One of the most famous names in America in pediatric health, at least in the 20th Century, was a man named Dr. Benjamin Spock. His book, Baby and Child Care, was a perennial best seller and the bible on child care. The only other book to outsell his in America – the actual Bible.
What I didn’t know was that Spock was a gold medalist, a member of the American eight-man crew that was so dominant at the 1924 Paris Olympics that their time of 6 minutes and 33 seconds was almost 16 seconds faster than the second-placed Canadian crew.
A renown expert in the medical field, an Olympic champion, Spock was a name in America few did not know. And yet, despite a relatively wealthy upbringing, he was not born with confidence and expectations of greatness. As he explains in the book, Tales of Gold: An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games Told by America’s Gold Medal Winners, Spock explained that his mother was a very devoted tyrant, and his father was a self-made man who was obsessed with status, proud to have been a member of the finest and exclusive social clubs at Yale University.
When Spock entered Yale, I believe around 1921, he wrote:
I felt very unsure of myself. I felt unpopular and unable to compete with other boys. I felt like a sissy, a mother’s boy, and I was timid. I was afraid they might bully me and that I would not be able to do the things they were able to do.
Sports was an acceptable avenue of exploration, and he continued his focus on the high jump, which he trained in at his high school. But try as he could, he could not improve beyond mediocrity. One day in his freshman year, he walked by the rowers in the Yale gym. In rowing, height can be an advantage. Despite his skinny frame, Spock was tall, six feet four inches (1.9 meters), and so caught the eye of the captain of Yale’s rowing team.
“What sport do you go out for?”, said the captain.
“High jumping,” said Spock.
“Why don’t you go out for a man’s sport?” said the captain.
To Spock, who yearned to be seen as a man’s man, these were the words that struck his soul. To be seen as having potential in one of the most respected and manly of sports at the time – rowing – was a revelation. “I was elated. The captain of the crew thought that I might be crew material! That had never occurred to me.”
Granted, the Yale squad was one of the worst crew teams in the United States. As Spock described, their technique was outdated. “You’d lie way, way back to get the length of the stroke and pull the oar up almost to your chin and shove it away.” But during Spock’s freshman year, the rowing committee at Yale decided it was time to change things up, so they hired a coach out of Washington named Ed Leader, who transformed the stroke and the team.
In two years under Leader’s leadership, Yale’s rowing team went from worst to first, and Spock’s eight-man crew defeated a crew made up of US Navy officers fairly handily, earning the right to compete at the Paris Summer Olympic Games. In Paris, the American eight from Yale were considered favorites with perennial favorites, The Thames Rowing Club of Great Britain. Fortunately for the US, the Thames Rowing Club had in Paris only four members of the crew which won the prestigious Grand Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta the previous year, perhaps paving a golden path for Spock and his team.
As Spock wrote about his team’s gold-medal-winning finals, “the race itself was an anticlimax. We won by, I think, 3-and-a-half boat lengths. You’re not meant to win a race that short by as much as a boat length.”
Spock graduated from Yale, and then got his doctor of medicine at Columbia University, launching a career to become America’s most famous pediatrician. Interestingly, Spock became very critical of putting children or young adults into “excessive competition”, worrying that parents were putting too much pressure on their children. “The problem is,” he wrote in 1985 in Tales of Gold, “that Americans are meant to be the best in everything.” He even had thoughts about parenting in Japan, arguably an early hotbed for prototypical Tiger Moms.
I was visiting Japan, and if any country is worse than the U.S. for competitive youngsters, it is Japan. Their educators told me that a shocking number of elementary school children commit suicide and that the number is going up every year. They commit suicide because they don’t think they’re getting grades high enough to satisfy their parents. What kind of society is that in which children have to kill themselves because they can’t compete?
He was invited by the Mayor to a celebration for Seattle Olympians on November 2, 1964. He was also invited to the White House by President Lyndon Johnson for a luncheon honoring American Olympic medalists on December 1, 1964.
But Ted (Theo) Mittet, in his mind, had bigger and better things to do – like travel throughout Japan: Yokohama, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Matsuyama, Beppu, Nagasaki, Niihama and Nara. The 22-year-old American rower from Seattle, Washington had helped a crew of four take the bronze medal in the rowing fours-without (which means four rowers without a coxswain). And while most of his teammates returned to the United States for parades and celebratory dinners, Mittet decided that hitchhiking and taking the train through Japan would be more fun. And based on the numerous letters exchanged between young Mittet and the Japanese he met along the way, all parties were better for that decision.
Thank you ever so much for your nice letter. It is more than you could imagine how happy I was to read your letter. I am glad to know that you stayed and travelled in Japan for two months after the Olympic Games were over. It is a wonderful and happy experience for me to have worked for the Tokyo Olympics, and we talk very often about the pleasant days during the Games. Since that time I have become much more interested in English, and I attend the English conversation classes once a week. Though I try my best it is still very hard for me to master it. Is there any idea or suggestion to learn it faster? – Hiroko Sho, a volunteer from Tokyo stationed at the offices of the US Olympic Team.
