The lanky woman from Venezuela was psyching herself up for her fifth leap. She took a deep breath, clapped her hands and then let her breath out in a big shout. She blurted out some words of encouragement, and began that rhythmic clap over her head, prompting the crowd to clap.
And then she began her run.
“Oh it’s massive! It’s absolutely massive,” exclaimed the play-by-play announcer. “But it’s a red flag unfortunately.” The replay showed her toe 7.5 cm over the limit.
Yulimar Rojas had clearly set a world record in her fifth jump at the finals of the Tokyo2020 women’s triple jump competition at the National Stadium on the evening of August 1, if not for the foot fault. In fact, she did the same thing two leaps earlier, a world record jump unrealized for a second time because she stepped significantly beyond the line.
Rojas right now is so dominant that her first attempt of 15.41 meters was an Olympic record, and as subsequent leaps from her competitors showed, was good enough for gold. If she could only start her leap before the plastic board, she’d set the world record.
Two-time Olympian Willie Banks knows this. The first man to start the modern-day tradition of clapping hands over one’s head to get the crowd into the moment, Banks too set the world record for the men’s triple jump on June 16, 1985 in Indianapolis.
Banks is in Tokyo serving on the Jury of Appeals for the World Athletics Council. He was present during the women’s triple jump and told me he knew Rojas was going to break the record, that it was just a matter of time. In the case of Rojas, she was so talented that it didn’t matter too much whether she launched perfectly from the board or not.
Too many people focus on the board. A lot will jump really well and not touch the board. For her, what matters are where your hips are in relation to the board. She has long legs relative to her body, which is important. A light body on top of your legs, like she has, helps as her legs are going to do the work. On top of that, she has very good acceleration, and so she is able to get good lift off the board without having to extend too much.
And so when her competitors failed to come close, Rojas approached her final attempt as a chance to put her name in the history books.
Rojas’s coach whistled encouragement. Rojas let out a shout. She swung her arms, got the audience clapping, and started off on a momentous spring. Her first hop was long, her second was flat, but her third launched her into the air and beyond the line for a world record. A white flag went up – no foul!
She did it – the first woman from Venezuela to win a gold medal. Her hands went to the back of her head, her mouth agape. She turned suddenly and nearly ran over the cameraman and let out a mighty yelp. Rojas triple jumped to 15.67 meters, way past the world record of 15.5 meters, set by Inessa Kravets of the Ukraine almost 11 years ago.
Banks thinks that Rojas has a long career ahead and can smash the 16-meter barrier if she makes one improvement.
“That middle step is kind of short,” he explained. “She makes up for it on her jump phase at the end, but what could she accomplish if she got it right? I hope she doesn’t get too comfortable like I did, and work on improving, so she can blast past 16 meters.”
But for now, Banks believes she is great for the sport.
“She’s energetic,” said Banks. “She’s empathetic, and I like that she shows her emotion, that she is enjoying this all the time. When you’re enjoying the sport, you are demonstrating the purest form of the sport, something I have always strived for, but never quite got to. But when you’re as good as Rojas, you can really enjoy yourself.”
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.”
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.”
Mottley won a silver medal in the 400-meter sprint as well at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but he lost his heart to Japan.
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.”
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.
It is time to remember Olympians who participated at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and passed away in 2020. I’ve been able to identify 37 such Olympians, a few I knew personally. They were medalists and participants from all parts of the world, and a wide variety of sport. And in this annus horribilis, several were victims to coronavirus. They will be missed.
Here they are, in alphabetical order by last name.
Csaba Ali swam for team Hungary at the 1964 Toyo Olympics, in the men’s 4×200 meter freestyle relay as well as the 400 meter individual medley. He passed away on December 27, 2020 at the age of 74.
Fernando Atzori won the gold medal in flyweight boxing at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. From a small town called Ales in Sardinia, Italy. Atzori taught himself boxing, went on to be an Olympic champion as well as a European flyweight champion as a professional in 1967, defending his championship nine times before losing it in 1972. After a long illness, Atzori died on November 9, 2020 at the age of 78.
Kazim Ayvaz, three-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler from Turkey, died on January 18, 2020 in Heisingborg, Sweden. A native of Rize, Ayvaz won the gold medal in lightweight Greco-Roman wrestling for Turkey at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He also competed at the 1960 and 1968 Summer Olympics. Ayvaz continued to wrestle until 1969 and was inducted into the FILA International Wrestling Hall of Fame in September 2011. He was 81.
Cliff Bertrand was a sprinter from Trinidad and Tobago, and he was a fellow New Yorker, running track at New York University, where he got his master’s degree. He got his Doctor of Education degree from Columbia University, as well as a law degree at Queens College. Bertrand ran in the men’s 200 meters and 4×400 meters relay team for Trinidad and Tobago at both the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Bertrand died in Long Island City, NY on November 28, 2020.
Heinfried Birlenbach was a shot putter from West Germany, a three-time Olympian who competed at the Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich Summer Olympics. According to his profile, Birlenbach was “an educated draftsman, then gas station attendant, petrol station owner, owner of a sauna company, and eventually became an insurance businessman,” in addition to being an “avid discus thrower and weightlifter.” The man who was born in the city of Birlenbach, died there on November 11, 2020, a few weeks from turning 80.
