Heatley Bikila Tsuburaya on medal stand 1964
Basil Heately, Abebe Bikila and Kokichi Tsuburaya on the medal stand

Abebe Bikila strolled into the National Stadium like he owned it. And he did. The lithe Ethiopian, a member of the Imperial Bodyguard of his nation, was about to meet expectations at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics – to become the first person to win marathons in two consecutive Olympics.

The first time Bikila did so, he was an unknown, and made headlines by running barefoot on the roads of Rome in 1960 to win marathon gold. When he crossed the finish line in Tokyo, amazingly over 4 minutes earlier than the second place finisher, the audience marveled at how fresh Bikila was – so fresh that he did calisthenics and jogged in place as if he were readying for the start of a marathon.

In other words, the actual competition in the marathon was for second. And in the race for second, Japan was ready to explode in celebration.

Like the Brits, with Brian Kilby and Basil Heatley, the Australian Ron Clarke, the other Ethiopian Demissie Wolde, as well as Americans Billy Mills and Buddy Edelen, the Japanese had a trio of strong marathoners in the competition, Toru Terasawa, Kenji Kimihara and Kokichi Tsuburaya.

As explained in this detailed article, at the 10K mark of the 42K race, Clarke was setting a pretty fast pace at 30:14, with Jim Hogan of Ireland and Bikila following. Around the 20k mark, Bikila took the lead and never looked back. The race for 2nd was on, with Clarke and Hogan about 5 seconds behind Bikila, and a second pack including Wolde, Tsuburaya, Jozsef Suto of Hungary and Antonio Ambu of Italy.

Kokichi_Tsuburaya 1964_adoring fans

With about 7 kilometers to go, Bikila, Hogan, Tsuburaya and Suto were in the lead, with Heatley rising to fifth. Amazingly, Hogan dropped out of the marathon despite being in position for a silver medal, leaving the Japanese from the self defense forces, Tsuburaya in second. Heatley and Kilby were coming on, passing Suto with only 2 kilometers to go.

Heatley was advancing and could envision a bronze-medal finish, but didn’t think he could pass Tsuburaya. “I didn’t expect to catch him,” Heatley recalls, “but he was a target.”

Bikila entered the National Stadium triumphantly, winning with an ease that both shocked and surprised the crowd. But the crowd went wild a few minutes later when Tsuburaya entered the stadium. At their home Olympics, Japan had medaled in wrestling, judo, boxing, weightlifting, gymnastics and swimming among others, but not in track and field. Tsuburaya was about to change that, in front of the biggest crowd possible.

And yet, soon after Tusburaya entered the stadium, so too did Heatley, only about 10 meters behind. Just before the final curve of the stadium’s cinder track, Heatley turned on the jets and sprinted by Tsuburaya. For a 2nd place battle that took over 2 hours and 16 minutes, Tsuburaya lost his chance for silver by four seconds.

Writer, Robert Whiting, was watching this match on the television, confident that Tsuburaya would make Japan proud with a silver medal only to see that expectation burst before the eyes of an entire nation, as he explained in this article.

The cheering for Tsuburaya was building to a crescendo when suddenly Great Britain’s Basil Heatley came into view and proceeded to put on one of Olympic track and field’s great all-time spurts. He steadily closed the gap in the last 100 meters, passing Tsuburaya shortly before the wire, turning the wild cheering in the coffee shop, and in the stadium, and no doubt in the rest of Japan, into one huge collective groan.

Bob Schul, who three days earlier, became the first American to win gold in the 5,000 meter race, watched the end of the marathon with some dismay.

Abebe entered the stadium to great applause. He finished and went into the infield and started doing exercises. Finally the second guy, Tsuburaya came, and the crowd roared. But so did Heathley of England. Sharon asked if Tsuburaya could hold on to 2nd place. I said I didn’t think so. Heatley caught him about 150 meters before the finish. And the crowd became very quiet. The Japanese guy was going to get third. And when he did finish, the stadium did erupt. And that was the only medal they won in track and field.

