured it, in pain, for 50 years, passing away on May 23, 2013.

“Brian helped me out with several things I was doing wrong when he was the world’s best,” Hansen said in a Seattle Times article about Hansen’s Olympic triumph in Tokyo. “The only thing that could make me happier at this moment would be if he were here too.”

Hayes Boston Carr Hansen
Tokyo, October, 1964: Four of America’s top hopes for medals in the track and field events pose after arriving in Tokyo for the start of the 1964 Olympic Games. From left to right, they are Bob Hayes, Ralph Boston, Henry Carr and Fred Hansen.

For every Olympics since the re-boot of the Olympic Games at Athens in 1896, Americans had won every single pole vault competition. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Fred Hansen of Cuero, Texas was the world record holder and favorite to be the 15th American Olympic pole vault champion in a row.

But that streak was at risk late into the evening of October 17, 1964.

Wolfgang Reinhardt of Germany made it over 16′ 6¾” (5.05 meters), one of two final competitors, out of the 32 who started. His compatriots, Klaus Lehnertz and Manfred Preussger failed on their three attempts, ending their competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Then Hansen made a gutsy decision. He decided to pass at 16′ 6¾”, and go for 16′ 8¾” (5.1 meters). If Reinhardt makes it at that height and Hansen doesn’t, the tall Texan would not only lose the gold medal, he would be the first American ever to not win gold in the pole vault. Even worse, having passed on two prior heights Lehnertz and Preussger had already made, Hansen’s gamble put him at risk of falling to fourth!

To Hansen, all he was doing was saving his energy for the biggest vault of his life.

At the time, pole vaulting competitions would commonly last three to four hours. But the finals of this Olympic competition was a marathon, starting at 1pm, and continuing late into the cool Autumn night.

“The only thing the Japanese did wrong throughout the Olympics,” Fred explained to the Dallas Morning News, “was let the pole vault finals run too long. The competition lasted nine hours.”

Hansen told me the Olympic officials raised the bar at smaller increments than normal, he suspects, to enable as many vaulters to advance as possible. Through the preliminary round on October 15, and the beginning of the finals, the bar was raised 4 inches at a time (10 cm), but in the last seven rounds of the finals, the bar was raised only 2 inches at a time (5 cm).

At the time of the Olympics, Hansen was the reigning world record holder at 17′ 1¾” (5.23 meters). It was becoming apparent that the long competition was not going to yield a new world record, but he knew his advantage was the need for fewer vaults. In fact, over the two-day competition, Hansen made a total of only 8 attempts out of a possible 31. Contrast that with the Germans Reinhardt, Lehnertz and Preussger who made a total of 15, 16, and 12 respectively.

Conversely, Hansen had to wait, and wait, and wait for his competitors to go through a cycle of three attempts at each height, as the day turned to night and the air turned chilly. But he was ready for the long slog, as he explained in a Dallas Morning News article:

The pressure never really got to me in Tokyo, however. I knew there were certain things I had to do and if I did them right, I could win. The psychological side of vaulting is just as important as the physical side. I managed to keep calm, and that was worth a lot.

So the bar was at 16′ 8¾” (5.1 meters). In the past 7 hours, Hansen had vaulted only 4 times. He had to stay loose, stay warm, and wait for his chance. Finally, in front of only a fraction of the spectators who filled the stadium at the start of the competition, under the very bright lights, Hansen finally stepped up to the runway.

Fred Hansen_bi to chikara_1
Hansen’s approach on his gold-medal winning leap, from the book “Bi to Chikara”.

To the cheers of the remaining Americans in the stands, Hansen runs, sticks his pole in the box, and elevates to the bar, but his chest just brushes against the bar enough on the way up to send it crashing to the ground.

It’s Reinhardt’s turn. In a thin mist, the German runs and seemingly leaps high enough, but he taps the bar on the way down, sending the bar off the uprights.

On their second attempts, Hansen hits the bar again on the way up, while Reinhardt again knocks the bar down on his downflight. Reinhardt is exhausted as he tries to extract himself from the plastic and foam rubber that fills the landing area. As he tumbles off, he sits on the ground for a moment, legs splayed, depleted.

So it comes down to the third and final attempt for Hansen. It’s 10 pm, the temperature has dropped to 19°C. Due to Hansen’s gamble to skip the previous height, if he misses, gold goes to Reinhardt right then and there

Fred Hansen_bi to chikara_2
Hansen clearing the bar_Bi to Chikara

Hansen hit the bar on the way up his first two attempts as he thought he wasn’t getting his feet back enough on the launch. So on the third attempt, fully aware of the need to keep his feet back to create a tiny bit of separation between his body and the bar on the way up, he launches himself into the air, and cleanly over the bar.

Reinhardt has one more chance. But it is not to be, as his feet hit the bar on the way up, ending the long day’s journey into night. Hansen wins gold, setting an Olympic record, and ensuring America’s continued Olympic dominance in the pole vault.

“I didn’t consider it a gamble – I knew I could make it,” said Hansen to reporters after the competition had ended. “I felt like I had to come through for my country.”

Fred Hansen on the medal podium
Fred Hansen on the medal podium.