Tony Blue was a member of the Australian track and field team, competing in the 800 meters at the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. He also competed in the 4×400 meters relay in Tokyo. He would go on to get his medical degree and practice medicine in Brisbane. The doctor from Dubbo died on October 1, 2020. He was 84 years old.
Miguelina Cobián of Cuba passed away on December 1, 2019 in Havana. She was 77 years old. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, she was the first Cuban ever to reach an Olympic sprint final, finishing fifth in the 100 meters. She was also on the Cuban 4×100 meter relay team that took silver behind the United States at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. It is said that the great Czech runner, Emil Zátopek discovered her, and actually trained her early in her career.
Ernesto Contreras was a cyclist representing Argentina, who raced in three Olympics, from 1960 to 1968. Competing in the 4000 meter Team Pursuit in all three Olympiads, as well as the 100 kilometer Team Time Trial in 1968. Contreras was one of Argentina’s best known cyclists. He was born in Medrano, and died in Mendoza on October 25, 2020. He was 83.
Manuel da Costa was a competitor in the 50-meter rifle, prone, representing Portugal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He was a 44-year-old Olympian, who didn’t start shooting until he was 41 years old. He died on April 20, 2020, 93 years young.
Osvaldo Cochrane Filho was a member of the Brazilian water polo team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Born in Vitoria, Brazil, Filho passed away at the age of 87 on December 9, 2020 from the effects of COVID-19.
Armando “Chaparro” Herrera was the captain of the Mexican national basketball team who led his team at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics. The man from Juarez passed away on October 14, 2020, at the age of 89.
William Hill was one of 39 members of the Hong Kong team that went to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Hill ran in the men’s 200 and 400 meter sprints, and also had the honor of carrying the Olympic torch as it made its way through Asia into Hong Kong. He was 75 years old when he passed away on July 27, 2020 in Wong Chuk Hang, Hong Kong.
Wolfgang Hoffmann won the silver medal in the middleweight division of judo for Germany, when that sport debuted at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Hoffmann studied in Japan and taught judo for many years, publishing a book, Judo – Basics of TachiWaza and Ne-Waza, which he co-wrote with judoka Mahito Ohgo. Hoffmann died on March 12, 2020 in his hometown of Cologne, Germany, a couple of weeks shy of his 79th birthday.
The greatest athlete in the world in 1964 was Willi Holdorf, who won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The native of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, Holdorf was a humble man who led a powerful German team that took 3 of the top 6 spots in the decathlon, overcoming the favorite from Taiwan, C. K. Yang, as explained in my blog post here. Holdorf passed away on July 5, 2020, at the age of 80.
Mariya Itkina competed on the Soviet Union women’s track and field team in three Olympics from 1956 to 1964. As stated in her profile, she “has the unfortunate distinction of having placed fourth at the Olympics the most times of any athlete, four, without ever winning a medal.” She did so in the 4×100 meter relay at the Melbourne Games, in the 100-meter, 200-meter races as well as the 4×100 meter relay at the Rome Olympics. Itkina died on December 1, 2020 in Minsk, Belarus at the age of 88.
Alexander Ivanitsky won the gold medal in the heavyweight freestyle wrestling competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. After retiring from wrestling, Ivanitsky was a sports journalist until 1991, ending his career as chief sports editor for the USSR State Committee on Television and Radio. He oversaw the broadcast of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It is said he died on July 22, 2020 after he went into a forest to forage for mushrooms. He was 82.
György Kárpáti of Budapest, Hungary was a four-time Olympian, winning three gold medals as a member of the powerhouse Hungarian men’s water polo team, including the infamous “Blood-in-the-Water” finals when Hungary defeated the USSR in the finals at the 1956 Melbourne Games. Kárpáti won his third gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, after which he also got his coaching degree. As coach, he helped lead Hungary to a gold medal the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Kárpáti died on June 23, 2020, a week before turning 85.
Dr. István Kausz, a two-time Olympian who won the gold medal in men’s team épée for Hungary at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. After obtaining his medial degree, he went on to become the team doctor for the Hungarian swim team and assisting as a member of the medical team for the Hungarian aquatic team from the 1972 to the 2012 Olympiads. Kausz passed away on June 3, 2020 in Budapest at the age of 87.
Alfred Kucharczyk was a Polish gymnast who competed at the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Representing the Radlin Gymnastic Club, Kucharczyk was an active coach and tutor to other gymnasts, including 2008 Olympic vault champion Leszek Blanik. The native of Radlin died on December 2, 2020, at the age of 87.
Gergely Kulcsár was Hungary’s greatest javelin thrower, winning a silver and 2 bronze medals over four Olympiads from 1960 to 1972. Kulcsár was Hungary’s flagbearer in the opening ceremonies in Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich. He continued to coach until 1980, seeing one of his athletes, Miklós Németh win gold in the javelin throw at the 1976 Montreal Games. Kulcsár died on August 12, 2020 at the age of 84.
Matti Laakso was a three-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler from Iimajoki, Finland. A welterweight, Laakso competed at the 1960, 1964 and 1972 Olympiads. His brother, Martti Laakso, was a two-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler, and they competed together at the 1972 Munich Olympics. A police officer throughout his career, Laakso was one of the most dominant wrestlers in Finland, winning 24 Finnish titles. He died on November 3, 2020. He was 81 years old.
