It certainly was disappointing to see Tokyo2020 postponed to 2021. But my fingers are crossed that the world will still come to Japan in July 2021 for the Olympics, and August, 2021 for the Paralympics.
If the world is able to come to Tokyo next July without concern for their health, leaders will be able to speak out proudly about the resilience of the human spirit, and many will likely agree. On top of the natural celebration of sport and achievement, there will be stories of how individuals, teams and nations overcame the pandemic that will further inspire.
In 1964, the streets of Tokyo were filled with banners proudly proclaiming that the biggest international party was coming to Japan.
In 2020, the streets of Tokyo are again filled with banners for the coming 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
The street banners, as is also the case with the ticket designs, are based on a singular “Look of the Games,” the visual identity formalized by the organizing committee. The foundation of this visual identity is the rectangular shapes that make up the Olympic and Paralympic logos.
One of the street banners in particular had an emotional impact on me the moment I saw it – the dark red on white, with the words Tokyo 2020 in gold. I’m sure this 2020 banner is a direct reference to the first poster released by the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee in 1961, a design by Yusaku Kanemura which was used heavily in artwork for all sorts of collaterals – programs, shirts, banners, for example.
For all of us who fly, it’s a sinking feeling when you arrive in a foreign land and your luggage hasn’t arrived with you. Imagine if you’re an Olympic athlete, and you land without your official uniform, training gear, and other personal belongings. “I was numb with distress,” said Diana Yorgova, a long jumper from Bulgaria. Fortunately, among the Japanese welcoming the Olympians at Haneda Airport were two legendary athletes, Mikio Oda, Japan’s first ever gold medalist, who won the triple jump competition at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, and Chuhei Nambu, who also took gold in the triple jump at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
Nambu came up to Yorgova to comfort her, and told her that it would be OK, that in fact, he too had landed in Los Angeles without his luggage, and had make his first jump barefoot! She understood. But she was still unsettled. That feeling disappeared the next day.
After a sleepless night of worry and jet lag, the new day offered me a pleasant surprise: a huge parcel addressed to me containing a brand new outfit, absolutely my size from spikes and runners to training suit and, moreover, amazingly, a T-shirt with the national state emblem embroidered on it. I was stunned, deeply touched and full of admiration. I wanted to fly with joy because I knew now I was going to participate! In my thoughts I sent thousands of thanks to those Japanese who brought back my self-confidence and dignity and whom I not only didn’t even know but had unwittingly disturbed.
Yorgova would place a respectable sixth in the women’s long jump competition, her medal to come later with a second-placed finish at the 1972 Munich Games. To celebrate her strong performance in her first Olympics, Yorgova and her fiancé, Bulgarian gymnast Nikola Prodanov decided to do some very special shopping: wedding rings. They planned to hold their big day after their graduation from Sofia University on Prodanov’s birthday in May of 1965.
That same day, the couple went to visit the Bulgarian ambassador, Christo Zdravchev. When the ambassador saw the rings, he brought out a bottle of Bulgarian wine and toasted to the couple’s happy future. But then, despite the diplomatic nature of the ambassador’s job, he apparently let the cat out of the bag by informing members of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, who in turn implored the ambassador to request Prodanov and Yorgova to change their plans. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, they enthused, for the young Bulgarian couple to hold their wedding in Japan, in the Olympic Village, during the Olympic Games?
The next day, the ambassador sheepishly approached Prodanov and Yorgova with the surprising request.
“Thus our fairy tale began,” said Yorgova. “I can’t forget the attention and care with which the Japanese ladies of the beauty parlor in the Olympic Village were preparing me for the ceremony. There, for the first time in my life, I had my hair dressed and my nails polished by professionals, who also massaged my scalp and even my arms. When I saw and put on the most beautiful dress of white lace and Nikola put on the first tuxedo in his life we felt like the prince and princess of a fairy tale.”
It was October 23rd, 1964, the day before the closing ceremony. Prodanov and Yorgova were nervous and filled with mixed feelings as this impromptu wedding meant that instead of sharing the moment with families and friends in Bulgaria, they were sharing it with diplomats, administrators and athletes, as well as press from around the world.
With the civil ceremony completed at the Bulgarian Embassy, the couple then embarked on what can only be described as a most original wedding: Western Olympic Shinto.
Japanese who choose a traditional wedding take their vows before a Shinto priest. But this was something more than just a traditional wedding. Held at the Yoyogi Olympic Village International Club, Prodanov in a black morning coat and Yorgova dressed in a white lace gown and veil entered in the glare of television lights and hundreds of flashing cameras, as they came to take their places in front of the presiding priest.
