National Olympic Stadium and underground tunnell
Blueprint for the National Olympic Stadium for the 1964 Olympics, including underground tunnel. Source: Japan Sport Council

In his book, No Bugles No Drums, Olympic track legend, Peter Snell of New Zealand, wrote about an underground tunnel at the National Olympic Stadium, where he competed at the 1964 Olympic Games.

“Ten minutes before the gun, we were led through an underground tunnel which took us right underneath the track diagonally to a point at the beginning of the back straight. Then a walk around to the start.”

Ollan Cassell, lead runner on the US 4X400 men’s team that won gold in Tokyo, also noticed the underground tunnel. “The Japanese thought of everything,” he wrote in his book Inside the Five Ring Circus. “They even built a tunnel under the stadium track so athletes and official going to their events on the infield did not cross the track.”


National Olympic Stadium and underground tunnell 2
A picture of the 1964 tunnel at that time. Considerable work had been done afterwards to hide the pipes and cables. Source: Japan Sport Council

Cassell asked me to confirm that his memories were correct, so I did some digging. After a few emails exchanged between me and The Japan Sport Council, the government body that manages and operates some of the largest sports facilities in Japan, including the National Olympic Stadium, I was pleasantly surprised to get confirmation on the tunnel.

Not only that, the Japan Sport Council was kind enough to provide a schematic and photos.

An underground tunnel that allows officials and athletes to get to the infield or across the stadium without crossing a track seems like a great idea. You would think that all stadiums would be designed that way. But Cassell wrote to me that in fact Tokyo’s National Olympic Stadium was unique. “I have attended every Games since then, thru 1996 and never found anything like what they did. I missed 2000 and 2004 but attended all other games and did not hear anything about a tunnel from those who attended the 2000 and 2004 games.”

The National Olympic Stadium has been torn down, a new one set to rise (once a plan is finalized). But the old one apparently had a trick under its sleeve. It will be missed. To see what the stadium looked like just before it was torn down, check out these 360 views of the stadium.

National Olympic Stadium 360

Bob Schul and 5000 meter race_The Olympic Century - XVIII Olympiad - Volume 16.jpg
The 5,000-meter finals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

As a child, summer was hell for Bob Schul. Working on the farm, with the air hanging hot and heavy with dust, Schul did his best to do his chores on the farm, but there was no clear remedy for his asthma. As Schul wrote in his autobiography, In The Long Run, he resorted to wearing his grandfather’s WWI gas mask, but nothing could stop the wheezing. One of his brothers admitted to Schul that his ragged breathing was so bad at night that he feared he might not last the night.

Years later, Schul had battled through asthma with his running regimen, but he had not conquered it. And so, in October 1964, Schul was grateful. The “Summer” Olympics in Japan were actually held in the Fall to avoid the monsoon season. And when Schul stood at the starting line for the finals of the 5,000 meter run, the constant rain had cleared the air. “I knew this was the only chance I had for immortality in the athletic world, for it hit me one last time that Tokyo was the only place I could have run in the Olympics. My allergies would never have remained dormant anywhere else with the pollen and air pollution that was prevalent in big cities of the world.”

But it was wet and cold in the stadium, with the temperature at 21°C (51℉). This was particularly uncomfortable because, as Schul told me, the Japanese officials were so conscious of time, they wanted to make sure all runners were gathered so that they could start the event on time. All they could do was sit and wait in the cool air. Twenty minutes prior to the start of the race, Schul could feel the tension.

“No one in the room was talking, not even the Japanese officials. Everyone was deep in his own thoughts. You could feel the tension as we sat, side by side. I was leaning forward and glanced to my right, Jazy was looking my way and our eyes made a brief contact then he immediately turned his head. Still no sound. The tension was unreal.”

Schul was referring to Michel Jazy of France, who had broken the world record in the 5,000 in New York just before coming to Japan. And there were other strong competitors in the finals: his teammate, Bill Dellinger, Harald Norpoth of Germany, and the Australian, Ron Clarke, who only a few days earlier took bronze in the 10,000 meters. But Schul believed Jazy was his biggest threat.

As you can see in the video of the last three laps of the 5,000 meter finals, Jazy was in the lead with three laps to go, heading a tight pack of nine. Schul stayed back in seventh, and was under threat of being boxed in. Schul wasn’t in the best position considering he was the favorite to become the first American to win the 5,000 race at the Olympics.

With one lap to go, Jazy was still leading a pack of six, but the Russian Nikolay Dutov was on his right shoulder, Dellinger was third and Norpoth was just behind Dellinger. Schul was fifth…but that would change dramatically. Norpoth shot ahead of Dellinger and Dutov. But at the same time, Schul was running wide and passed Dellinger and Dutov as well. And as they made the final turn, Schul passed Norporth and was bearing down hard on Jazy.

You can see Jazy swing his head furiously, looking back to see Schul getting closer and closer. And then suddenly, Schul blew past the Frenchman in a burst that sent the crowd and the broadcaster into a frenzy. “Schul is coming in! Schul is going to win it! Schul is winning the 5,000 and he’s the first American ever to win the 5,000!”

It wasn’t just that Jazy was slowing down. After nearly 5,000 meters, Schul was speeding up. He told me that he ran his last lap in 54 seconds, and in fact his last 300 meters was in 38.7 seconds, which would translate to a 50-second pace for a full lap. A few days later Peter Snell of New Zealand would win the 1,500 meters with a final 300-meter sprint of 38.7 seconds too…on a dry track.