But more significantly, Mittet inspired people to dream of being a part of a bigger world.
When Mittet went to Matsuyama City in Ehime Prefecture, a place not many foreigners ventured to in the 1960s, he was invited to a high school to meet the students, three of whom screwed up the courage and effort to write to him. One was Kayoko Kurita, who wrote to Mittet of her dream.
You may be surprised to receive this letter from me but I met you in Matsuyama and spoke in English with you. Do you remember me? You gave me your name and address I was happy to receive it. You said you attend WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY in Seattle. I would like to be your pen pal, and would enjoy corresponding with you if you don’t mind. I hope we will become good pen pals.
And my dream is, ……………, but it isn’t come true, but I’ll tell you. I would like to study abroad in your country especially WASHINGTON or Indiana or Kentucky or there is no Japanese there. Your university is very good and very big excellent university, but I would like to go to High School or Junior in America, so I’m looking for a sponsor for me. But it’s very difficult to find. I wish I will.
Mittet met a university student from Osaka in Kyoto named Takanao Dojima, who volunteered to take Mittet on a tour of Kyoto’s most famous temples, Kinkakuji and Ryuanji. Dojima wrote Mittet in a letter the following year, saying “Probably nothing is more enjoyable than travelling. I want to go to America as well as you visited to Japan. But I haven’t money, I can’t to visit America.”
A Sophia University student and interpreter for the BBC during the Olympics, Masako Kajiki, possessed more advanced English skills than the average Japanese, and appeared to have the financial means to travel abroad. She wrote in mid-November, 1964 to Mittet of her role as Shylock’s daughter in an upcoming production of The Merchant of Venice, and her plans to travel to the United States.
Listening to various talks from my parents who have just come back from the States after three months’ travel in Europe and the States, I have long wanted to go to your country next summer session. I’m looking forward to visiting your country, though it’ll be only for 10 weeks. Seeing is believing.
Three months later, Kajiki was approaching her departure date for the United States. Kajiki had already sent her entire, very detailed itinerary that would take her from Haneda to Honolulu, and throughout the mainland – LA, Las Vegas, Dallas, Knoxville, DC, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago, New York, just to name a few in her nearly three-month cross-country adventure. In her letter, she is clearly conscious of her own accountability as teacher of things Japanese. For a young Japanese woman in the Sixties, she has a stronger and clearer point of view on America and Japan than the average Japanese. But in the end, she cannot contain the excitement of her ultimate goal – to see America for the first time, and Mr. Theodore Mittet again.
I’m afraid, however, that after you have made the railway journey from Osaka to Tokyo, you’ll remember not only the ugliness of those cities, as seen from the train, but also the succession of advertisement billboards that so often interfered with your view of the enchanting countryside along the route. As you know Japan is surely losing our own tradition that our ancestors made unique one after they assimilated Oriental civilization and digested it. We have been, however, striving to keep up with American and European country and rebuild Japan what it is from a heap of ashes.
Without your country’s support, our country – indeed like many other countries such as Great Britain and France – would not have been able to regain the present strength in such a brief span of time. You can imagine then how anxiously I’m waiting for visiting the States. May 29th seems the longer in coming, because you are waiting for me!!
And then there was Hirokazu Okugawa, a student at the Department of Architecture at Kyoto University. Mittet was also a student of architecture at the University of Washington, and was introduced to a professor at Kyoto University named Dr. Nakamura. Okugawa was a student of Nakamura’s and they both sought a way to get Okugawa to the United States. In an initial letter to Mittet in mid-December 1964, Okugawa writes, “I would like to go to University of Washington next September, and I would like to study architecture more there. And Dr. Nakamura hopes that I study it there, and that I shall become an eminent architect. Would you introduce to your professor?”
So full of hope, Okugawa would realize that it wouldn’t be so easy to become a student in the US. Two months later, Okugawa has the name of the dean of the school of architecture at the University of Washington, and intends to state his case. But soon after, he received a letter from Mittet – now his unofficial career advisor at U of W, that dampens his spirits:
According to your letter, there is no probability of my admission for the degree to the master. My ability of English conversation is not enough to understand the lecture in the University. I am going to study hard English conversation this year.
But Okugawa has a dream. He can see himself going to the States, studying English hard, taking on any task to show he’s worthy of being a student in the United States, and continues to explore ways forward with Mittet. By the end of February, he and Mittet have decided that Okugawa should still officially apply to the University of Washington, and Mittet has sent the application form and information on all required documentation. Okugawa acts on the instructions, presumably to extreme exactitude, only to be disappointed again:
As mentioned in my previous letter, I received an application form for an admission. And I completed its form and my works in Kyoto University, and these letters were sent to the chairman Architectural Graduate Program. And also, my report in Kyoto University and three letters of recommendation were sent there.
