It was the morning of October 8, two days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Top Swiss cyclists Hans Lüthi and Heinz Heinemann were on the Koshu Highway in western Tokyo getting some training in when a truck, entering from a side road, hit them.
Lüthi had contusions on his left arm and his chest, waist and thighs, while Heinemann, a veteran of the 1960 Rome Olympics, had contusions on his waist, legs and hands. Doctors at the Jinwakai Hospital in Hachioji, according to The Yomiuri of October 9, 1964, were quoted as saying “Heinemann’s injuries would require one week’s medical treatment and Luthi’s three weeks’ treatment.” The article also said that they “might be unable to participate in the Olympic events.”
As it turned out, the men’s individual road race took place on October 22, two weeks after the accident, and both Lüthi and Heinemann were able to compete. While the records of who was in what place and when they finished in this 194-kilomter race is unclear for this particular event, according to this site, Lüthi appears to have finished in 16th in a field of 107, not far off from legend-to-be Eddy Merckx . Heinemann finished 63rd.
If one believes what one reads in the press at the time, every single Japanese in Tokyo took it upon themselves to be the perfect ambassador to any foreigner they came upon. Thus the truck driver, one Katsu Wada, might have been mortified that he was the one who may have ended the Olympic dreams of these cyclists.
As you can see in the above photo, Wada publicly showed his contrition.
But as The Yomiuri article goes on to say, it may have been the Swiss who were in the wrong. According to the Metropolitan Police Department, “the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee (TOOC) had approved an advance schedule for practice by Olympic cyclists to enable police to impose restrictions to protect cyclists from vehicles. According to the schedule, Olympic cyclists were to practice on the road race course on eight days, October 2, 4, 5, 6, 12, 14, 19 and 22 under police protection, said the MPD.”
I remember walking the streets of Dresden in then East Germany in 1985, noting how modern the city looked and felt compared to my previous destination of Prague. And yet, I was constantly reminded of the terrible toll World War II had on this city, as I strolled by buildings in elegant decay, reduced to skeletons by the incessant firebombing by the Allies some 40 years before.
One of the greatest female divers of the 20th century, Ingrid Engel-Krämer, was a little less than two years old when the sky rained fire on her home town.
When the 1960 Rome Olympics rolled around, East Germany was still in a tremulous existential state. Born of the ideological split between Allies at the end of the Second World War, the Potsdam Agreement dictated a “provisional border” that would separate Germany into East and West, the former to become The German Democratic Republic (GDR), and the latter the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG).
And yet, in 1960, tensions between the two Germanys, and their proxies in the global cold war battle, the Soviet Union and the United States, were still high. Author of the book, Rome 1960, David Maraniss quoted a US National Security Agency report stating that East Germany was “teetering on the brink of stability”, meaning that the possibility of East German government collapsing was diminishing rapidly. Of course, a year later, a wall was constructed on the East Berlin side, symbolizing in a very real way that East Germany was here to stay, making Germany, by default, the epicenter of Cold War hostility.
During the Rome Olympics, the GDR government declared that West German citizens would not be allowed to enter East Germany – this while over a 100,000 East Germans snuck through the border into West Germany. This ban was a reaction to an event in West Germany celebrating the return of World War II German POWs and their relatives. East Germany viewed this event as a celebration of Germany’s fascist past.
It was under this geo-political cloud that athletes around the world gathered in Rome for the 1960 Olympics. The condition by the International Olympic Committee for German athletes to compete was that they had to do so as a unified team, which meant competing under a specially created German Olympic flag. East and West German athletes on the whole got along as teammates on the field and in the Village. But, as Maraniss wrote, the press in each of the two Germanys turned Engel-Krämer’s stunning achievements in Rome into a proxy Cold War battle, not because Engel-Krämer, an East German, defeated an American, Paula Jean Myers-Pope, in the 10-meter platform dive, but because both East and West Germany claimed her as their own.
When Kraemer was competing to make the unified team, she felt that the West German press was very “unfriendly” to her; at least one journalist, but her account, cursed her because of politics. But now the West Germans were embracing her as a German first, one of their own. The Western newspapers covered her events with obvious national pride, as though there were no separation between East and West. Accounts in Die Welt and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung raised no questions about the judging and described the final dives in a way that left no doubt that Kraemer had again outperformed her competition. German fans, who dominated the Stadio del Nuoto audience during her events, cheered long and loud for her every effort.