Jānis Lūsis of Jelgava, Latvia passed away on April 29, 2020 in Riga. He was 80. The top men’s javelin thrower in the world in the 60’s and 70’s, Lūsis was a four-time Olympian from 1964 to 1976, winning bronze, gold and silver at the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympics respectively for the USSR. A world record holder in the javelin toss, Lūsis was married to Elivira Ozolina, who competed in the women’s javelin at the 1960 (gold) and 1964 Olympics. Their son, Voldemārs Lūsis, was an Olympic javelin thrower as well, competing at the2000 and 2004 Olympics for Latvia.
Dick Lyon was a member of the Lake Washington Rowing Club and a two-time Olympian. He was in the boat for the US men’s coxless fours that competed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and won the bronze medal despite overcoming near disaster In the heats. The native Californian, Lyon passed away on July 8, 2020, a month before he would have turned 80. I had the great honor of interviewing Dick for my book on the Tokyo Olympics, and I wrote about his passing here. I am so sorry he is no longer with us.
A legend of long-distance walking, Paul Nihil, passed away on December 15, 2020 in Gillingham, England. The native of Colchester became Great Britain’s first male track and field athlete to compete in four Olympiads when he raced in the 20-km walk at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Twelve years earlier at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Nihil took the silver medal in the 50-kilometer walk. A man who race walked into his seventies, Nihil died at the age of 81 after contracting COVID-19.
Leonid Osipov was a three-time Olympic water polo athlete who won bronze, silver and gold respectively at the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympiads on the team from the Soviet Union. He was 77 when he died on November 5, 2020.
Maria Ilwicka-Chojnacka-Piątkowska was a three-time Olympian who represented Poland in Athletics at the 1952, 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Multi-talented, Piatkowska competed in the 4×100 meters relay at all three Olymmpiads, as well as the long jump in Helsinki and Rome and the 80-meter hurdles at the Tokyo Games. Piatkowski fell victim to COVID-19 and passed away on December 19, 2020 at the age of 88.
Gunter Pfaff was a four-time Olympic canoeist, who won a bronze medal for Austria in the kayak doubles with Gerhard Seibold. He rowed kayaks in singles, doubles and fours from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and served as the flagbearer for Team Austria during the opening ceremonies of the Montreal Games. Pfaff died on November 10 in Garsten, Austria on November 10. He was 81 years old.
Doug Rogers won the silver medal in judo’s heavyweight class in the Olympic debut of that sport at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. A Canadian from Truro, Nova Scotia, he moved to Japan when he was 19 to learn the martial arts among the best, studying under legendary judoka, Masahiko Kimura. His life in Japan is portrayed in a short film called “Judoka.” Rogers competed again at the 1972 Munich Games when judo resumed as an Olympic sport. I never interviewed Rogers, although I enjoyed exchanging emails with him. I really wished I had met him. Rogers passed away on July 20, 2020 at the age of 79.
Huba Rozsnyai was a sprinter on the Hungarian men’s track team, and ran in the 100 meter individual as well as the 4×100 meters relay competitions. On December 4, 2020, Rozsnvai passed away from the effects of COVID-19. He was 77.
Haydar Shonjani represented Iran as a swimmer in the men’s 100 meter freestyle at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first ever Iranian to compete as a swimmer in the Olympics. He returned to the Games in 1976 on the Iranian water polo team. Shonjani passed away on November 8, 2020 at the age of 74.
Balbir Singh was on the field hockey team that restored golden glory back to India at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Singh also competed on the 1968 team that took bronze. The man from Sansarpur, Punjab was a member of the Punjab Police, rising to Deputy Superintendent of Police, and retiring as Deputy Inspector General in 2001. Singh died on February 28, 2020 in his hometown at the age of 77.
I interviewed Janell Smith Carson for my book. She was 17 when she ran in the women’s 400-meter competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Although she ran an American record of 53.7 seconds in the Olympics, she could not get to the finals. Born in Texas, she grew up in Kansas where she set the world record for the indoor 400 meters and got on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She told me that she was recruited by famed track coach Ed Temple to run for Tennessee State, but Smith did not want to leave home. Smith passed away on July 25, 2020 after a long battle with cancer. She was 73.
Three-time Olympian, Per Svensson won the silver medal in light-heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The native of Sollefteå, Svensson would go on to represent Sweden at the 1968 and 1972 Summer Olympics. He passed away in Sundsvall on December 17, 2020 at the age of 77.
Kinuko Tanida Idogawa was a member of Japan’s historic gold-medal winning women’s volleyball team that defeated the Soviet team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first time volleyball was an Olympic sport. That match was one of the most watched sporting events in Japanese history. One of the famed “Witches of the Orient,” Tanida was known for her strong spikes, and contributed greatly to the team’s gold-medal victory. A native of Osaka, Tanida passed away on December 4, 2020 at the age of 81. I was proud to share the screen with her in the History Channel documentary, Tokyo Legacy, which covers the history of Tokyo since the end of the war to 2020.
