Yamanaka Rose and Breen
1,500 meter winners: Tsuyoshi Yamanaka, Murray Rose and George Breen

What was it like?

It’s December 7, 1956 – 15 years to the day that Japan infamously entered World War II by declaring war on the Allies by bombing Pearl Harbor, and executing a series of simultaneous attacks on Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Malaya.

Japanese swimmer Tsuyoshi Yamanaka is stepping up to the edge of the pool, readying himself for the 1,500 meter race against world record holders, American George Breen, and Australian Murray Rose. All three were born prior to the beginning of World War II, and all grew up listening to the propaganda of their respective countries during the war years.

But Yamanaka was in Australia. And while Australian attitudes to the Japanese today are overall quite positive and respectful, my guess is that in the 1950s, the many of the physical scars of the Pacific War may have faded, but not the mental ones. Memories of Australian POWS being forced to build the Burma Railway through the jungles of Thailand among others were powerful, and likely involuntarily arose when an Aussie confronted a Japanese.

I don’t know. And perhaps, Yamanaka was oblivious, as all high performance athletes tend to be towards distractions. What we do know is that the 1,500-meter race at the Melbourne Olympics brought war enemies together in a celebration of friendship, encapsulated in a photograph after Rose took gold and Yamanaka took silver, and seen by millions around the world.

Rose and Yamanaka
Murray Rose and Tsuyoshi Yamanaka

In this documentary on Murray Rose, the famed Aussie swimmer explains the symbolism of that time and that photograph:

Murray Rose: When I was growing up, I was part of a propaganda campaign for the Australian war effort. Fast forward a few years, and I’m swimming at the Olympic Games, and my main rival and competitor is Tsuyoshi Yamanaka-san. We embraced across the lane line and a photograph of that time was taken and was picked up by newspapers all over the world. For one main reason – the date was the seventh of December, 1956, the fifteenth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. So it became symbolic of two kids who had grown up on opposite sides of the war and had come together in the friendship of the Olympic arena.

As the commentator John Clarke further explained in the video, Rose “did the Olympic Movement an enormous amount of good because it exemplified what Murray called the Olympic spirit.”

To watch Rose, Yamanaka and Breen battle it out, pick up the documentary entitled “Murray Rose – Life Is Worth Swimming” at the video below at the 21-minute mark.

Also see my post about the novel “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, a moving story of the Australian POW experience.

The Tokyo Beatles 1

On February 15, 1964, 52 years ago today, “Meet the Beatles!” hit number one on Billboard album charts in the US. Anticipation had been building for the four lads from Liverpool, particularly since The Beatles were to make their second appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show the next day, so the album shot to number one in only three weeks after its release.

Way over in Tokyo, The Beatles were also popular, and were not to arrive on the scene until 1966. That didn’t stop four lads from Tokyo from adopting John, Paul, George and Ringo’s moptop hair style and starting a tribute band that performed in Tokyo clubs from 1963 to 1965.

They called themselves The Tokyo Beatles. They even recorded an album called “Please Please Me”, which had covers in English and Japanese of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, “Please Please Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and “Twist and Shout”.

The Tokyo Beatles 2

 

This link takes you to a blog post that shares pictures of the band taken by photographer, Michael Rougier, during the summer of 1964, when Tokyo was building for excitement for the coming Olympic Summer Games in October, and clearly also going gaga over the Fab Four.

And now, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, by The Tokyo Beatles!

US Olympic Marathon Trials 2012
US Olympic marathon trials in 2012. Credit David J. Phillip/AP

On Saturday, February 13, over 370 runners competed for a spot on the US Olympic marathon team. The USOC will send the top three finishers in the marathon race held in Los Angeles. It is considered a very American competition as the threshold was any American running a marathon in 2 hours and 45 minutes or less. As Amby Burfoot, an editor of Runner’s World said in this New York Times article, “Each of our runners must earn his or her bid for the Olympics — we tell them to line up, we’re going to shoot the gun, and you decide for yourself. It feels very American. One athlete, one vote.”

Apparently, other nations pick their marathoners through a committee of officials.

This made me think -“Hmmmm, can I qualify for a sport in the Olympics? Any sport?” Apparently, there are approaches to this, according to this article in Forbes Magazine.Kosovo olympic

  1. Move to a Different Country: Kosovo and South Sudan are entering the Olympics for the first time. You should look into their citizenship requirements and get in touch with their Olympic committees.
  2. Identify an Easy Position: the article points out that being a coxswain in rowing events that require one has low barriers to entry. You need to be light and have a strong voice, with some sense of race tactics, but you don’t have to row. You just need to be strong enough to steer the shell. Apparently, China ran an American Idol-like competition in 2006, in which they tried to find two coxswains for the China teams at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
jamaican bobsled team
Jamaican bobsled team: Michael White, Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris and Frederick Powell

3. Enter a “Target Sport”: Shooting a rifle or an arrow apparently doesn’t require you to be in tip-top, high performance shape. You just need a steady set of arms and very good eyesight.