 

Heatley on the heels of Tsuburaya
Heatley hot on the heels of Tsuburaya

 

When Kokichi Tsuburaya was a boy in elementary school, he competed in an event common throughout Japan – a sports day, when children compete against each other in a variety of activities, like foot races. After one such race, Koshichi Tsuburaya, the young runner’s father, chewed him out for looking behind him during the race. “Why are you looking back during the race. Looking back is a bad thing. If you believe in yourself, you don’t need to do so.”

Many years later, with over 70,000 people screaming in the showcase event of the Olympics, people were yelling, “Tsuburaya, a runner is behind you! Look back! Look back! He’s close!” Was Tsuburaya recalling that childhood scolding from his father? Would it have made a difference if he did?

While Tsuburaya’s very public loss of the silver medal must have been the source of pain, not only for Tsuburaya, but also of the nation. But in the end, there were no hard feelings. After all, Tsuburaya won Japan’s only medal in Athletics, a bronze in the marathon, an achievement beyond the nation’s initial expectations. Writer Hitomi Yamaguchi wrote of this pain and pride in a 1964 article.

Tsuburaya tried so very hard. And his efforts resulted in the raising of the Japanese flag in the National Stadium. My chest hurt. I applauded so much I didn’t take any notes. Since the start of the Olympic Games, our national flag had not risen once in the National Stadium. At this last event, we were about to have a record of no medals in track and field. Kon Ishikawa’s film cameras were rolling, and newspaper reporters were watching. People were waiting and hoping. So when Tsubaraya crossed the finish line, we felt so fortunate! When I saw the Japanese flag raised freely into the air, it felt fantastic. Tsuburaya, thank you.

You can watch the dramatic second-place finish to the Tokyo Olympics marathon at the 5:38 mark of this video:

Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Marija Linartaite, for finding and translating the last quote.

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Tsuburaya and Suto 2
Kokichi Tsuburaya and Jozsef Suto

When József Sütő lined up for the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Hungarian didn’t know any of the other 67 competitors in the race, except for the then-world record holder, American Buddy Edelen, and the reigning Olympic champion from Ethiopia, Abebe Bikila.

When Sütő hit the halfway point in the marathon, Bikila was indeed firmly in the lead. Slightly behind him was Jim Hogan of Ireland. Ron Clarke of Australia was third, but pressing hard on Clarke were Sütő, Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan, and Demissie Wolde of Ethiopia.

“Mr. Tsuburaya was in this group, but I did not know at the time who he was,” Sütő explained in an interview with me. “I saw of course that he is Japanese but I did not know more.”

József Sütő (77), Kenji Kimihara (73)
József Sütő (77), Kenji Kimihara (73) on the day of the memorial run, photo by Rajzó-Kontor Kornélia

And yet, it was that race that established a life-long tie between those two runners, who never met except in that single competition on October 21, 1964. Fifty years later, Sütő would return to Japan and pay respects to the Japanese marathoner who won the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, and then subsequently and sadly took his own life four years later.

At this own expense, Sütő flew out to Japan to attend the 32nd Tsuburaya Memorial Meet, an annual series of running events held in the city of Sukagawa, Fukushima, the hometown of Kokichi Tsuburaya. This was October, 2014, which meant that he would be running in the memorial only two days before the 50th anniversary of the marathon of the Tokyo Olympics.

As explained in this article, Sütő ran in the 5k race, and at the age of 78, ran it in a respectable 27 minutes and 8 seconds. More importantly, he ran it in the race with teenage boys, aged 13 to 15. Sütő understands symbolism, the importance of being a role model, which is why he ran with the boys. When Sütő was growing up in Hungary, his hero was Sándor Iharos, one of the best distance runners in the world in the mid-1950s, a world record holder in the 1500-, 2,000- and 5,000-meter distances.

But Sütő also understands how he represents history, and his linkage to Japan and the 1964 Olympics, one of the defining moments of its history in the 20th century, as well as to the marathon itself. He had arrived in Tokyo on October 18th and was immediately whisked north to Sukagawa. He ran the race on October 19th. On October 20th, he attended a tour of the museum dedicated to the memory of Kokichi Tsuburaya, and then returned to Tokyo for a meeting with representatives of Japan’s National Olympic Committee on October 21st.