Juan Torruella sailed in four straight Olympiads, from 1964 to 1976, representing Puerto Rico. A graduate of the Boston University law school, Torruella served associate judge of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico before serving as US federal judge for over forty years since President Gerald Ford appointed him as a federal judge to the district court in Puerto Rico. As stated in his profile, “his most publicized case came when Torruella ruled on the appeal of 2013 Boston Marathon bomber and murderer Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, which overturned his death sentence.” Torruella died on October 26, 2020 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the age of 87.
Wojciech Zablocki completed in four Olympiads as a fencer for Poland. After capturing silver medals on the Men’s sabre team at the 1956 and 1960 Summer Games, he ended his Olympic career at Tokyo with a bronze medal on the Polish sabre team. Zablocki was an architect who designed sports facilities as well as a watercolor artist, and married a well-known actress and activist, Alina Janowska, who passed away in 2017. Zablocki died on December 5, 2020 a day before his 90th birthday.
Slaven Zambata was the captain of the Yugoslavia football team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Although his team finished sixth in the tournament, the man from Sinj starred with Dinamo Zagreb, leading them to four Yugslav Cups. One of the most prolific scorers in his country’s football history, Zambata died on October 29, 2020 in Zagreb, at the age of 80.
In 1964, Japan was preparing an extravaganza for the world, and they just had to get it right. Over 5,000 athletes from over ninety nations were coming to Tokyo. So were thousands of government and sports officials, members of the press, coaches, athlete-family members and sports fans from all parts of the world. If they could show the world that they were peace-loving, Western-like, modern and eager to contribute, then they could stand tall with the other great nations of the world.
Only two decades before, the Japanese were considered Asian upstarts, aggressors, and in some parts, cruel barbarians who would die for the Emperor without a thought. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics was the biggest coming-out party in Asian history, and Japan wanted to change perceptions, and look its absolute best.
Hundreds of known pickpockets were plucked off the streets by police months in advance. Gangs were prevailed upon to send their scarier-looking yakuza out of town. Signs were posted around the city declaring that urinating in the streets or littering would not be tolerated. Bars were closed by midnight. Taxi drivers were advised to drive with “proper traffic manners.” Local citizens brushed up their English and, overcoming their normal reticence, proactively sought out foreign visitors who looked as though they might need guidance. For a while, “May I help you?” was the most commonly heard phrase on the streets.
Stories abounded about the lengths to which the Japanese hosts went to look after visitors in need of help. To rescue an Australian couple who had lost bullet train tickets to Kyoto, their hotel voucher and a notice of remittance so they could pick up cash at a local bank branch, the manager of the Japan Travel Bureau at the pier where they docked raised money from his own staff to buy new train tickets, called the hotel and arranged for the couple to stay without the voucher, and made arrangements with the bank so the cash would be made available.
When a European prince reported his Dunhill tobacco pouch lost at the equestrian event at Karuizawa, an entire Self-Defense Force platoon combed the 33-kilometer course and found the pouch in less than an hour. A journalist who had dropped his signed traveler’s checks—in a nightclub as it turned out—got them back after the Mama-san spent two days tracing and deciphering his illegible scrawl, and then rang the hotels and the Press House before finally discovering to whom they belonged.
Billy Mills, hero of the 10,000-meter event, also came in for some of Japan’s famous omotenashi (hospitality). As a Native-American subjected to his own share of suffering back home, he empathized with his hosts:
In Japan, I saw people who were so courteous and polite. I knew underneath there had to be this anger. I could relate to the pain. Almost a sacredness of the way they contained the pain, and the respect they showed. They were like the elders I knew, who controlled their pain, and still showed respect to others.
Mills and his wife, Pat, had plans to return to the United States a day before the end of the games and so would not be joining the USOC-arranged transport to the airport. When the USOC refused to make any special arrangements for Billy—an amateur with little discretionary cash in his pocket—he turned to his Japanese hosts, who expressed surprise that the Americans would not take care of a gold medal winner and one of their biggest stars.
They picked up our bags, and put them in the largest, widest limousine I had ever seen, with Japanese and Olympic flags up front and an American flag on the back. We took off with two motorcycles escorting us to the airport. We left Japan in style.
The XVIII Olympiad was Japan’s big test. And if they passed, they thought, the world would welcome them back with open arms. And they did indeed pass that test, thanks to a stunning alignment of purpose across government, corporations, educational institutions, and local neighborhoods. As Azuma Ryūtarō, Tokyo governor and member of both the IOC and Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee, wrote in 1965:
One of the intangible legacies of the Tokyo Olympics is that it gave Japanese people the opportunity to be united for the first time since World War II. Additionally, the Tokyo Olympics succeeded in playing a vital role in connecting the East and West in terms of worldwide peace and sports. As a result, the world began to show greater respect for Japan and its people.
While so many of the 5,000 athletes who came to Tokyo in 1964 did not expect to win a medal, they did not want to be humiliated either. But in one of the most memorable sports events of the Tokyo Olympics—the men’s 10,000-meter competition—a runner from Sri Lanka had placed himself in a most embarrassing situation.
Formerly a colony called British Ceylon, Sri Lanka had existed as an independent nation for only sixteen years prior to the 1964 Games, and no one from Sir Lanka was expected to win a medal. But if you weren’t paying attention, you might have thought that one of their runners was battling for victory in the 10k race.
