Yojiro Uetake_1964_1
From the collection of Yojiro Uetake Obata.

Japan had high hopes for wrestling at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And in fact, Japanese wrestlers won five gold medals, becoming overnight heroes for Japan.

But one of the least well-known of the overnight heroes was Yojiro Uetake, who moved to the United States in 1963 and competed for Oklahoma State University. Uetake wasn’t asked to come back to Japan to compete for the Olympic team, so he paid his way back to Tokyo in the early summer of 1964. When he arrived at the training camp to select wrestlers to represent Japan in the Olympics, Uetake said he was an unknown and made others uncomfortable.

The selection process was to wrestle the seven wrestlers competing in the bantam weight division. And the competition was strong: Hiroshi Ikeda (1963 bantamweight world champion), Tomiaki Fukuda (1965 bantamweight world champion), Masaaki Kaneko (1966 featherweight world champion), Takeo Morita (1969 featherweight world champion). But the Japanese from Oklahoma swept through the competition and finished 6-0, sealing his selection to the 1964 Olympics.

At the start of the Tokyo Olympics, the wrestler from the Soviet Union, Aydin Ibrahimov, was considered a strong favorite to win gold in the bantamweight class of the freestyle wrestling competition in 1964. As it turned out, Uetake met Ibrahimov in the semi-finals of the bantamweight championships. In the heat of the battle, Uetake’s left shoulder popped out of its socket. His coach pressed hard on Uetake’s arm and popped his shoulder back in. “I didn’t feel anything,” Uetake told me, but he went on to tackle Ibrahimov twice to win 2-0. “When you are in the Olympics, tension is very high. I was simply so excited I don’t feel any pain. Of course, after it was all done, it hurt a lot!”

Uetake had plowed through the competition to this point. But to win the gold, Uetake had to defeat Huseyin Akbas of Turkey, the reigning 1962 World Wrestling Champion. And to that day, no Japanese had ever beat him. Uetake told me that he only needed a tie to win the gold medal, and in such cases, a wrestler could become passive.

Uetake and Ibrahimov_1
From the collection of Yojiro Uetake Obata.

Uetake wanted to take Akbas down by grabbing his left leg, but was cautious because Akbar was fast and was known for turning that attack to his advantage and flipping his opponent. It seemed to Uetake that Akbas was staying away while Uetake was trying to find the right opening. In the second round, the referee briefly stopped the fight to warn Uetake to attack, and gave Akbar a point. That was the only point Uetake gave up in his Tokyo Olympic competition.

“My mindset was to never lose a point,” Uetake told me. “I would never ever let an opponent touch my leg. I’d always be looking at the opponent’s eyes and prevent any

Komazawa Olympic Park venues 2
Komazawa Olympic venues in 1964, from the book, The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964

Are the Olympics a worthy investment? Does the investment create legacies for the host country?

The answer to those questions are often “no”, unfortunately, at least in terms of the billions spent on structures like stadiums and other various sports venues.

Many of the structures built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics still exist, like the Nippon Budokan, the National Gymnasium and Annex, as well as the Komazawa Olympic Park venues. Not only that, they live and breathe. Click below on the video to see and hear what I did.

On Sunday, May 1, during the long break in Japan known as Golden Week, I took a short bicycle ride to Komazawa Olympic Park, and walk where 1964 Olympians walked. The Park is a collection of venues: Komazawa Gymnasium where Japan won 5 of 16 total gold medals just in wrestling, Komazawa Hockey Field where India beat Pakistan in a memorable finals between two field hockey blood rivals, Komazawa Stadium where soccer preliminary matches were played, and Komazawa Volleyball Courts where Japan’s famed women’s volleyball team mowed through the competition until they won gold at a different venue.

On that day, thousands of people were enjoying unseasonably warm weather under clear, blue skies. The tracks around the park were filled with runners. The gymnasium was hosting a local table tennis tournament, and the stadium was prepping for the third day of the four-day Tokyo U-14 International Youth Football Tournament.

