Mongolia marching in tokyo 1964

For the first time, Mongolia joined the Olympic community as it paraded through the National Stadium during the Opening Ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Games. Joining 19 other nations like Niger, Madagascar, Dominican Republic, Malaysia, Nepal, Mali and Cambodia, Mongolia sent 21 athletes to the Summer Games.

Among them walked a legend to be, a freestyle wrestler named Jigjidiin Mönkhbat. While Mönkhbat was knocked one round short of the medal round in 1964, he would go on to be Mongolia’s first Olympic silver medalist in Mexico City in 1968, placing second in middleweight freestyle wrestling.

Jigjidiin Mönkhbat in Tokyo
Hakuho’s father, Jigjidiin Monkhbat (right), in Tokyo 1964.

At the age of 43, Mönkhbat had a son, one who grew up in Ulan Bator, and rode horses and herded sheep in the Mongolian steppes in the summers. At the age of 15, the son, Mönkhbatyn Davaajargal, would move to Japan to begin a life in Japan and a career in sumo. In Japan he is known as Hakuho and no sumo wrestler, Japanese or otherwise, has won more sumo championships (33) than Hakuho.

Hakuho is called Yokozuna, which is the highest rank a sumo wrestler can hold. In May, 2006, Hakuho was one rank lower, Ozeki, but was wrestling so well there was significant anticipation that he would win his first sumo tournament. According to this February 6, 2014 article in the Nikkei Asian Review, Hakuho needed the inspiration of his father to help him become champion for the first time.

In May 2006, Hakuho found himself on the cusp of his first tournament victory. All he needed to do was win his bout on the final day of the 15-day event. The night before, he was so nervous he could not eat or sleep. His father, however, led by example — though perhaps not consciously.

Jigjid had come to see his son secure title No. 1. He was staying at a hotel near the sumo hall in Tokyo. Hakuho joined him, but tossed and turned all night.

As dawn began to break, a thought occurred to Hakuho: His father had been loudly snoring away. This realization “relaxed me enough to finally get some sleep,” Hakuho said. He won his bout. A year later, he reached the pinnacle of sumo — the rank of yokozuna.

Hakuho and father

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Yoshida and Icho
2012 Vogue Japan Woman of the Year: Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho

There are only two people, both male, who have won individual gold medals in a single event four Olympic Games in a row: Al Oerter in the discus throw from 1956~1968, and Carl Lewis in the long jump from 1984~1996.

At the Rio Olympics in August, we may bear witness to a historical achievement by a Japanese wrestler, not once, but twice.

Both Saori Yoshida (吉田 沙保里,) and Kaori Icho(伊調馨) have won consecutive gold medals in wrestling at the Olympic Summer Games in Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012). And they won their respective weight classes at the Japan national championships in June last year to get their tickets punched to Rio. In fact, they both won their 13th straight national championship.

Yoshida of Mie Prefecture and Icho of Aomori are quite simply the two most dominant wrestlers on the planet. They are both referred to as the “legends of the unbeaten streak” (不敗神話). Ito has won 172 straight times since May, 2003, and Yoshida has lost only twice in her career, most recently in May, 2012. But they are both perfect at Olympiads.

 

There was a brief time when both Yoshida and Icho competed in the same weight class, but fortunately, Icho moved up to the next heavier weight class, setting up this year, a historic opportunity.

For some reason, Yoshida has become more the face of Japanese wrestling, as the front person for the Japanese security company, Alsok. But they are both supported by Alsok, as you can see in the commercial below.

But come August, we will be hearing a lot about both of these two wrestling legends.

Gholamreza Takhti
Iranian star wrestler, Gholamreza Takhti

What did Shunichi Kawano do? What behavior was so shameful that this Japanese wrestler was banished from the Olympic Village by his coach because it would “adversely affect the morale of other athletes.” It was reported that Kawano “lacked fighting spirit”, an accusation that was amplified as he lost in the presence of Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko at the Komazawa Gymnasium.