But I received the letter from Director of Admission in which he said “It is too late for autumn 1965”.
HOW SHALL I DO? WHAT SHALL I DO?
CAN YOU HELP ME?
I BEG FAVOURITE ATTENTION.
If I can, I would like to work in architecture office, and then I would like to study in University of Washington the next year. How shall I do in order to do so? How shall I get working visa? I will be given about $1000 and the expense of transportation.
Would you please consult with the dean about my admission? I would like to know your professor, professor Nakamura’ friend. What is his name?
Looking forward your kind letter.
There is a tinge of desperation in young Okugawa’s typewritten letter. And only a week later in early May, Okugawa seems resigned to not getting into his dream school in 1965. Mittet, who has apparently responded quickly to Okugawa’s letters, when necessary by express mail, was encouraging and understanding. And indeed, hope was not lost because Okugawa informed Mittet that an official of University of Washington’s admissions stated that Okugawa could apply for enrollment in the Fall of 1966, with the condition that he take an English certification course that November.
I have received the beautiful picture of U. W. from you. The mountain covered with snows resembles Mr. Fujki in Japan. I was so glad that I showed it to many friends of mine, and I put it on the wall of my lodging house.
By the way, I took English proficiency examination on the 1st of May at A. C. C. (American Cultural Center). Fortunately I could do excellent, and the director kindly recommended me to your University. But Mr. Johnston has written to me, and said that I must not be expecting to enroll U. W. until autumn 1966, and I must take the English Examination (TEFL) on November.
When I heard these things, I was disappointed. But, I think I can study more English and architecture at Kyoto University (master courses) until autumn 1966. And I hope we discuss architecture in letters.
Did Okugawa eventually make it to Seattle, study at the University of Washington, and become an “eminent architect”? Who knows. Dreams are not goals of certitude – although they could be glowing embers of aspiration. In the case of 1964, the Olympics fanned those embers of the Japanese. In certain cases, a spark named Ted Mittet set the fire.
One of my most treasured memories was in the Fall of 1987, sitting in a hot spring in Hokkaido, the snow falling, the steam rising, and a beer in hand.
In addition to the great food and shopping, tourists are flocking to Japan for the country side, and in particular, enjoying onsen throughout the country. Once you (some of you) get over the embarrassment of getting naked with a whole bunch of strangers, you get yourself all clean in the shower area outside the bathing areas, and then you dip your toes into the water. And yes, it’s hot!
Some of the best onsen are in Kyuushu, a large island in the Western part of Japan. And to get Japanese and non-Japanese alike to venture beyond the cosmopolitan confines of Tokyo and Osaka, the government of Oita Prefecture started a campaign to promote their onsens….using Olympians.
In typical tongue-in-cheek Japanese fashion, the promotional videos portray Japanese synchronized swimmers performing in the onsens of Oita. The athletes include Mikako Kotani, who won two bronze medals at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, as well as Raika Fujii, silver medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and bronze medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The campaign is called “shin-furo”, which is a word made up from “synchronized” and the Japanese word “furo”, which means bath.
Japan had a record 2.68 million visitors in Japan in July, well on its way to topping 2016’s record number of foreign tourists of 24 million, blowing past its original target of 20 million by 2020. The 2020 target has been re-set to 40 million visitors. For repeat visitors, the Oita onsens should certainly be a hot place to spring to.
Outside of Title IX in America, one of the most powerful levers for gender equality in sports have been the IOC. As I mentioned in this post, the IOC has added new sports categories and re-shuffled events so that Tokyo 2020 will have a female-male participation rate of 48.8 to 52.2%. That’s up from a 44.2% female participation rate at the 2012 London Olympics.in this post
Interestingly, there are a handful of events that are gender-specific. In other words, there are still events that only men can compete in, and some that only women can compete in. In part one of this series, I will look at the men-only events, and part two will feature the women-only events.
No Women Allowed
Greco-Roman Wrestling: There has never been an Olympic competition in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Olympics, and there are currently no international tournaments devoted to women in that sport. It is unclear to me why Greco-Roman wrestling, which disallows grabbing of legs and kicking of legs compared to freestlye wrestling, is not encouraged for women. One of most significant physical differences between men and women is muscle mass, particularly in the upper body, but no one is saying that men and women should compete against each other in Greco-Roman wrestling. While the IOC has pressured the United World Wrestling Federation to improve gender representation in their tournaments, Greco-Roman, for whatever reason, has not had a high female participation rate historically. The biggest challenge for the wrestling federation, as I understand it, is to increase the popularity of Greco-Roman wrestling for women so that they can put together a competitive enough field. This may take until after Tokyo 2020 to hit critical mass and allow for gender equality in Olympic wrestling.