Yet the warmth the West Germans showed Kraemer infuriated the East Germans, who thought the other side was trying to steal her show and diminish the ideological implications of her triumph. Kraemer’s victory was no accident, East Germany’s Neues Deutschland proclaimed. Rather, she owed her success to her “joyful life in the socialism of the German Democratic Republic.” The paper also complained that for all the copy Kraemer in the Western press, it was never mentioned that her father was an official of the SED and that the young diver herself was a member of the socialist mass youth organization.
She started diving off a low board at the age of five, even before she knew how to swim. Starting from the age of eleven, she would join her friends at the Dresden diving club a few times a week and stay there until the early evening. Those were the early days of young Ingrid Engel-Krämer, who would unexpectedly become one of the stars of the 1960 Rome Olympics, winning gold in both the women’s 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform diving competitions.
David Maraniss, in his seminal book Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, profiled Engel-Krämer, explaining that at the time, Americans were the dominant force in diving. In fact, until Engel-Krämer broke the streaks, women from Team USA had taken both gold and silver in the previous seven summer Olympics in the 10-meter platform, and gold in the previous 8 Olympiads in the 3-meter springboard.
In the springboard, Engel-Krämer was a runaway train, showing off a precision in her technique that she would become renown for. As Maraniss noted in a Die Welt article, she was so far ahead in the springboard that “she could have jumped into the water with only a little grace in the last round, and she would have won the gold medal.”
Could this wunderkind repeat in the 10-meter platform? Paula Jean Myers-Pope was confident that she would win back American glory in diving. And while the springboard event was a cakewalk for Engel-Krämer, the platform competition was a gritty end-to-end battle. As Maraniss explained, it came down to the final dives for both.
Both Engel-Krämer’s and Myers-Pope’s dives were, as I understand it, similar – a backward flip followed by two-and-a-half somersaults. Myers-Pope apparently hit the water with more splash than Engel-Krämer, who entered the water, as Maraniss describes, with a “quiet snap into the blue pool”. Additionally, the judges felt that Engel-Krämer’s dive had a higher degree of difficulty, which brought protests from the US. But in the end, Engel-Krämer earned her second gold medal, and not by a small margin.
There was a time when little Ingrid was scared to ascend the tower, fearful of the fall and the pain. In fact, her skin was considered somewhat sensitive to the impact on the water. Her father crafted special vests made of rubber foam to protect her back and stomach. “I wasn’t courageous at all,” she was quoted as saying. “I had to work hard on it and only bit by bit managed to overcome it.” Even in Rome, according to Maraniss, it was the fear of pain that drove her to focus her thoughts on how to dive perfectly to minimize the impact of the water on her skin.
But in Rome in 1960, Engel-Krämer was the blonde sensation, the teenager who broke the American stranglehold on diving, and as the Western press referred to her as, the Dresden Doll.
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.
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.
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.”
In the Rome Olympics in 1960, Rudolph won gold in the women’s 100 and 200-meter races, as well as the 4×100 relay, and arguably became the most popular athlete in the world due to her beauty and charm. (That’s saying a lot since Cassius Clay was also on the scene.)
Nearly a month after the end of the Rome Olympics, it was announced by officials of her hometown, Clarksville, Tennessee, that October 4 would be “Wilma Rudolph Day”, and that according to ESPN, Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington, was going to lead the celebration. Tennessee at the time was a segregated state, a place where authorities or owners could require the separation of races in the activities of daily life, like drinking from a water fountain, riding a bus, or eating at a restaurant. And Governor Ellington was a man elected on his support of continued racial segregation.
Rudolph understood the leverage she had at that moment, and said she would accept only if all activities related to Wilma Rudolph Day were racially integrated. It was an offer that no matter where you stood on the political and racial divide, you could not refuse. Rudolph was not to be denied, and so that day was the first time in Tennessee that blacks and whites would be allowed to mix socially.
I found this letter to the editor in the Milwaukee Journal from October 22, 1960, where one Virginia Williams of Wisconsin wrote in praise of Rudolph as the finest of role models for black Americans.
Wilma Rudolph, the Negro girl from Clarksville, Tenn., who won three gold medals at the Olympics for her running, also won praise for her good looks and charming ways. This unassuming Negro girl, coming from a large family of average income, brought honor to her race and her country. She brought credit to her country as an ambassador of good will.
