shizo kanakuri_1912 stockholm
Shizo Kanakuri at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics

He was one of two Japanese to compete at the 1912 Stockholm Olympians – the first Japanese Olympians. He competed in the 1920 and 1924 Olympics as well. And he created one of the most popular sporting events in Japanthe Hakone Ekiden.

Shizo Kanakuri also has the distinction of being the slowest Olympic runner in the history of sport when he competed in his first Olympics.

Despite setting what may have been a world record time of 2:32:45 for a marathon trial for the Stockholm Olympics, Kanakuri arrived in Sweden in terrible shape. It took 18 days for Kanakuri and his lone teammate, sprinter, Yahiko Mishima, to get to Sweden by ship and then by Trans-Siberian Railway  in time for the running competitions in July. And it was unexpectedly hot in Stockholm, with temperatures hitting 25 degrees Centigrade (77 degrees Fahrenheit), not ideal for long-distance runners.

Weakened by the travel, the lack of conditioning, the challenging local diet, and the heat, Kanakuri collapsed midway through the race, somewhere around the 27 kilometer mark. Members of a nearby farming family picked up the fallen runner and brought him to their home and cared for him until he was able to move on his own.

Despite the fact that half of the 68 starters also failed to complete the 42-kilometer race, Kanakuri was embarrassed by his failure to complete the marathon, and left the grounds without informing race officials. He then quietly returned to Japan.

But as far as Swedish officials were concerned, Kanakuri had simply vanished.

Fifty years later, in 1967, Kanakuri was “found” in Japan by producers from a Swedish television station, and to their credit, they made Kanakuri an offer he could not refuse – come back to Stockholm and complete the race.

shizo kanakuri_1912 and 1967
Shizo Kanakuri in 1912 and 1967

It was just prior to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and local businessmen were brainstorming for ways to raise funds to send Swedish athletes to Mexico. According to this link, they came up with this idea – “why not have Kanakuri ‘finish’ the marathon in front of the world’s media as a way to score some free publicity and attract sponsors to their cause?”

As The Japan Times reported, Kanakuri was very happy to start what he had always intended to finish, even if it took over half a century. At the age of 76, in front of the cameras, decked out in suit and tie, Kanakuri ran about 100 meters before breaking the tape and completing the world’s longest marathon.

Judging by press reports of the proceedings, the elderly gent was only too happy to oblige, running jovially around the last corner before charging through a special ribbon. His time was promptly read out — 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds — and, according to (historian) Sayama, the elderly racer then responded: “It was a long trip. Along the way, I got married, had six children and 10 grandchildren.”

Advertisements
akihiro gunji of tokai university winner of 2019 hakone ekiden
Tokai University anchor Akihiro Gunji breaks the tape to give his school the victory in the Tokyo-Hakone ekiden on Wednesday in Otemachi. | KYODO

It’s a New Year’s tradition in Japan – settling into lazy days of eating and laying about in front of the TV with family on January 2nd and 3rd, watching a running competition that spans over 200 kilometers – the Hakone Ekiden.

Since 1920, the annual Hakone Ekiden has transfixed the nation as teams of ten long-distance runners from universities in the Kanto region compete to complete ten legs of about 20 kilometers each. They run the roads of Japan from downtown Otemachi to Hakone on day one, and then back to Otemachi on day two.

Thousands line the streets to cheer runners from their alma mater while tens of millions more watch on TV from 8 in the morning to about 1:30 in the afternoon. It’s Super Bowl Sunday in America – without the glitzy half-time show.

And when 2020 rolls around, its feasible that some of the Japanese distance runners with medal hopes for the Tokyo Olympics will be competing in the 100th anniversary of the Hakone Ekiden that January. In fact, that was the raison d’etre of the Hakone Ekiden – “to bring up runners to compete in the world.”

Those are the words of Shizo Kanakuri, who created the ekiden race. Kanakuri, along with sprinter Yahiko Mishima, were Japan’s first Olympians, competing at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. While Kanakuri was not able to finish the marathon in 1912, he represented Japan again at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, placing 16th and finishing with a time of 2:48:45.

With expanded knowledge of what  international competition was like, Kanakuri grasped an opportunity to raise greater awareness of long-distance running, and thus develop Japan’s next generation of international competitors.