Two days later, Kawano appeared before the press with his head shaved, an apparent act of

October 16, 1964, Japan Times
October 16, 1964, Japan Times

contrition. But instead of playing the role of the shamed and contrite, he told the press that he didn’t feel he lacked the so-called “Olympian fighting spirit”. And it appears that the public sided with him, because Kawano was allowed back into the Olympic Village after the sensationalist coverage of this story by the press in Japan shamed the Japanese authorities to reverse themselves.

Whatever happened, it is in contrast to the reputation of the wrestler who beat Kawano in that light heavyweight freestyle match, the Iranian wrestler, Gholamreza Takhti. He was not the most decorated athlete in Iran in the 20th century, but he was a hero to Iranians, primarily for his honorable behavior.

As is stated in this article remembering the “Gentle Giant”, he was often described with such words as “chivalry, humility, kindness and gentleness”. Takhti was known to apologize to opponents after defeating them, apparently once apologizing to the mother of a Russian opponent who was looking sad upon her son’s defeat.

Takhti won gold in

From
From “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha”
  • Byron Nelson won 11 PGA golf tournaments in a row.
  • Rocky Marciano went 49-0 in his boxing career.
  • Guillermo Vilas won 46 tennis matches in a row.
  • Edwin Moses won 122 straight in 400-meter hurdles
  • Cael Sanderson won 159 straight college wrestling matches

But Osamu Watanabe won 189 consecutive wrestling matches, as well as gold in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Watanabe competed in wrestling tournaments in Europe, America, Asia and won every match. He was known as the “Animal” for his strength, and as the “Swiss Watch” for his technique. He dominated in his career, and in the Tokyo Olympics, coming in as the favorite having won the 1962-1963 World Champion in the men’s featherweight freestyle division .

In the end, when Osamu Watanabe (渡辺長武) took down Soviet wrestler, Nodar Khokhashvili, he had won his 186th and final match without a blemish in the loss column. In fact, during the Tokyo Games, Watanabe was not even scored upon.

From the book
From the book “Tokyo Olympiad 1964”

After the Olympics, Watanabe joined a large Japanese advertising firm named Dentsu. Clearly, he had the itch. In 1970, while at Dentsu, he took part in an All-Japan wrestling tournament in which he wrestled once, and won. Make that 187 in a row.

Even more amazing, 17 years later, at the age of 47, 23 years after his triumph in Tokyo, Osamu “Animal” Watanabe came out of retirement to compete at the All Japan Wrestling Championship, with a hope to represent Japan again at the Seoul Summer Games in 1988. And yes, he won two more…before succumbing to time, losing, and ending a streak that is still unfathomable.

A career record of 189 – 1. Perfect

To watch Watanabe take down Khokhashvili, start watching this video from the 35 second mark.

Poster marketing the Ali vs Aoki boxing/wrestling exhibition in Japan
Poster of the Ali vs Aoki exhibition match in Japan

Japan’s head of the Olympic delegation, Olympian Kenkichi Oshima, proclaimed 6 days prior to the start of the 1964 Games that Japan must win at least 15 gold medals. Since Japan’s haul for the 1960 Games in Rome was only 4, Oshima’s declaration was uncustomarily boastful.

As it turned out, Japan won 16 gold medals, part of it due to the entry of Judo to the summer games. But arguably the main reason was Japan’s emergence as a wrestling power, as their wrestlers won a surprising five gold medals. Much credit was given to the team’s coach, Ichiro Hatta, famous for his Spartan training methods and singular mindset on winning.

Equally interesting, at least to me, is that Hatta is the one who introduced Muhammad Ali to Japanese wrestler, Antonio Aoki in April, 1975, setting up a mixed martial arts battle in the Budokan on June 26, 1976. In the end, the battle between Ali and Aoki was a bore, and a low point in Ali’s career. But it certainly sticks in my mind as a quirky sports cultural milestone.