With 150 meters to go, the lead pack was jockeying for position in the home stretch, each passing a runner with the number #67. In fact everybody was passing #67, who had gotten lapped several times!
Number 67 was a slight man named Ranatunga Koralage Jayasekara Karunananda who competed in both the 5k and 10k races in Tokyo. After getting lapped in the first 1,000 meters of the 10k race, he continued to fall off the pace. When the eventual winner flared wide and put on a burst of speed to win dramatically in the final meters, Karuananda had a perfect view, only meters behind.
But while the winner ended his race in elation, Karunananda crossed the finish line knowing he was last…with four more long laps to go. He could have stopped. If he did, he would have joined the nine others who did not finish, and no one would have noticed.
Instead, the officer in the Sri Lanka Army, known to friends as Karu, plodded on.
The spectators at first were bewildered. Wasn’t the race over? Why was this guy still running…and running…and running? And yet, as Karunananda ran, the crowd noise went from ambivalence to encouragement. With three laps to go, the crowd began cheering the lone competitor as he made his way around the stadium track.
The winner of the race wanted so much to take a victory lap around the stadium but was thwarted by a Japanese official who told him to stay put. After all, the race was still on. Instead of the gold medalist, here was the last place finisher bathing in the growing cheers of 70,000, who likely only minutes before learned that #67 was Karunananda of Sri Lanka.
And when Karunananda rounded the last turn, he sprinted down the straightaway, crossing the finish line to a standing ovation and a thunderous cheer, as if he had just snatched his island’s first medal.
It is said that Karunananda told reporters at the Olympic Village that he was only doing what was expected of an Olympian. “The Olympic spirit is not to win, but to take part. So I came here. I took part in the 10,000 meters and completed my rounds.”
Karu became an overnight star in Japan, his desire to complete the race a symbol of the core value of perseverance so central to Japan’s successful rise from the rubble. Karu represented every hardworking man and woman in Japan, and they loved him for that.
He had pulled off a rare double – winning the 800 meter and 1,500 meter track finals at the 1979 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships – on the same day, with only 35 minutes in between finals. Don Paige, a student at Villanova University, was priming himself for a spot on Team USA for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
But when President Jimmy Carter announced at the White House in March 21, 1980, in front of 100 American Olympic hopefuls, including Paige, the 23 year old was in shock.
Plan A: This plan assumed that the boycott wouldn’t happen. After all, the USOC had not yet declined the invitation to the Games. Paige would then win the indoor nationals in the 1000 meter, win the 800 in the outdoor season, earn a sixth NCAA title, place in the top three in the Olympic trials, and then march in the Opening Ceremonies in Moscow.
Plan B: This plan was taking control of what Paige could control – competitions he could enter. Assuming Team USA did not go to Moscow, Elliott said that Paige would win every 800 meter competition he entered that year, win the US Olympic trials, and run the fastest 800 in the world. Paige would also compete in Europe after the Olympics, gunning for Sebastian Coe, the world record holder in the 800 at the time.
At the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the 800-meter and 1,500 meter finals are now the stuff of Olympic legend. The British compatriots Coe and Steve Ovett were fierce rivals, with Coe setting world records in the 800 and Ovett in the 1500.
Coe was favored to win the 800 meters, but on July 26, 1980, he found himself boxed in by a couple of East Germans, had to fight his way through them, run wide, and kick his way to a silver medal, losing to Ovett. Coe said in this Guardian article that it “was just a f@%k-up from beginning to end”, and calls it “the very worst 800 meters of my 20-year career.”
Ovett was favored to win the 1500 meters, especially after his unexpected triumph in the 800. But on August 1, 1980, East Germany again impacted the outcome. Jurgen Staub set a fast pace. It was Coe, not Ovett that kept pace, in fact passing Straub, and wondering where Ovett was. Coe cracked the tape and won the 1500 meter, covering his face with his hands. His knees buckling, Coe fell to the track, his head touching the track surface for a moment before he raised himself for a victory lap.
Paige followed his coach’s plan. He won the 800-meter finals at the US Olympic trials on June 23, running a world best at the time of 1:44.53. And after the completion of the 1980 Olympics, he went to Europe. Fortunately, his friend had entered him that Spring in a track meet in Via Reggio in Italy, where Coe was scheduled to race on August 14, only 11 days after the end of the Moscow Games.
According to the book, Boycott, Paige was surprised to hear from officials that he had not been entered into the 800 meter competition. He pleaded with race officials. He pleaded directly with Peter Coe, the father of Sebastian Coe, but to no avail. Paige essentially demanded to be in the race, giving an ultimatum:
Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to warm up for the 800, take my sweats off, and go to the line,” recalls Paige. “You’re going to have to remove me from that line. When you do, I’m going to hold a press conference explaining to them how my good friend Marty Liquori entered me in this race months ago and you two wanted me out because you thought I might beat Sebastian Coe.”
According to Paige in this CNN article, he went to the starting line and no one asked him to leave. So he finally got his wish – a head to head with the Olympic champion. And with 300 meters to go, Paige was in the lead. “We come off the turn, 100m to go, stride for stride,” said Paige. “Fifty meters, 20 meters. Before the line I’m thinking, ‘God darn it, we are going to tie!’ ”
It wasn’t a tie. Paige beat Coe by two one-hundredths of a second.
