High Jump, John Thomas, Lands in Sawdust after Successful 2-Meter Bar Jump, at Olympics - Allposters.com 
High Jump, John Thomas, Lands in Sawdust after Successful 2-Meter Bar Jump, at Olympics – Allposters.com

He lost to two Russians in 1960. And then he fell to a Russian again in 1964.

John Thomas from Boston was a favorite to win the high jump in Tokyo, but could not meet the heightened expectations of a country. Thomas and the gold medalist, Valery Brumel, both cleared a height of 2.18 meters, but neither could clear 2.20 meters. Due to the way high jumping is scored, Brumel had fewer attempts than Thomas on an earlier jump, so won the gold on a tie-breaker.

As he told Stars and Stripes, “I think I did a good job. I wasn’t outjumped. I don’t know how close I came to clearing the bar on that last try. Everyone said I was close, but I don’t know. I felt something hit…it just wasn’t good enough this time.”

Thomas also revealed that he would return home and have an operation on a hernia, a condition that had been identified earlier in the year. But nothing hurt him more than what he perceived as a bitter public and press. In a press conference the day prior to the finals,

“I don’t care what the people think,” the AP quoted him as saying “I am on my own. I can’t trust fans and supposed well-wishers any more. They are fickle and vacillating. If I win, they’re with me. If I lose, they’re the first to desert me and call me a bum. They have no use for losers. They don’t give credit to a man for trying. They have appreciation only for the champion the man who finishes first. I felt proud at getting a bronze medal. But everybody else thought I was a goat. People who had been slapping me on the back ignored me as if I had the plague. I was called a quitter, a man with no heart. It left me sick.”

John Thomas_podium_Tokyo

His rival, Brumel, felt that Thomas was treated unfairly, telling Sports Illustrated that the jumper from Boston faced a “torrent of abuse”.

Valery Brumel at the Tokyo Games in 1964, from the book
Valery Brumel at the Tokyo Games in 1964, from the book “The Olympic Century: XVIIIOlympiad”

They say confidence is key to victory. Competitors smell fear like sharks sense blood. When the Soviet high jumper, Valery Brumel, arrived in Tokyo for the Summer Games, his minders made sure no one would see him.

Since winning silver in Rome in 1960, Brumel drove himself with a ferociousness in numerous competitions leading up to Tokyo, and according to the book, “The Olympic Century Volume 16 – The XVIII Olympiad” by Carl A. Posey, Brumel was feeling “that deepening fatigue that comes from driving the machine too hard, too long.” Additionally, he had just lost the Soviet championship to Robert Shavlakadze, who also beat Brumel for gold in Rome. So he trained in a secluded area in Meiji Park, or stayed hidden in a room with his masseur playing chess.

At this stage, Brumel was beaten and haggard, and his 2.01 meter jumps in practice were far from championship level, They were, however, the best he could do.

When Brumel was at his best, people marveled at his form, what the Russians called “pouring the body over the bar like a cascade of clear water.” This was 1964, four years before Dick Fosbury revolutionized high jumping with his “Fosbury Flop”. In the first half of the Sixties, jumpers were still doing the spin roll, and Brumel’s technique was considered one of the best.

“At the heart of Brumel’s special brand of high jumping was a sequence of carefully orchestrated moves that Nijinsky might have envied. A big, powerfully assembled man, Brumel made his run-up with an awkward-looking sprint as he shifted his elbows forward to compensate for his upper body’s gradual backward lean as he approached the bar. He had trained with weights, so that his takeoff was like the explosive uncoiling of a spring. Then, for a moment, he was flying. To clear the bar, every extremity had to be under the fine, split-second control of a bird’s primary feathers. First the folded right leg went over, then the head, the big, friendly mouth extended in a white grimace of maximum effort. The right arm flipped back, adding thrust to bring the rest of his large body over the bar. Once the left arm cleared, the left leg kicked upward, adding dynamic balance. ”

And yet, as the competition in Tokyo began on October 20, Brumel could barely find his form, or generate the energy and enthusiasm necessary to compete for gold. Needing all three attempts, Brumel barely qualified by clearing a height almost every other competitor cleared (2.03 meters). “I appealed to God,” Brumel said later. “Jesus, why are you doing this to me? I’ve never done anyone any harm.”