County Judge William Hudson spoke in Clarksville at an integrated banquet give for Wilma. With tears in his eyes he said: “If I can overcome my emotions, I’ll make you a speech. Wilma has competed with the world and brought home three medals. If you want to get good music out of a piano, you have to play both white and black keys.”
And in order for America to maintain her leadership in the world, she has to tap all of her resources, utilize all of them. Negroes need America and America needs them.
As one can imagine, race relations in America has improved, but it has been a bumpy road. A few years later, Sports Illustrated caught up with Rudolph on the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and see how domestic life was treating her. While she was busy being a mom, she was also out on the occasional protest.
It was different in May of 1963, when Wilma took part in two demonstrations at Shoney’s, which is considered one of Clarkesville’s finest restaurants although it does not have much more to offer than hamburgers. She was turned away, together with the other Negroes. “I cannot believe it!: she said to a reporter. “Remember the reception they gave me in 1960?” A few months later Clarksville was integrated. (Sports Illustrated, September 7, 1964)
She was by then the Queen of Rome at the 1960 Summer Olympics. American sprinter, Wilma Rudolph, had already won gold in the women’s 100- and 200-meter sprints. But her teammates from the famed Tennessee State Tigerbelles had been left out of the medal count. The 4×100 was their chance to join Rudolph in Olympic glory. And Rudolph, as described in David Maraniss’ fantastic book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, promised to help them get the gold on one condition:
In the warm-up room before the race, the Tigerbelles huddled and prayed together. “Just get me that stick,” Rudolph, who would run the anchor leg, said at the end. “Just get me that stick, and we’re going to get on that stand. We’re going to win that gold medal!” her teammates could barely contain themselves; no jealousy now, just fire burning inside.
Maraniss went on to tell the story how her teammate, Lucinda Williams, in the third leg was going so fast heading into the exchange with the anchor, Rudolph, that they needed two attempts to get Rudolph the baton, at one point Rudolph needing to stop to grab it. In the fumbled exchange, Maraniss wrote that the team lost about a meter to the competition in that moment. But like a locomotive, Rudolph reached the leaders at about 60 meters, and then blew past them to win gold for the team.
Not only did the Tigerbelles share a momentous team victory, Rudolph’s star in Rome and the world went super nova, the first ever American to win three track gold medals in a single Games. When President Kennedy heard that Rudolph was in Washington DC a few months after her return from Rome, he invited Rudolph to the White House and spent so much time talking with her in the Oval Office that he kept his next appointment cooling his heels for thirty minutes.
But as a child, Rudolph, was not the radiant and confident person she was to become. She was born prematurely in 1940, and due to polio, had to deal with a left leg and foot that twisted unnaturally and made it difficult for her to walk. Doctors had her wear braces and special shoes, and she had to be carried from room to room by family members. As one could imagine, to be seen as so different from your family and friends must be so terribly hard on a child. Maraniss wrote:
As Wilma later described her early childhood, she was depressed and lonely at first, especially when she had to watch her brothers and sisters run off to school while she stayed home, burdened with the dead weight of the heavy braces. She felt rejected, she said, and would close her eyes “and just drift into a sinking feeling, going down, down, down.” Soon her loneliness turned to anger. She hated the fact that her peers always teased her. She didn’t like any of her supposed friends. She wondered whether living just meant being sick all the time, and told herself it had to be more than that, and she started fighting back, determined to beat the illness.
Maraniss went on to describe how Rudolph’s condition gradually improved to the point that she was able to secretly remove her braces so she could run around outside with her siblings. And then her parents did something wonderful, presenting Rudolph with a gift so ordinary and yet so life affirming that it transformed the shy, despondent girl into one filled with promise, bursting with energy.
Then one day her father, who did the shopping in the family, came home with regular shoes for Wilma, marking a dramatic change in her life. As Yvonne remembered the scene: “They were no longer the high-top shoes that she had to have with the braces. And my mother took her in to a room all by herself; she didn’t even let us know she had these shoes. And they put them on her, and she came out of the room, and she was beaming all over. It was like she was a whole new little girl. And after that it was like she knew she was not different, and it gave her more confidence at that point.”