The Debate and The Irony
Within teams that boycotted the Olympics, there is always speculation. Would Yasuhiro Yamashita of Japan have won gold in judo? Would Edwin Moses have continued his Olympic dominance in the 400 meter hurdles? Would Don Paige actually have defeated both Ovett and Coe at the 1980 Moscow Olympics?
Yes Paige defeated Coe in Italy. But one can argue that Coe had already peaked, while Paige trained to peak in Italy, as explained in this Let’s Run forum discussion:
Coe was exhausted after running several races post Olympics. Paige was geared up to meet Coe and edged him out by o.03. A one off race. Coe’s PB was 1.42, Paige’s best was 144.5. Paige may well have taken bronze in Moscow. Ovett beat Paige in 83 easily – in the year that Paige had set his 800M PB. Ovett was well past his peak in that race.
Coe also proved himself again at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, winning gold in the 1500 meters and silver in the 800 meters again, with Paige no where to be seen.
At the end of the day, Paige is realistic about his place in history. “I was No. 1 in the world, but Sebastian Coe was a better half-miler than me,” Paige said in 2010 in this Philadelphia Inquirer article. “I just beat him that day. There’s only one Olympics. That was just a great competition that I was fortunate to win.”
But he does hold out hope that the boycott had meaning. Paige was, perhaps ironically, an American athlete who supported President Carter’s decision to pull Team USA from the Moscow Games. In 2010, he wrote an article that explained why he supported the boycott, and explained this view to Track and Field News.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing in this world, and [Carter] had to make a tough decision which I’m sure crushed him when he had to make a stand worldwide . . . There will always be politics in sports, and I believe Jimmy Carter made the best decision he could at the time . . . I still say maybe because Don Paige did not go to the Olympics, maybe I spared one life in Afghanistan. And if I did, I sleep really well at night because of that. It makes me feel good and proud.
Sebastian Coe was in Singapore in July, 2005 to convince the IOC that London was the best choice for the 2012 Summer Olympics. He believed he could speak with conviction about Great Britain’s commitment to the Olympic movement – after all, Team GB has never missed a date, as he related to The Guardian.
I don’t think I would have been able to stand up in Singapore in front of the International Olympic Committee and say what I said with credibility if I had boycotted in 1980. I was able to say that Britain had sent a team to every winter and summer games. Had I not gone in 1980 it would certainly have been seized upon and exploited by rival cities.”
Coe helped convince the IOC to make London the host of the 2012 Olympics, taking heart in the fact that Great Britain did not boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
President Carter felt that the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR threatened the national security of European nations and in particular the NATO allies. But getting the commitment of other countries, particularly American allies, was a challenge.
“The foreign reaction (to the proposed boycott) was something else,” said CIA analyst, David Kanin in a podcast about Carter and the boycott. “There was always a quizzical response – why? There was skepticism. There was support from some allied governments. There was support from allied Olympic committees, but not many. And it was clear that the athletes were dead set against it. It was a complicated situation.”
The complexity that the Carter administration was trying to grasp was the multi-faceted leadership of the Olympic movement, as Kanin went on to explain. He noted that the Carter administration initially didn’t understand much about Olympic movement, and “how the tripartite system with all the federations worked.” What was not clear at first to many was that governments don’t officially determine whether a national team goes to a given Olympics or not – in fact, it’s the national Olympic committees. That is why American vice president Walter Mondale went directly to the US Olympic Committee on the day of their vote, as explained in post 2 of this series.
European Resistance to the Boycott
In the case of Great Britain, prime minister Margaret Thatcher was in agreement with American president Jimmy Carter – that a boycott would sent a strong message to the Kremlin. But in Europe, governments were supportive of whatever decision their Olympic committee chose.
Early on, the French Sports Minister Jean Pierre Sottson said that “The Olympic Games ae not organized by the governments but by the International Olympic Committee which chooses a city, and not a country,” he said in a January 19, 1980 UPI article.
In early February, 10 national Olympic committees in Europe gathered in Frankfurt, West Germany and released a joint communique stating that “National Olympic Committees had sole responsibility to decide on the participation of their athletes at the Summer Games.” (AP, February 3, 1980)
Still, Thatcher believed that a boycott was the right thing to do, as did the Parliament. On March 17, 1980, after 7 hours of debate, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for Great Britain to boycott the Moscow Games.
Allan Wells of Scotland was a sprinter expected to compete in the 1980 Olympics, and thought that the British government went overboard in trying to influence the athletes that Moscow as a bad idea, as he related in this Guardian article.
We received maybe half-a-dozen letters from 10 Downing Street trying to put us off. I opened one. There was a picture with a letter saying this is what the Russians are doing. It showed a dead Afghan girl with a doll. I can still see the picture even now as if it were yesterday. It made me feel very angry that we were being pressured to this extent. I think deep down the government wanted us to go but also wished to please the Americans. My first thought was, “What’s going to happen if I don’t go? A Russian soldier isn’t going to say, ‘Oh, Allan Wells isn’t coming. I’m not going to shoot somebody.”