The meeting began at 3pm, and exactly 17 minutes into the meeting, Sütő interrupted the conversation by saying “Gentlemen, 50 years ago on this date and at this moment I was taking the turn into the Olympic stadium….and I’ll cross the finish line in a moment!”

I’ve only had the opportunity to exchange emails through an intermediary/translator named Rajzó-Kontor Kornélia, who kindly offered to assist me in communicating with Sütő . Through Rajzó-Kontor’s help, as well as the brilliant articles she wrote on Sütő’s visit to Japan in 2014, I can see that Sütő appreciates the enormity of Japan’s moment in 1964, and as he learned after leaving the Tokyo Olympics, the physical and mental trials Tsuburaya endured after the Tokyo Games. Sütő never met Tsuburaya, but he knows him, and likely wishes he could embrace him.

After completing his race at the Tsuburaya Memorial Meet that beautiful October day, he revealed his thoughts to reporters, as explained by Rajzó-Kontor:

Sütő told the local television viewers the same thing he had said in the cemetery the day before; that he had been thinking of Tsuburaya and thanking him as he ran. Sütő said he believed he would have run the distance “hand in hand” with Tsuburaya, were he still alive.

 

NOTE: Many, many thanks to Rajzó-Kontor Kornélia for the time she took to translate my questions from English to Hungarian, personally meet with József Sütő, and then translate his responses from Hungarian back to English.

feyisa-lilesa-in-rio
Lilesa winning the silver medal in the marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics

As he crossed the finish line, he made two fists, raised his arms and crossed them, forming an “X”. Feyisa Lilesa was resolute, sending a clear message of defiance to the Ethiopian government, one of the more oppressive regimes in Africa.

“I decided three months before Rio if I win, and get a good result, I knew the media would be watching, the world would finally see and hear the cry of my people,” Lilesa said (to the New York Times), speaking through an interpreter in a measured, calm but defiant tone. “People who are being displaced from their land, people who are being killed for asking for their basic rights, I’m very happy to stand in front of you as their voice,” he said.

He won the silver medal in the marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but he also realized that with his very visible protest, he would not be able to go home. According to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands have been arrested, and hundreds have been killed in the past year. Lilesa naturally believes a similar fate would be his if he went home, despite his Olympic glory.

Four months later in Hawaii at the Honolulu Marathon, Lilesa came in fourth, but was as defiant as ever.

feyisa-lilesa-in-honolulu
Lilesa after coming in fourth at the Honolulu Marathon in Hawaii

As he is quoted here, Lilesa has had no contact with the Ethiopian government, which is said to have been elected to power under suspect circumstances, and has been using oppressive methods to crackdown on opposition, starting in 2005 with the state of Oromia. Lilesa is from Oromia.

“For me, nobody has talked with me, not the Ethiopian government. If you support only him, he supports you. If you blame him, he kills you,” Lilesa said, referencing Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. “If you are talking about somebody they will automatically kill you. After I come to the U.S., many people have been killed. Many people, after I showed the sign, many people have died.”

After the Rio Olympics in August, Lilesa came straight to the United States, and has lived primarily in Flagstaff, Arizona. He wants to return to Ethiopia, as he fears for his family and his people in Oromia. But he does not believe the environment is right yet for his return.

It was 1960, when a barefooted Ethiopian named Abebe Bikila took the world by surprise to win the marathon at the 1960 Olympics. He defended his championship at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And since 1960, with the barefooted Ethiopian as its role model, runners from Africa have won the Olympic marathon 8 of the past 15 times, 4 times by an Ethiopian.

As is stated in this article, more than anything else, Lilesa wants to return the silver medal to its rightful place in Ethiopia.

Right now, the silver medal is safe at home in Flagstaff. But, Lilesa said, its eventual resting spot is in the heart of Ethiopia. He hopes to one day pass on the medal to his native land. “In Ethiopia, when Ethiopian people will get their freedom, this will be my gift,” he said. “This Olympic medal, I give for the memorial for the dead people and for those to get their freedoms. This is my gift to the Ethiopian people.”