After that, you couldn’t stop Rudolph from running. A blur on the basketball courts, she picked up the nickname “Skeeter” because she flitted about so quickly like a mosquito. Her head coach at Tennessee State, Ed Temple, marveled at this determined young woman, but also wasn’t sure if she had everything needed to be a champion. Just prior to the 100-meter finals, Temple hid in the tunnels of the Stadio Olimpico, barely able to see Skeeter in lane 3. Rudolph, a notorious slow starter, fell behind. But he also knew that Rudolph, like today’s sprinting God, Usain Bolt, finished like a locomotive.
According to Maraniss, Temple had to be told that Rudolph had won easily in a blazing 11 second, what would have been a world record if not for the wind. His reaction? “You’re joking.” I’m sure it was a remark born out of ambivalence, that moment when one thinks one has a champion, but is not really sure, until proof is presented on a shining platter. That moment, when Rudolph crossed the tape to become the fastest women in the world, marked that rite of passage for champions, when all doubt is erased, expectations and achievements merge, and all is right in the world.
“I went to Rome in 1960,” Mary Rand explained in this video interview. “I was favored to win the long jump there. Did one of the best qualifying jumps but in the finals I ran through the pit and everything went wrong. And so when we came back to England, the headlines were ‘Flop Flop Flop’. I kinda thought I’m going to pack it in.”
In 1960, Mary Rand was expected to win the gold medal in the women’s long jump, but the 20-year-old cracked under pressure in Rome, and came home to unwanted and unwarranted attention from the press. Here’s how The Times described the press reaction in 1960. “British athletes, you should be ashamed of yourselves,” wrote one newspaper over photographs of those deemed to have failed. Bignal (Rand’s maiden name) was the star failure.”
Rand thought she was done with athletics. After all, she was married with a small daughter. But the call of competition was strong, and Rand found herself preparing the Tokyo Games. When she qualified for the British Olympic Squad, and landed in Tokyo, she was four years older and wiser. And yet, the demons of past failure were still in her head.
In this wonderful profile Rand in the Sunday Times as a run-up to the 2000 Sydney Games, the writer describes a joyful Rand the night before her long jump competition, singing a lullaby she would sing to the daughter she left in London, refusing to allow her roommates to sleep.
“Mary, for crying out loud,” says Mary Peters from the next bed. Her roommates cannot be angry. She sings so beautifully and even now, so late at night, her effervescence bubbles. “I’ll teach you,” she says, “come on, ‘I ullowoost to halowav an alawold banjalawo’, try it.” And so in this small room at the 1964 Olympic Games, four British athletes serenade themselves to sleep.
Sleep? Singing brings them to life. “Mary, I’m going to bang a nail into the wall,” says [Ann] Packer, “and from it I’ll hang the medal you’re going to win. It’ll inspire us to get the other ones.” It’s just a bit of fun but Mary Rand shivers at the mention of winning.
But according to the writer, Rand does not want to sleep, for silence forces her to hear the voices of doubt in her head:
What are you going to do tomorrow Mary, flop like you did in Rome four years ago?”
Outside, Mary hears the rain fall, so loud it could be hailstones: “What will that do to the cinder track, Mary?” She hates not being able to control the voices.
Alone in the darkness, Mary talks to God. “Please,” she pleads, “let me do well tomorrow.
But as it turns out, the 24-year-old version of Rand was made of stronger stuff. In the video interview, Rand reflected on her attitude as she readied herself for the women’s long jump competition, and her refusal to allow her competitors to psych her out during the practice period.
The hardest thing in long jumping in the Olympics is everybody is trying to get their run-ups. The Russians. The Poles. They’re all pushing and shoving, you know? So you have to be pretty tough. I got a couple of jumps in. It was really cold and windy. It was a little nervewracking because in the back of your mind ‘Oh my gosh, this happened four years ago.’ And I know the press were thinking, ‘Is she going to fall apart again.’ And everything went right.
Rand did not run through her mark. She did not foul. She did not crash and burn. In fact, Rand dominated from start to finish in the six rounds of the finals. In the first round, she broke the Olympic record with a leap of 6.59 meters, 35 centimeters further than Diana Yorgova of Bulgaria. In the fifth round, she broke the spirit of all competitors with a world record jump of 6.76 meters.
Like many British and American athletes who were not used to the metric system, she had no idea what that meant in feet and inches. The world record at that time was 21 ft 11.75 in so she had to dig into her bag for the meter to fee conversion table to learn that she became the first woman ever to exceed 22 feet – 22 feet 2 1/4 inches to be exact.