So on a damp and chilly day on October 21, Brumel started the long slog of the finals, a journey of despair and exhaustion, in which the last man standing would be doing so, barely. As did most of the 20 competitors in the finals, initial jumps of 1.9, 1.95, 2.00, 2.03 and 2.06 meters were easily exceeded. But at 2.09 the competition went from 17 to 10, and then at 2.12, only 5 were left, including Brumel, American’s John Thomas and John Rambo, Swede Stig Pettersson, and Brumel’s Russian rival, Shavlakadze.

Rambo cleared 2.14 meters in one try, but it took Brumel, Thomas and Shavlakadze three attempts, Brumel missing badly in his first two. But something happened when the bar was raised to 2.16. It all came together and the tired Brumel flew over the bar in his first attempt. Thomas made it over in two, while his teammate made it in three, but Pettersen and Shavladkadze crashed out of the competition. And at 2.18 meters, as day ceded to night, Rambo fell by the wayside. At this point, the competition was essentially over.

As Brumel recalls,

Hayes Jones in the 110- meter hurdles finals, from the book
Hayes Jones in the 110- meter hurdles finals, from the book “XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964_Asahi Shimbun”

Hayes Jones was about to run the race of his life. His wife, Odeene Jones, was seated next to Jesse Owens in the National Olympic Stadium, saying to the 4-time gold medalist that Hayes hadn’t been executing on this strategy going into the finals. Owens told her not to be concerned.

And yet, there was Jones, anxiously prepping for the start of the 110-meter hurdles final, placing his starting blocks into the red cinder track. “I was setting up my blocks, and this Japanese official tapped me on my shoulder. I was annoyed. He tapped me again and pointed down. I look at the starting blocks and I see I had placed them backwards. That would have been a disaster. I was nervous.”

And then off went the gun. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember one thing about the race. I had run it so many times, I ran this one as rote. I do remember lunging for the tape, but that’s all I remember. I was that focused.”

But when Jones hit the tape, his US teammate, Blaine Lindgren, was there as well, on his left. And Anatoly Mikhailov from the USSR was running through at the same time on his right. “My goodness! Who won?” wondered Jones. “You can look at someone’s eyes and usually know, but we all had that stare – ‘Who won?’ They corralled us underneath the stadium. The Russian coach ran over to his guy. I thought he won. I didn’t see my coach close by – he was against the wall smoking a cigarette. I’ll be damned. I must not have won.”

As was true with almost every single other athlete in Tokyo, Jones trained hard to get to this moment. He and his wife sacrificed financially to be able to train for the Olympics, to make sure he was in top condition and form so that he could be the best in the world. And at that moment of truth, he had to wait and wait. And then the scoreboard lit up. “‘Ladies and gentlemen, the results of the men’s 110-meter hurdles…’ And I watched as the name in the number one slot was being typed J-O-N-E-S U-S-A 13.6 seconds.”

“That’s when I knew I won and my dreams had come true.”

Hayes Jones with medalThe president of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, was the one to place the gold medal around Jones’ neck, which Jones found ironic. In 1961, after his return from the Rome Olympics, Jones thought he would use his secondary education degree to become a track coach. According to Jones, Brundage directed Dan Ferris of the USOC to advise Jones that if he accepted a stipend for coaching track in a high school, he would not be eligible for the Olympics. “So I left teaching and began to sell real estate and insurance. The guy who put the medal around my neck was the guy who denied me from pursuing my career dream. But the only thing I could think of was back as a young boy in Pontiac, Michigan, wanting to participate in track and field, and people around me encouraging me to keep trying.”

Jones and his wife went out to town to celebrate the day after his golden victory.

“We were eating steak, probably Kobe steak. All of the sacrifices we made. I couldn’t pursue my educational career in teaching. I had to go out and sell real estate and insurance, not certain how much money I was going to make. My wife was a teacher. I had a little boy on the way. It was challenging trying to make a life for yourself and still have this personal goal. So we were sitting there and we looked at each other, and we burst out laughing.”

