We watch world-class athletes with amazement, the effortlessness with which they achieve feats of strength and speed and accuracy beyond the average Joe. And yet, in truth, tremendous effort, and risk, go into the making of an Olympic champion. Paralyzed from the neck down, Laís Souza can no longer do the flips, twirls and leaps made natural from years of training as a gymnast. A two-time Olympian from Brazil, Souza was 25 and no longer able to grow in her discipline. Someone suggested that she try aerial skiing as a way to feed her thirst for competition, and aim for the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang. But Souza’s progress was so good, she actually qualified for Sochi in 2014, only a week before the start of the Games.
As a reward, she and her coach decided to hit the slopes for a celebratory run. And in an instant, she was on her back. And from that point on, unable to move, let alone dream of Olympic glory. “Of course I cry sometimes. Sometimes
Balloon releases are getting a bum rap these days – balloon waste dotting the landscape, creating potential harm to wildlife and the environment. But when the balloon release premiered at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, onlookers, Olympian and spectator alike, were blown away.
Primary school children marched in with a drum band, accompanying the Mayor of Rome, who handed the commemorative Olympic Flag to the Governor of Tokyo. In the stands were hundreds of high school students, each of whom held the strings to 40 balloons, at the ready. When the Olympic flag was exchanged, canons boomed in salute, and the students cut the cords sending 12,000 helium-filled balloons shooting into the beautiful cloudless sky.
“With fame, you know, you can read about yourself, somebody else’s ideas about you, but what’s important is how you feel about yourself – for survival and living day to day with what comes up.”
So said Marilyn Monroe, that candle in the wind.
Sandra Bezic was 15 years old when she competed in the pairs figure skating competition at the Sapporo Olympic Games in 1972. Sandra and her brother Val finished ninth, and were in a frame of mind in which winning a medal was out of the question, which meant they could enjoy their lives after the competition.
Their parents decided that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a country – Japan – they may never come back to, so before the 2-week competition ended, they went on a family holiday to Tokyo and Kyoto.
And one day, while walking along the streets of Kyoto, the ancient seat of government, they came upon a magazine rack at a shop that had “rows and rows of me” – a magazine with a cover graced by the youthful face of the figure skater from Canada. “We bought up a whole bunch of copies,” Bezic told me, “and just laughed and laughed.”
But Bezic was not a candle in the wind. She had a plan post-Olympics. She found a niche as a choreographer for figure skating long before specialists were a part of a coach’s toolkit in shaping future Olympians. Such skaters as Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini, Brian Boitano, Kristi Yamaguchi and Tara Lipinski had routines designed by Bezic.
Bezic went on to become a commentator for NBC during
Red sun over Olympic gold – a striking design that won over the Olympic organizers instantly. As explained by this article in pingmag.jp, the 1964 Olympics emblem was designed by Yusaku Kamekura in what might seem a flash of genius.
“Legend has it that Kamekura forgot when he had to submit his design and on the day of the deadline got a phone fall. He dashed this out in less than two hours. Of course, that’s not to say that he just did it off the cuff – clearly he had been mulling over the concept for a long time in his head. The design has real impact and perhaps cannot be better for its striking minimalism. It was
Tamara Press was a phenomenon, winning gold in the shot put and discus in Rome, as well as gold in the shot put in Tokyo. She was a large woman, and as American gymnast, Ron Barak, told me in an interview, a hulking woman, fortunately with an equally hulking sense of humor.
“I was in line one day in the Olympic Village cafeteria, and right behind me, Tamara Press was waiting in line with a couple of Soviet teammates. My wife, who was fairly tiny, came rushing in. US officials had given wives of the gymnastic teams sweat suits so they could get in and out of the village. Barbie was coming to meet me for lunch, and was a bit late. She spotted me and hurried over. Focused on me, she somehow didn’t see Tamara, and butted right in front of her.”
“Well, Tamara Press is a very nice person. She comes up to her from behind, grabs her elbows gently and firmly and bench presses my wife above her 6 foot frame, holding her high up like a piece of lumber. Her head was pointed to the ceiling and her back was pointed to the ground. Tamara proceeded to spin her in a revolution above her head, before finally putting her down behind Tamara in line. Barbie’s eyes were wide open in shock.”
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many Olympians from the 1964 Summer Olympics, over the phone, but yesterday I met in person with my very first oversees interviewee, Mr Makoto Sakamoto. Mako-san was visiting Tokyo, and it was a tremendous honor to meet the highest scoring performer on the US Men’s Gymnastics team in 1964.
Born in bombed-out Tokyo Japan, Mako-san left for the United States with his family when he was 7. At the age of 16, he got his US citizenship. At the age of 17, he was recognized as the country’s best gymnast, and represented America in the country of his birth, competing with the very best in the world, finishing 20th overall in the individual competition.
The world of men’s gymnastics at that time was dominated by countries like Japan, USSR,
Yugoslavia and Italy. The US was competitive, but not considered a threat.
But in 1984, a team whose head coach was Melbourne and Rome Olympian, Abie Grossfeld,
Keum Dan Shin, the North Korean star of the women’s 400 and 800 meter events had only precious minutes before the North Korean team got on a train to Niigata, to a boat to North Korea. Her father, Mun Jun Shin, who was separated from her daughter during the Korean War, was hoping to take advantage of the Olympics to see her daughter compete over the two weeks of competitions. Unfortunately, after 14 years of separation, they were only allowed to share several minutes together. “My daughter gave me ginseng as a gift, but the best gift for me was the warm, warm tears she shed when she recognized me,” according to a report in the October 15 1964 Japan Times.
Keum Dan Shin, the unofficial world record holder in the women’s 800 meters, and her father were caught in the middle of a geo-political conflict. On October 4, 1964, the North Korean team arrived in Tokyo to participate in the XVIII Olympiad. On October 8, they made an about face and returned to North Korea, only two days prior to the start of the Summer Games. The International Olympic Committee had already disqualified