In the end, the British Olympic Association voted to go, and the British government did not put up barriers to their athletes’ participation. Although West Germany’s Olympic committee voted to boycott, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Iceland and Finland joined Great Britain and sent teams to the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Allen Wells would go on to win gold in the 100 meters, as well as silver in the 200 meters. But it was the duels between famed British middle distance runners, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett that captured the imagination of the British public, and could be seen as defeat for Thatcher, according to Paul Corthorn, senior lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, in this podcast.
A large part of the public debate had taken place earlier on in the 1980, January through March. The Games were held in the summer. A certain amount of time had passed. Other things had happened, have risen to prominence. I think in terms of the way in which the British successes were portrayed in the media, there is simply a case of interest in those competitions themselves, and a desire to celebrate them instead of hark back to an earlier debate.
For all of us who fly, it’s a sinking feeling when you arrive in a foreign land and your luggage hasn’t arrived with you. Imagine if you’re an Olympic athlete, and you land without your official uniform, training gear, and other personal belongings. “I was numb with distress,” said Diana Yorgova, a long jumper from Bulgaria. Fortunately, among the Japanese welcoming the Olympians at Haneda Airport were two legendary athletes, Mikio Oda, Japan’s first ever gold medalist, who won the triple jump competition at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, and Chuhei Nambu, who also took gold in the triple jump at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
Nambu came up to Yorgova to comfort her, and told her that it would be OK, that in fact, he too had landed in Los Angeles without his luggage, and had make his first jump barefoot! She understood. But she was still unsettled. That feeling disappeared the next day.
After a sleepless night of worry and jet lag, the new day offered me a pleasant surprise: a huge parcel addressed to me containing a brand new outfit, absolutely my size from spikes and runners to training suit and, moreover, amazingly, a T-shirt with the national state emblem embroidered on it. I was stunned, deeply touched and full of admiration. I wanted to fly with joy because I knew now I was going to participate! In my thoughts I sent thousands of thanks to those Japanese who brought back my self-confidence and dignity and whom I not only didn’t even know but had unwittingly disturbed.
Yorgova would place a respectable sixth in the women’s long jump competition, her medal to come later with a second-placed finish at the 1972 Munich Games. To celebrate her strong performance in her first Olympics, Yorgova and her fiancé, Bulgarian gymnast Nikola Prodanov decided to do some very special shopping: wedding rings. They planned to hold their big day after their graduation from Sofia University on Prodanov’s birthday in May of 1965.
That same day, the couple went to visit the Bulgarian ambassador, Christo Zdravchev. When the ambassador saw the rings, he brought out a bottle of Bulgarian wine and toasted to the couple’s happy future. But then, despite the diplomatic nature of the ambassador’s job, he apparently let the cat out of the bag by informing members of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, who in turn implored the ambassador to request Prodanov and Yorgova to change their plans. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, they enthused, for the young Bulgarian couple to hold their wedding in Japan, in the Olympic Village, during the Olympic Games?
The next day, the ambassador sheepishly approached Prodanov and Yorgova with the surprising request.
“Thus our fairy tale began,” said Yorgova. “I can’t forget the attention and care with which the Japanese ladies of the beauty parlor in the Olympic Village were preparing me for the ceremony. There, for the first time in my life, I had my hair dressed and my nails polished by professionals, who also massaged my scalp and even my arms. When I saw and put on the most beautiful dress of white lace and Nikola put on the first tuxedo in his life we felt like the prince and princess of a fairy tale.”
It was October 23rd, 1964, the day before the closing ceremony. Prodanov and Yorgova were nervous and filled with mixed feelings as this impromptu wedding meant that instead of sharing the moment with families and friends in Bulgaria, they were sharing it with diplomats, administrators and athletes, as well as press from around the world.
With the civil ceremony completed at the Bulgarian Embassy, the couple then embarked on what can only be described as a most original wedding: Western Olympic Shinto.
Japanese who choose a traditional wedding take their vows before a Shinto priest. But this was something more than just a traditional wedding. Held at the Yoyogi Olympic Village International Club, Prodanov in a black morning coat and Yorgova dressed in a white lace gown and veil entered in the glare of television lights and hundreds of flashing cameras, as they came to take their places in front of the presiding priest.
The traditional Shinto arrangements of sake bottles and rice, along with photos of the Olympic cauldron and the ever-present Olympic rings forming their wedding backdrop, were reminders that they were a long way from home in Bulgaria. An interpreter stood by to explain some of the more confusing aspects of the ritual. In Yorgova’s words:
We made our oath of allegiance to the Olympic Flag and a huge poster of the Olympic Flame in the presence of outstanding athletes from all over the world, official guests and journalists. To a background of gentle Shinto music we exchanged our rings, drank three sips of sake, and cut the most magical cake of our lives. At the end, we all danced Bulgarian traditional dances “horo” and “ruchenitsa.”
If one event symbolized the Olympics’ singularly international character, this may have been it.
After the ceremony, the couple were whisked away to the brand-new bullet train to enjoy a honeymoon evening in Kyoto and return to Tokyo the next morning to participate in the closing ceremonies in the afternoon.
Fifty-three years later, Yorgova recalled that magical moment with gratefulness. “As parents and grandparents of four grandchildren, we value the great efforts of the organizers more than ever before, and we apologize most heartedly for the extra anxiety, inconvenience and problems we caused to organize our wedding on such short notice,” she said. “We lived a moment we will never forget, thanks to the kind and gentle people of Japan, so full of goodwill.”