Finn – One Person Dinghy: This sailing discipline is apparently the greatest sailing test for an individual. According to sailor Zach Railey in this article, “It is well documented that overall people throughout the world are getting bigger, stronger and fitter, and the Finn is really a true test of power, endurance, and mental strength. Anyone who has sailed a Finn in steep chop and 20 knots can tell you just how physically hard the boat is to sail.” So strength again emerges as a differentiator. And perhaps as a result, the number or women who compete in Finn has not reached critical mass. The question is, with the strength requirements for the Finn, is it too dangerous for the fairer sex? Who knows.
50km Race-Walking: I can’t find any decent explanation for why the 50-km race walk is male only in the Olympics. Both men and women can compete in the 20-km race walk as Olympians. And women appear to have raced competitively in the 50k race walk in IAAF competitions through much of the 21st century. Who knows?
Pommel Horse:Hmmm….the pommel horse discipline in gymnastics appears to be a less popular discipline for men than say, the floor exercise, the rings or the parallel bar for example. This article explains that the pommel horse “caters to a different body type. Having long arms helps, giving the gymnast greater separation from the horse, and in turn, room for his hips and legs to swivel underneath him. And the basic motion – going around and around on a horizontal plane – is the opposite from the up-and-down motion of the bars, rings and vaults.” And yet, I can’t find any explanation as to why women have not traditionally competed except for the reason it’s true for the rings – greater requirements for upper body strength have discouraged women from training on the horse, and so a critical mass of women fit for competition may have never emerged. Again, who knows?
You’re at the White House, enjoying Breast of Chicken Georgina, Rice Pilaf and Eggplant Provençale. You’re seated at the table with Lynda Johnson, the daughter of the most powerful man in America at the time. But you’re also chatting at your table with some of the greatest athletes of 1964.
This is where Dick Lyon, bronze medalist in the coxless fours, found himself on Tuesday, December 1, 1964, at a fete for the US Olympic Team medalists who competed at the Tokyo Olympiad several weeks earlier, hosted by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“We didn’t shake hands with President Johnson,” Lyon, a rower from California, told me. “He was probably meeting with General Westmoreland, or someone. It was a busy time for them. But we got to shake hands with the vice president, Hubert Humphrey.”
In addition to the president’s daughter and a staff member of the White House, those seated at Lyon’s table were some of the most celebrated athletes of the Olympics: 10,000 meters gold medalist Billy Mills, fastest man-in-the-world gold medalist Bob Hayes, 110-meter hurdles champion Hayes Jones, double-gold medalist swimmer Donna deVarona, as well silver and bronze medalists in the modern pentathlon, yachting, and shooting.
Lyon shared with me a picture of the actual menu, which he passed around the table for their signatures. Here are the names of those at Lyon’s table, just in case you aren’t experts in graphology.
A triathlon team relay? A normal Olympic triathlon lasts about 2 hours. Would a relay version last 8 hours? That’s definitely not must-see television.
On June 9, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that the triathlon relay will be a part of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But it isn’t as long as I had initially imagined. The specs for this particularly relay is that each of four team members run mini-triathlons. Instead of say, swimming 1.5 kilometers, cycling 38.48 kilometers, and then running for 2.5 kilometers like they do at the Olympics, the relay triathletes will instead each swim for 250 meters, cycle for 7 kilometer, and run for 1.7 kilometers. With those significantly shorter distances, four triathletes can complete a race in less than 90 minutes.
Where did this idea come from? The IOC, in a way, has their own innovation lab called the Youth Olympic Games (YOG). As a reaction to growing concerns of obesity in children, the IOC created the Youth Olympic Games, a smaller-scale Olympics for athletes aged 14 to 18. The first YOG was featured in Singapore in 2010, where 3600 athletes from over 200 nations came together to compete in 26 sports.
One of those sports was the Mixed Triathlon Relay. Another was 3-on-3 basketball.
What’s on the horizon? AT the 2018 Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games, athletes will compete in dance sport -more specifically, break dancing.
Will you be 14 to 18 in 2018? Are you an amazing at headspins, airflares, robot moves and the baby swipe? Then here’s your chance to compete in Buenos Aires at the Youth Olympic Games, and potentially, legitimize breakdancing as sport to the point where the IOC asks, “so you think you can dance at the Olympics?”
The Olympians has been a labor of love for exactly two years. It is my sketchbook as I prepare for the mural masterpiece, a book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
While my book’s focus is on the XVIII Tokyo Olympiad, I use my blog as an excuse to write about anything even remotely related to these areas: the Tokyo Olympics, the Olympics overall, Japan, and sports in general. In other words, I think of my blog as therapy for a restlessly curious mind.
How else could I go 730 straight days without missing a post?