“We did it!”

Four gold medal winners China’s Fan Yilin, from left, Madison Kocian of the U.S., Russia’s Viktoriia Komova and Russia’s Daria Spiridonova pose after their uneven bars exercise at the women's apparatus final competition at the World Artistic Gymnastics championships at the SSE Hydro Arena in Glasgow, Scotland, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
Four gold medal winners China’s Fan Yilin, from left, Madison Kocian of the U.S., Russia’s Viktoriia Komova and Russia’s Daria Spiridonova pose after their uneven bars exercise at the women’s apparatus final competition at the World Artistic Gymnastics championships at the SSE Hydro Arena in Glasgow, Scotland, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

15.366 – you would think that a score to the thousandth would be hard to tie, but it can happen. At the World Gymnastics Championship in Glasgow, Scotland, as many as six judges managed to put up scores that placed FOUR gymnasts at exactly 15.366 in the uneven bars final.

And so, Russians, Viktoria Komova and Daria Spiridonova, China’s Fan Yilin, and American Madison Kocian all received gold medals and then listened to three national anthems in succession.

The International Olympic Committee does not like ties in gymnastics, so has a tie breaker based on so called “start values” and “execution marks”, but to many, including FIG (the International Gymnastics Federation), ties are the right call. And yet, four? American Gabby Douglas finished fifth, and this is what she had to say according to AP: “I’ve never seen that before,” said reigning Olympic champion Gabby Douglas, who finished fifth. “I was just like really judges? Come on now!”

A GE advertisement in Life Mgazine, October 9, 1964
A GE advertisement in Life Mgazine, October 9, 1964

During the American occupation of Japan, American soldiers and their families lived in Washington Heights, a fabricated neighborhood of American houses, with American lawns and American kitchens in Tokyo. Japanese who got a glimpse inside these homes were astonished by the size of the rooms, the roar of the cars and the gleam of the white goods in the kitchen.

My mother, who was born and raised in Tochigi, Japan, met my father in 1957, got married in 1958 in Tokyo, and then took a ship back to the United States. They settled in Kentucky, where my father worked as a reporter for the Louisville Times, and my mother began life as an American housewife.

I think my father was kinda being cheeky when he took this picture, but hey, their new kitchen was probably the size of the apartment he rented out in Tokyo.

Louisville #3

CARTOON: Indonesia Withdraws from Tokyo Olympics, Warta Bhakti- 10 October 1964, p1
CARTOON: Indonesia Withdraws from Tokyo Olympics, Warta Bhakti- 10 October 1964, p1

The day before the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games, North Korea and Indonesia decided to boycott the Games. This decision was expected by many as the previous months had seen conflict between Indonesia and major international sports governing bodies.

Indonesia had hosted a regional sporting event called the Asian Games in 1962, refusing entry of athletes from Israel and Taiwan. As a result, The IOC (symbolized by IOC president Avery Brundage in the cartoons) suspended Indonesia, the first time they had ever done so. In reaction to that, Indonesia organized the GANEFO Games, “The Games of the New Emerging Forces”, which explicitly stated that politics and sports were intertwined.

CARTOON: Just wait until it collapses, Warta Bhakti- 26 September 1964
CARTOON: Just wait until it collapses, Warta Bhakti- 26 September 1964

As the time got closer and closer to October 1964, Indonesia was getting impatient to receive formal indication from the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee (TOOC) that they would be allowed to participate in the Tokyo Olympics. Indonesia actually was invited to the Olympic Games, but were told by the IOC and TOOC as well as the international governing boards of swimming (FINA) and athletics (IAAF), that athletes who participated in the GANEFO Games could not participate in the Olympics.

CARTOON: We are Not Begging Tokyo, Warta Bhakti - 5 July 1964
CARTOON: We are Not Begging Tokyo, Warta Bhakti – 5 July 1964

On October 9, both North Korea and Indonesia decided to pull their entire teams out of Japan.

While it must have been an incredible disappointment to Indonesian athletes in Tokyo then told to return home on the eve of the Olympics, the press in Jakarta made it clear that the boycott was the right decision. The anti-IOC, anti-Western, anti-colonial backlash was