It started with a celebration – an event to highlight the 50th anniversary of Tokyo becoming the nation’s capitol. In 1917, Yomiuri Shimbun organized a massive road race that spanned over 500 kilometers and ran from Kyoto (the former capitol) to Tokyo. The idea of creating long-distance relay exchanges along the way came from the Edo-period practice of transmitting messages from Kyoto to Tokyo and back via humans who ran from station to station with their important missives.

zensaku mogi_first ekiden
Zensaku Mogi

So impressed was Kanakuri with the idea of a long-distant relay race, he had a vision of America – that the same could be done traversing the United States from sea to shining sea. While that vision was, as it turned out, an impossible dream at the time, it inspired Kanakuri and his partners from Tokyo Koshi and Waseda universities to create an organization that would invite university students to participate in a local ekiden. In the end, four major universities in Tokyo – Waseda, Keio, Meiji and Tokyo Koshi – elected to compete in the first Hakone Ekiden.

On February 15, 1920, when Zensaku Mogi of Tokyo Koshi University broke the tape on his arrival in front of the Hochi Shimbun office of Yomiuri Group, helping his team to a total 2-day time of 15 hours, five minutes and 16 seconds, he ignited a tradition of hope in the youth and future of Japan that continues to this day.

1912_Summer_Olympics_poster

Going au natural was considered not only natural, but beautiful, in ancient Greece. The nude athlete is a powerful image in Greece. It is said that when a runner named Orsippus of Megara lost his loincloth in the midst of a sprint, he was said to run even faster, gaining him victory and fame. Running naked became a competitive advantage.

As archaeologists like Heinrich Schliemann, who uncovered the site of ancient Troy in the late 19th century, captured the imagination of people the world over, the thinking and customs of the ancient Greece became idealized. The nude athlete in particular was de rigeur in posters advertising the early Olympic Games.

1920 antwerp olympics poster

In fact, from 1912 to 1936, the male body was the main feature of the Olympic poster, with the 1912 Stockholm Olympic poster being the most, how shall we say, intriguing, showing that there’s a lot you can do with a ribbon. And after World War I ravaged Europe, the Olympics came to Antwerp, Belgium in 1920, where the poster also employed a fully nude man, private parts covered this time by a swirling towel.

1924 Paris Olympics poster

The French were not so revealing, but the poster for the 1924 Paris Olympics did emphasize the bare chests and midriffs of virile young men ready to go into athletic battle. The poster for the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics was less suggestive, but still featured a yearning half-nude man.

Then, there are the prudish Americans, who featured a man of chiseled musculature, but whose torso was covered by a white t-shirt.

The Germans in 1936, the Brits in 1948 and the Finns in 1952 all did variations on a theme with the male body, until the Aussies came along and changed the look and feel dramatically. They removed the human, and replaced it with, what looks like a card, or invitation to the Olympic Games.

Nude guys were no longer a thing.

1932 Los Angeles Olympics poster

Simmons Kelly Kurtz Laurie Rampling
Left to right, clockwise: Jean Simmons, Grace Kelly, Swoosie Kurtz, Charlotte Rampling, Hugh Laurie

These are famous actors and actresses of the silver and small screen. What do they all have in common?

  • Jean Simmons: scouted in 1945 in London, presumably after World War II, Simmons moved to Hollywood and began an acting career that made her one of the most famous faces in the world, starring in such films as The Actress, Guys and Dolls, The Big Country, and Spartacus.
  • Grace Kelly: an acting icon, Kelly became America’s modern-day princess when she famously married Prince Ranier of Monaco, after starring in such films as High Noon, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief and High Society.
  • Swoosie Kurtz: Emmy Award winner and two-time Tony Award winner from Omaha, Nebraska, who is better known on American television programs Carol and Company, Sisters, and Mike and Molly.
  • Hugh Laurie, an Oxford, England native who rose to fame as a comedy duo called Fry and Laurie, with Stephen Fry, and became a household name in America in the hit drama series, House, M.D.
  • Charlotte Rampling, British siren who starred in such films as Georgy Girl, The Damned, The Night Porter, Stardust Memories and The Verdict. She was recently in the news for her controversial comments regarding Blacks and acting.

The answer is….their fathers were all successful Olympians!

Charles Simmons: was part of the British bronze-medal winning gymnastics team in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm Sweden, and father of femme fatale, Jean Simmons.

John Kelly: 3-time gold medalist, two at the 1920 Antwerp Games in single scull and double sculls (rowing), and a gold in double sculls at the 1924 Paris Games, who was father of Princess Grace.

John B Kelly Sr
John B. Kelly

Frank Kurtz: a bronze medalist in the 1932 Los Angeles Games in the 10-meter platform dive, Kurtz was the father of Swoosie.

Frank Kurtz
Frank Kurtz and daughter, Swoosie

Ran Laurie: Like John Kelly, Ran Laurie was a rower who took gold in the coxless pairs at the 1948 London Games, whose partner on that gold-medal winning team was Jack Wilson. As mentioned above, Hugh Laurie starred in hit series, House, and coincidentally,