In the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union were finally invited to the Summer Olympic Games. In 1952, with a will to establish the superiority of their system through sport, the Soviets garnered 71 total medals, including 22 golds, to finish second in the medals race.
The first gold went to Nina Ponomareva, who won the women’s discus throw, and glory for her country, setting an Olympic record as well. “Only after I had felt a heavy golden circle in my hand, I realized what happened. I am the first Soviet Olympic Champion, you know, the first record-holder of the 15th Olympiad…Tears were stinging my eyes. How happy I was!
She would go on to win bronze in Melbourne in 1956, and then gold again at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. That’s an impressive track record. Unfortunately, when Ponomareva passed away in August, she was remembered for something else.
In 1956, prior to the Melbourne Games, the Soviets were invited to a bilateral track and field meet between Great Britain and the Soviet Union in London. Ponomareva stepped into a C&A Modes, which The New York Times informed me was a low-priced clothing store on Oxford Street, and was said to have shoplifted. According to the Herald Scotland, Ponomareva was “arrested on charges of shoplifting four feather hats (white, mauve, black, and yellow) plus a red woolen one, costing a total of £1.65.”
When the team manager Konstatin Krupin heard of the arrest this doctor’s wife, teacher and 27-year-old mother, he pulled his team from the competition with Britain. The Bolshoi Ballet, which was headed to London, threatened to cancel their trip if British authorities did not retract the arrest and apologize. The UK Ambassador was summoned to the Kremlin for a good tongue lashing.
Forty four days after the arrest, Ponomareva came out of hiding in the Soviet Embassy. She was found guilty of shoplifting in court and asked to pay three guineas in costs. After that, she went straight to the harbor and got on a ship back home. Later that year, she failed to defend her Olympic championship in Melbourne (finishing third), but rebounded for gold four years later.
It is the legacy of the five hats that lived on beyond her golden glory. According to this obituary in The New York Times, Ponomareva’s name was cited during a debate on Britain’s actions during the Suez Crisis in the House of Commons. Labour member had this to say about the leading party’s foreign policy. “If the (Suez) Canal is vital to us, we take it,” he said. “This is the morality of Nina Ponomareva – ‘I like your hat, I will have it.'”
Andras Toro, four-time Olympian, was one of the most dramatic stories of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. At the age of 24, as his dream of realizing a medal in the 1000-meter singles canoeing event evaporated on Lake Sagami in the semi-finals, the Hungarian made the fateful decision to defect from his homeland, Hungary, to a new land, the United States.
Toro is writing a book on his life and times, and I had the great honor of meeting him in Northern California a few days ago. I will write more detailed posts on his life in the future….but first, let me share some of the memorabilia of an Olympian.
The first photo is of Toro’s bronze medal and jersey he won at the 1960 Rome Olympics in the 500-meter doubles canoeing competition.
The next is a certificate of his fourth place finish in his canoeing event at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. It has the signatures of the head of the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee, Daigoro Yasukawa, and the head of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage. There must have been thousands of these documents. I wonder if they actually signed each one…
Here is a gift sent to him and other Olympians, a traditional Japanese wooden doll, known as “kokeshi“, which was a gift of a student’s association. You can see this particular doll was sent to Toro from a junior high school in Miyagi Prefecture.
The fairly large silk “furoshiki” below was likely handed to many visiting Olympians to the Tokyo Games. A furoshiki is a piece of square material which is a traditional way of wrapping items, like a bento box, with the corners coming together in a knot. This particular furoshiki was also a way for sporting goods manufacturer to market their company.
How about this lovely bottle opener that states it’s a gift of Shinjuku, which is an area where the Olympic Games were being held. The back of the box explains that currency in the time of the Edo Period (some 400 to 500 years ago) were oval in shape and made of gold, and that this particular bottle opener was a talisman of luck. Strangely, the item is called a “can opener”, so luck will definitely be needed if that’s what you’re trying to open.
And of course, there are pins galore. As I have written about previously, trading pins is a common activity at the Olympics. Toro appears to have hundreds if not thousands of pins accumulated over decades of Olympics.
After Toro gained American citizenship, he went on to compete in canoeing as a member of Team USA, as well as fulfill other roles as a canoeing coach for a Team USA and as an executive within the US Olympic Committee.