He powered through his long walk, entering the National Stadium first and alone, winning gold in the 20-kilometer walk race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And when Brit Kenneth Matthews reached his goal, his wife Sheila was there to greet him with a joyous hug. She continued to walk with her husband around the track as the crowd cheered. The great race walker from Birmingham died on June 2, 2019. He was 85.
Two-time Olympian and two-time medalist in sailing for USA, Lowell North passed away on June 2, 2019. He was 89. The Springfield, Massachusetts native was one of three crewmen who competed in the Dragon class competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics which won Bronze. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, North partnered with Peter Barrett to take gold in the Star class competition.
Günter Perleberg was paddler who won the silver medal in the kayak K-4 1000 meter competition as a member of the United Team of Germany at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, adding to his gold medal in the K-1 4×500 meter relay won at the 1960 Rome Olympics. An East German from Brandenburg an der Havel, Perleberg defected to West Germany via Austria in 1963, this making his selection for the Unified German team a topic of animosity between the Cold War powers. Perleberg passed away on August 1, 2019, at the age of 84.
American Roy Saari was selected for two different sports for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic: swimming and water polo. Having to choose one, Saari chose swimming where he won silver in the 400-meter individual medley, and gold in the 4×200 freestyle relay. That relay team set a world record. He also held the world record in the 1500-meter freestyle. His father was the famed water polo coach, Urho Saari. Saari passed away on December 30, 2018 at the age of 63.
One of the great Belgian cyclists of the 1960s, Patrick Sercu of Roeselare, West Flanders, took gold in the men’s 1,000-meter time trial at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Racing primarily in the 1960s and 1970s, Sercu won over 1,200 track and road races in his career, including 88 championships in the grueling Six-Day tournaments.
One of New Zealand’s greatest athletes, Sir Peter Snell, passed away on December 12, 2019 at the age of 80. Snell’s heroics started with his gold medal triumph in the 800 meters at the 1960 Rome Olympics. But at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the native of Opunake, New Zealand became the only Olympian since 1920 to win gold in both the 800-meter and 1500-meter distances in the same Olympics.
Yoshihisa Yoshikawa (吉川貴久) was the Chief of Police for Yawata Nishi in his home prefecture of Fukuoka, Japan. But he was more well known as the four-time Olympian, who won bronze medals in men’s free pistol 50 meters at the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Yoshikawa was 83, when he passed away on October 12, 2019, nearly 55 years to the day when he won his second bronze medal in Tokyo.
He made it to the 1960 Rome Olympics as a swimmer for Hungary, but he did not participate. Four years later, Miklós Ambrus made it back to the Olympics on the mighty Hungarian water polo team, which took gold over rival Yugoslavia. Before and after those Olympics, the Eger native was a veteran on the Hungarian water polo teams, earning 55 international caps. Ambrus died on August 3, 2019 at the age of 86.
Karin Balzer of Germany finished in a photo finish, with the same time of 10.5 seconds as two others. But after close examination, with the aid of new timer technology, Balzer was awarded the gold medal in the 80-meter hurdles at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Magdeburg native was a four-time Olympian, including a bronze medal in the 100-meter hurdles at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Balzer passed away on December 17, 2019. She was 81.
The Japanese remember Basil Heatley. His final kick in front of 70,000 fans at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics sent him past Kokichi Tsuburaya at the end of the 42-kilometer marathon, snatching silver from the Japanese hero. Heatley of Kenilworth Warwickshire England was a powerful cross-country runner who set the world record for the marathon in the qualifier for the Tokyo Games. Heatley passed away on August 3, 2019. He was 85.
A four-time Olympian, Ivan Kizimov of Novocherkassk, Russia won four Olympic medals from 1964 to 1976, including a bronze medal in the Mixed Dressage team event. One of the great equestrian dressage riders ever, the 1976 Montreal Games were the only one he did not medal. After retiring competitive dressage, Kizimov became the head coach of the Soviet national dressage team. Kizimov dies on September 22, 2019. He was 91 years old.
Neale Lavis was a two-time Olympian, an equestrian who competed at both the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Olympics. At the Rome Games, he was the youngest member of the Australian eventing team that won gold. He also took silver in the individual eventing event in Rome. The native of Murwillumbah, New South Wales rode a horse called Cooma, which he bought for 100 pounds, and refused an offer of 10,000 pounds after the Olympics. Lavis passed away on October 6, 2019. He was 89.
A native of Salt Lake City, Blaine Lindgren won the silver medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He was initially awarded gold but after 45 minutes of intensive review, first place was given to American teammate Hayes Jones. Lindgren passed away on October 5, 2019. He was 80.
The Norfolk, Virginia native, Thompson Mann, was the fastest backstroker in the world when he set the 100 meter world record at exactly 60 seconds in September, 1964. A few weeks later, he was the lead leg in the 4×100 meter medley relay at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. His backstroke that kicked off Team USA’s relay was timed at 59.6 seconds, making him the first person ever to break the 60-second barrier in the backstroke, helping his team to a world record time of 3:58.4, the first time ever for the medley relay under 4 minutes. Mann, who was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1984, passed away on April 4, 2019. He was 76.