John Akhwari's bandaged leg
John Stephen Akhwari walking his final lap

Mamo Wolde had already completed the 42-kilometer marathon in the oxygen-thin air of Mexico City, continuing Ethiopian dominance in the footsteps of Abebe Bikila. Wolde had already received his gold medal, and was likely resting somewhere inside the stadium when a humming murmur turned into joyful cheers on that evening of October 20, 1968.

A man was walking into the Estadio Olimpico Universitario, his right leg heavily bandaged. He limped decidedly, the result of falling close to the halfway point in the marathon while jockeying for position. He had dislocated his knee and banged up his shoulder in the collision with the pavement. He got treated, and kept running despite the pain, and the cramps.

While 17 in the 54-man field did not complete this most grueling of the long-distance competitions, John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania, was determined to finish. As intoned in this somewhat over-the-top narration of Akhwari’s final steps in this video below, “a voice calls from within to go on, and so he goes on.”

Afterwards it was written, today we have seen a young African runner who symbolizes the finest in the human spirit, a performance that gives true dignity to sport, a performance that lifts sport out of the category of grown men playing a game, a performance that gives meaning to the word courage. All honor to John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania.

When asked why he kept running, Akhwari gave one of the most memorable quotes in sporting history: “My country did not send me 5,000 miles away to start the race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish it.”

John Stephen Akhwari

barkley and johnson draped in american flag
Picture of Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson with the American flag draped over their shoulders to cover the Reebok logos on their jacket. Barkley and Johnson had agreements with other footwear brands. John Stockton and Chris Mullin, 1992 Dream Team teammates, look on.

Here’s a fascinating article from Yahoo Sports about the sports footwear industry and the NBA, and a few facts:

Fact #1: Only 10 NBA players currently have their own “signature shoe” with a US-based brand. In case you’re interested, they are: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving at Nike; Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony at Jordan Brand; Derrick Rose and Damian Lillard at adidas (James Harden’s shoe will launch in 2017); and Stephen Curry at Under Armour.

Fact #2: A shoe deal for an NBA lottery pick (a person who is in the top 5 or 10 of the NBA draft of high school, college or available international players) could mean earning from USD200 to 700K per year. The article points out that Andrew Wiggins, who signed a 3-year contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers for over USD17million, also signed a 5-year agreement with adidas for another USD11 million.)

Fact #3: Every player in the NBA has a relationship with a sneaker brand; even the benchwarmers, players looking just to make a training camp roster, can get what is called a “merch” deal. Such an agreement with a footwear marketer gets them a free allotment of footwear for practices and games.

Fact #4: Sneaker brands scout out basketball prospects at the college and high school levels, just like basketball scouts do

Fact #5: Nike has dominant share of the NBA player market, as 68% of the 300+ players wear the Swoosh. Adidas is number 2 at 15.6% with about 70 players wearing the three stripes.

For past stories in “The Sneaker Wars” series, see below:

The logo for the World Anti-Doping Agency
The logo for the World Anti-Doping Agency

It appears that success is catching up with Kenya. Soon after topping the medals table at the World Athletics Championships in August, Kenya is under fire for an apparent and rampant doping of athletes, and now face a possible 4-year ban from competition, which would include the Rio Olympics in 2016.

As the New York Times reported, a Kenyan profession who headed an independent investigation into drug use by Kenyan athletes told the French magazine, “L’Equippe, “In this country, there is more EPO being consumed by athletes than by the ill.”

When Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia made his mark as a gold medalist from North Africa in Rome and Tokyo in the early 1960s, and fellow Africans began to find success in track, it was thought that the tradition of running long distances in high altitude environments was a natural competitive advantage.

But apparently, that advantage was not enough, and Kenyans in particularly have fallen into a culture of performance enhancing drugs. EPO, or erythropoietin, which is a hormone that controls the production of red blood cells, is now commonly used. Allegations of doping were strengthened when the blood tests of championship athletes, including 77 Kenyans, were leaked to the British paper, The Sunday Times, earlier this year.