4. Start Your Own Team: The country you’re in may not naturally have athletes for a particular sport. Think the Jamaican bob sled team, or Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards in the ski jump – both of whom were the first to represent their nations in their sports at the Calgary Winter Games in 1988.

5. The Old-Fashioned Way: Identify what skills and physical attributes put you in the top percentile in your age group, and train, train, train.

Japan Women's Soccer Team beats Brazil in 2012 Olympic Play
Japan’s Women’s Soccer Team defeating Brazil at the 2012 London Games.

I remember being surprised to read that the Japanese Women’s National Soccer team, the team that was the reigning world cup champions and went on to win silver at the 2012 London Olympic Games, had to fly economy class to London, while the men’s soccer team flew business class.

The Japanese Football Association, the organization that oversees soccer in Japan, stated that the men’s team were afforded this perk due to their “status as professionals”, according to this article from the Daily Mail. This was despite the incredible popularity and success of the women’s football squad, affectionately known as Nadeshiko Japan.

Alas, Japan isn’t alone in these sexist attitudes that are rapidly appearing blatant. Australia was also guilty of this as it sent its men’s basketball team to the London Games seated in business class, while the women’s basketball team flew economy.

In order to correct what apparently is a common practice in Australia, the AustrNadeshikoalian federal sports minister Sussan Ley and Australian Sports Commission (ASC) chairman John Wylie, jointly sent a warning letter to the top 30 funded sports organizations in Australia to refrain from this practice, according to this BBC story.

“In 2016, we can think of no defensible reason why male and female athletes should travel in different classes or stay in different standard accommodation when attending major international sporting events.”

Australian women's basketball team
Australian Women’s basketball team

 

This letter was sent recently on February 2, with a clear attempt to preemptively avoid any further embarrassing examples during the Rio Games in August. The veiled threat is that funding for the various sports associations would be impacted if treatment was viewed as not equal.

My guess is that Japan’s women’s soccer team will be afforded similar travel arrangements to the men en route to Rio. But will that hold true for all sports associations in Japan? Not so sure…..

Buster Douglas knocks out Tyson

He gave up 5 inches in height, over 11 pounds in weight and 12 inches in reach to the contender, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the 23-year heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson, was going to win, and win easily. Journeyman, Buster Douglas had fought well in previous years to deserve a shot, but little else.

In fact, very few betting houses accepted bets on the fight. One that did had Tyson, the undefeated champion from New York, a 42-1 favorite. But on this day yesterday, February 11, 26 years ago, the son of a boxer from Columbus, Ohio, delighted 40,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome, and shocked the boxing world. As ringside commentator, Jim Lampley said at the end of the fight, “Let’s go ahead and call it the biggest upset in the history of championship fights. Say it now gentlemen, ‘James Buster Douglas – undisputed heavyweight champion of the world’.”

Boxing history was made. But why was it made in Tokyo? According to Japan hand, Robert Whiting, holding the fight in Japan was an attempt to bring excitement to a fight that was expected to be a Tyson massacre, at a time when Japan was the hottest economy in the world.

Buster Douglas knocks out Tyson 2

They held the fight in Tokyo for economic reasons. Most fight fans in the U.S. thought the match with Douglas would be inconsequential — just a warm-up for an anticipated match with Evander Holyfield. Holding it in Japan would generate more interest. Moreover, at that time, Japan was at the peak of its economic power, buying up expensive properties like Rockefeller Plaza and Columbia Studios.

Staging a heavyweight title match would be yet another important status symbol. The Nikkei had just hit its all-time high two months earlier and the yen was the world’s most powerful currency. So it made economic sense for Don King and the rest of the Tyson team to hold the fight there.

Here it is, the end of that incredulous fight. Were you there?

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

Sendagaya platform
The phantom platform on the southern side of Sendagaya Station.

 

Did you know that of the 50 busiest train stations in the world, only 6 are outside Japan? Here’s a list from 2013 if you’re curious.

Tokyo’s train network in particular is amazing, or bewildering if you look at a train map. The train will get you almost anywhere you need to go, and if the schedule says it’s arriving at a specific time, it’s a pretty safe bet it will.

Not on that list is Sendagaya Station. But I know for a fact that it was one of the busiest stations in 1964, and will be again in 2020. Sendagaya Station is about 300 meters away from the once and future National Stadiums. Sendagaya Station itself is a relatively small station. It’s a one-platform station that accommodates trains going East and West on the Sobu Line, which cuts through the heart of Tokyo.

Sendagaya platform exit stairwell

 

But if you have ever been there, you may have noticed another platform on the southern side of the station. This was a platform used in 1964, when the area was flooded with folks going to and from the various Olympic venues in that area. And a single platform was simply too narrow to handle the volume. Train authorities shuddered at the thought of waiting passengers getting shoved onto the tracks because of the crowds, so the extra platform was built two months prior to the opening of the Tokyo Games.

Since 1964, that platform has very infrequently been put back into use – the time of Emperor Hirohito’s death and funeral rites in 1989 being one of those few exceptions. But come 2020 and the crowds, the phantom platform will find employment again.