You can see it in the video….the cinder track was a muddy mess. And you can see it in the picture, mud was flying everywhere. But Schul didn’t care. “I felt as if somehow out-of-body, as if I was sitting on my own shoulder, observing how my body performed,” he said. On that muddy and chilly Autumn day in Tokyo, Schul was above it all. He was an Olympic champion.

Bob Schul victorious_The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16
From The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964
From The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964

As I am a former journalist, I know that if you keep asking questions, in different ways, and you’re patient, your victim may very well cough up something interesting or important or both. Athletes who aren’t used to the interview may find out very quickly that they should probably avoid reporters at all costs, for their own good.

800 and 1,500 meter champion, Peter Snell, addressed this issue in his book “No Bugles No Drums“. Snell describes a possible encounter between an unwary athlete and a reporter:

Under the great conditions of stress and emotion produced by the Games atmosphere, it’s very easy for an athlete to say things he wouldn’t say in normal circumstances. It’s not difficult to imagine a runner just finishing a particularly fine trial. He’s elated by the time but, before he’s had time to evaluate it properly a pressman bowls up:

“Hullo, there. Google from the London Explode. Just a few questions.”
“Why, yeah, sure,” jogging around, jumping out of his skin.
“How’s your training programme coming along?”
“Terrific.” Still jumping. “Just ran a terrific quarter…/”
“That so?” that’s great. How do you feel you’re going to run next Tuesday?”
Still jumping. “I’ll lick the pants off that lot the way I’m feeling.”
“What’re your plans for the race? Tactics, I mean?”
“Well, after this trial, nothing scares me. I was going to hold a sprint as long as possible but I figure if it’s got to be the last lap sprint I’ll be In it.”
“You mean, you’ll sprint from the bell?”
“Oh, I guess I’ll go from about 300 yards.”
“Who’d you pick is going to be the hardest to beat?”
“Heck, I don’t even care who else is running.”

secret olympianSnell’s point? “You can be caught with your pants down in a moment of elation – or depression.”

And as described in the book, Secret Olympian: The Inside Story of the Olympic Experience, by Anon, you also need to aware of how your words can be misinterpreted. In this case, one can turn an innocent question into an answer of ungratefulness.

One of the first trials of the recently christened Olympian-to-be is the local newspaper interview. The journalist is buzzing, looking forward to an uplifting story of the local boy or girl made good.

The obligatory first question, ‘How long have you dreamed of being an Olympian?’

The automatic response, “Since I was a kid’ or ‘Since I can remember.’

Whilst such a response may make a nice sound bit and an uplifting ‘Dream comes true for local boy’ page two lead, in the main it’s not actually true. I didn’t dream about going to the Olympics and neither did most of my compatriots. We answer yes to the leading question from journalists because it seems expected and it sounds ungrateful not to have dreamt of going.

The best advice you can give an inexperienced athlete prior to engaging a reporter? Know your cliches. Watch this clip from the movie, Bull Durham, as Crash Davis teaches the rookie that “cliches are your friend.”

Billy Mills Crossing the finish line, from the boo,
Billy Mills Crossing the finish line, from the boo, “Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News” Agency

At every Olympics, there are people who stand out brighter than others. In 1964, everybody had a Billy Mills story. The legendary Native American champion of the 10,000 meter race, Mills was not expected to medal in Tokyo, and thus appeared to come out of nowhere to win one of the most dramatic races in Tokyo.

Silver medalist  3-meter springboard diver, Frank Gorman, remembers sitting in the Olympic Village common area watching the Olympic Games on TV. “He was a guy I didn’t know until I got to Tokyo. In between our work outs we would sit and watch the games on the local TV, just the two of us. I understood that he was training hard, and that nobody thought he had a prayer, nobody was putting any money on him. But he told me he was excited about being there, and that he had been working his whole life at being the best.”

Gold medalist 400-meer runner, Ulis Williams, watched Mills in the stadium. “Towards the end, I think the last 200 meters, we see him picking up speed. We couldn’t believe it, and we’re shouting ‘Look at him go!’ He tried to go around a guy, and they were moving to block him, but he burst through the center with his arms up. We absolutely couldn’t believe it.”

Billy Mills (middle) and Ron Clarke (right) in 10000 meter run, from the book,
Billy Mills and Ron Clarke in 10000 meter run, from the book, “The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16”

For gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto, he remembers watching the 10,000 meter race on a black and white TV in a common room. “I remember it’s the final lap. A bunch of us, 30 of us, we were just yelling our heads off! And he wins the thing. What a dramatic finish! Mills comes out of nowhere and wins!”

Peter Snell remembers agreeing with his teammates that Australian Ron Clarke was a definite favorite to win, and had no expectations for any American, let alone Billy Mills to be in the running. As he wrote in his biography, No Bugles, No Drums, “This is no personal reflection on the tremendous performance of the winner Billy Mills. It’s just that Americans are traditional masters of the short track events and we other nations are naturally not too keen to see that mastery extended to the longer races.”

Snell, the incredible middle-distance runner from New Zealand, who won gold in both the 800 and1500 meters races in Tokyo wrote that “the 10,000 lives in my memory as one of the most exciting