Rita Jeptoo, of Kenya, breaks the tape to win the women's division of the 118th Boston Marathon Monday, April 21, 2014 in Boston. She Marathons, tested positive for a banned substance in September 2014 and was banned for two years in January.  (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Rita Jeptoo, of Kenya, breaks the tape to win the women’s division of the 118th Boston Marathon Monday, April 21, 2014 in Boston. She Marathons, tested positive for a banned substance in September 2014 and was banned for two years in January.
(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Unfortunately, what has not become commonplace is a custom of testing and accountability. Just yesterday, Kenya Olympic Committee president, Kip Keino expressed the seriousness of the threat to Kenya. “It is no longer just a threat,” said the two-time Olympic champion. “They think Kenya is sweeping doping issues under the carpet.” According to this Reuters report, the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) has been tracking Kenya’s doping situation for many years, but now seem about to act.

The Artistry of Stephen Curry_NYTimes
From the article, The Artistry of Stephen Curry, New York Times

Stephen Curry is 6 ft 3 (1.91 m) tall and 190 lbs (86kg) – above average tall, but kinda small for NBA standards. And yet, if he makes the US Men’s basketball team, and the US wins the gold medal in Rio this summer, Curry has the potential to stand on top of the international basketball marketing world.

After Curry’s Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship last May, and after the holiday shopping season, Curry’s jersey is the most popular. The only shoe more popular than Michael Jordan’s for Nike is Curry’s for Under Armour. This fascinating ESPN article explains, in fact, how Nike lost Curry to Under Armour in one of the great sports marketing signings of all time. According to sports marketing impressario, Sonny Vaccaro, the man who signed Jordan for Nike, Curry didn’t fit the mould, and was overlooked by Nike, which already had Curry under contract.

“He went to Davidson,” said Vaccaro. “He was always overlooked. He was skinny, he was frail, he was all the things you weren’t supposed to be. He never got his due. All of a sudden, like a bolt of lightning, Steph Curry is on the scene. And this is the hardest thing for Nike to swallow right now. What you’re witnessing is a phenomenon. This is like Michael signing with Nike in ’84. He’s going to morph into the most recognizable athlete. And why is he going to be that? Because he’s like everybody else.”

tall and short in basketball
The long and the short of it in basketball.

The average height of a human male ranges from 5ft7in/170 cm to 5ft11in/180 cm tall. So relative to the average height of an NBA player, which probably averages a foot taller, Curry is, well, short. And yes, he is an athletic freak whose body control is at a level of balletic precision. But more importantly, he is the greatest three-point shooter of all time. And while an NBA team loves the athletic big guy who can shoot threes (e.g.; Detlef Schremph, Kevin Durant), the three-point line is the realm of the guard, either the point guard or shooting guard, the shortest guys in the game.

Actually, the NBA has always had a love for the tall guy. There’s an obvious structural reason for that. When James Naismith created the game of basketball, he conveniently attached a peach basket to the rails of a running track that ran above the floor of the gym in Springfield, Illinois in 1891. Those rails happened to be 10 feet off the ground.

“That arbitrary decision to put the basket at ten feet caused the game of basketball to take shape around the tallest players,” said Roman Mars, in this fascinating piece called “The Yin and Yang of Basketball“, in one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible.

As the game developed, it became obvious that the taller you are, the easier it is for you to defend the basket, and certainly, to score. And in the 1960s, the slam dunk became popular, particularly among black players. As the 99PI podcast went on to explain, the dunk became a symbol of black power, and was seen as such a threat that the NCAA, America’s governing body for college sports, banned the slam dunk from 1967 to 1976.

While the NCAA decision was likely a racially-driven one, the slam dunk was also primarily the domain of the tall player. And at that time, the NBA was getting a bit boring as people basically threw the ball into the tall center, who would take a very high-percentage shot. The ABA, an emerging competitor basketball league, saw an opportunity to draw fans that the NBA could not: they introduced the three-point line in 1967. As ABA commissioner, George Mikan (a big man in the NBA himself) said, the three pointer “would give the smaller player a chance to score and open up the defense to make the game more enjoyable for the fans.”

Twelve years later, the NBA also adopted the three-point shot, a radius some 25 feet (7.6 meters) from the basket. And while it was seen as a gimmick and seldom attempted in the early years, the three-point shot has become a strategic tool in the coach’s toolkit, and the