Komazawa 3

In the plaza between the various Komazawa venues, hundreds were enjoying the weather with great food and drink. I was pleasantly surprised to find draft Seattle Pike IPA. While enjoying the cold beer on the hot day, surrounded by hundreds of people loving the day, I realized that Japan in the 1960s made great decisions in planning for the 1964 Olympics. I had a similar revelation earlier when I visited the National Gymnasium months earlier. So much of what was built for those Summer Games are a part of the everyday life of the Japanese.

Japan built a fantastic legacy for 1964. What legacy will Japan begin in 2020?

Komazawa 6

Aydın İbrahimov younger
Aydin Ibrahimov (right)

Aydin Ibrahimov was a powerful bantamweight freestyle wrestler, a strong favorite for gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He was also implicated in a stranger-than-fiction crime, details of which are sketchy at best.

Competing for the Soviet Union, Ibrahimov was hoping to be the second Olympic medalist from the region of Azerbaijan after bantamweight wrestler, Rashid Mammadbeyov, won silver at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. He defeated wrestlers from Mexico, Canada, Finland and Korea before making it to the medal round, only to fall to Akbas of Turkey, and eventual gold medalist, Yojiro Uetake. He settled for bronze, and presumably a life of glory in his hometown of Kirovabad.

But in the 1990s, Ibrahimov and wife were in the news in what authors, David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky, in their bountiful tome, The Complete Book of the Olympics (2012 Edition), called a “bizarre crime”. Let me have them explain it:

In the 1990s, bronze medalist Aydyn Ali Ibragimov was involved in a bizarre crime in which twelve works of art, including rare drawings by Albrecht Durer and Rembrandt, were stolen from the National Fire Arms Museum in Baku, Azerbaijan, and offered for sale to pay for a kidney transplant for a former Japanese wrestler. Ibragimov’s wife was sentenced to a term in federal prison in the United States, but Ibragimov himself disappeared.

According to Today.AZ (An Azerbaijan English news internet site), actually 274 works of art were stolen in July of 1993, after which they were uncovered in the United States thanks to joint operations between national central bureaus of Interpol in Washington,

 

rikidozan unleashed

Rikidozan was one of the most well-known people in Japan in the 1950s. Starting out as a sumo wrestler, Rikidozan made his mark taking on American wrestlers, and defeating them. This time is only a few years removed from the end of the American occupation, a psychologically disorienting time as Japanese swung from superior overlords in Asia to beaten and despairing at the end of the Pacific War. Taking on the Americans in the ring and knocking them into submission (even if they were to script), built up the morale of the Japanese, and made Rikidozan a national hero of unparalleled stature.

The picture below is a testament to Rikidozan’s pulling power. In the 1950s in Japan, black and white televisions were available, but were still too expensive for the common person. Movie theaters were booming, but they could not show live broadcasts. So when there was a major event broadcast live, the major Japanese networks like NHK and NTV would set up televisions at train stations, temples, shrines and parks and invite people to watch free of charge. And no one pulled in the crowds like Rikidozan.

street corner tv 3
AP Photo/Max Desfor

One December evening in 1963, Rikidozan was at a night club called The New Latin Quarter in downtown Tokyo when he apparently bumped into another person as he was leaving the rest room. Rikidozan apparently demanded that the other person, a gangster named Katsushi Murata, to apologize. Murata did not, Rikidozan wrestled Murata to the ground, and Murata sent a knife blade into the wrestler’s abdomen. Rikidozan died a week later.

Ten months later, on October 23, on the second-to-last day of the Tokyo Olympics, Japan was again reminded of Rikidozan when they read the news that Murata had been sentenced to 8 years in prison.

The Tokyo Olympics lifted the spirits of Japanese throughout the country in those magical two weeks in October, 1964. Rikidozan, the Father of Japanese Pro Wrestling, had already been doing that for years.

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

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