The traditional Shinto arrangements of sake bottles and rice, along with photos of the Olympic cauldron and the ever-present Olympic rings forming their wedding backdrop, were reminders that they were a long way from home in Bulgaria. An interpreter stood by to explain some of the more confusing aspects of the ritual. In Yorgova’s words:
We made our oath of allegiance to the Olympic Flag and a huge poster of the Olympic Flame in the presence of outstanding athletes from all over the world, official guests and journalists. To a background of gentle Shinto music we exchanged our rings, drank three sips of sake, and cut the most magical cake of our lives. At the end, we all danced Bulgarian traditional dances “horo” and “ruchenitsa.”
If one event symbolized the Olympics’ singularly international character, this may have been it.
After the ceremony, the couple were whisked away to the brand-new bullet train to enjoy a honeymoon evening in Kyoto and return to Tokyo the next morning to participate in the closing ceremonies in the afternoon.
Fifty-three years later, Yorgova recalled that magical moment with gratefulness. “As parents and grandparents of four grandchildren, we value the great efforts of the organizers more than ever before, and we apologize most heartedly for the extra anxiety, inconvenience and problems we caused to organize our wedding on such short notice,” she said. “We lived a moment we will never forget, thanks to the kind and gentle people of Japan, so full of goodwill.”
He powered through his long walk, entering the National Stadium first and alone, winning gold in the 20-kilometer walk race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And when Brit Kenneth Matthews reached his goal, his wife Sheila was there to greet him with a joyous hug. She continued to walk with her husband around the track as the crowd cheered. The great race walker from Birmingham died on June 2, 2019. He was 85.
Two-time Olympian and two-time medalist in sailing for USA, Lowell North passed away on June 2, 2019. He was 89. The Springfield, Massachusetts native was one of three crewmen who competed in the Dragon class competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics which won Bronze. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, North partnered with Peter Barrett to take gold in the Star class competition.
Günter Perleberg was paddler who won the silver medal in the kayak K-4 1000 meter competition as a member of the United Team of Germany at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, adding to his gold medal in the K-1 4×500 meter relay won at the 1960 Rome Olympics. An East German from Brandenburg an der Havel, Perleberg defected to West Germany via Austria in 1963, this making his selection for the Unified German team a topic of animosity between the Cold War powers. Perleberg passed away on August 1, 2019, at the age of 84.
American Roy Saari was selected for two different sports for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic: swimming and water polo. Having to choose one, Saari chose swimming where he won silver in the 400-meter individual medley, and gold in the 4×200 freestyle relay. That relay team set a world record. He also held the world record in the 1500-meter freestyle. His father was the famed water polo coach, Urho Saari. Saari passed away on December 30, 2018 at the age of 63.
One of the great Belgian cyclists of the 1960s, Patrick Sercu of Roeselare, West Flanders, took gold in the men’s 1,000-meter time trial at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Racing primarily in the 1960s and 1970s, Sercu won over 1,200 track and road races in his career, including 88 championships in the grueling Six-Day tournaments.
One of New Zealand’s greatest athletes, Sir Peter Snell, passed away on December 12, 2019 at the age of 80. Snell’s heroics started with his gold medal triumph in the 800 meters at the 1960 Rome Olympics. But at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the native of Opunake, New Zealand became the only Olympian since 1920 to win gold in both the 800-meter and 1500-meter distances in the same Olympics.
Yoshihisa Yoshikawa (吉川貴久) was the Chief of Police for Yawata Nishi in his home prefecture of Fukuoka, Japan. But he was more well known as the four-time Olympian, who won bronze medals in men’s free pistol 50 meters at the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Yoshikawa was 83, when he passed away on October 12, 2019, nearly 55 years to the day when he won his second bronze medal in Tokyo.
He made it to the 1960 Rome Olympics as a swimmer for Hungary, but he did not participate. Four years later, Miklós Ambrus made it back to the Olympics on the mighty Hungarian water polo team, which took gold over rival Yugoslavia. Before and after those Olympics, the Eger native was a veteran on the Hungarian water polo teams, earning 55 international caps. Ambrus died on August 3, 2019 at the age of 86.
Karin Balzer of Germany finished in a photo finish, with the same time of 10.5 seconds as two others. But after close examination, with the aid of new timer technology, Balzer was awarded the gold medal in the 80-meter hurdles at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Magdeburg native was a four-time Olympian, including a bronze medal in the 100-meter hurdles at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Balzer passed away on December 17, 2019. She was 81.
The Japanese remember Basil Heatley. His final kick in front of 70,000 fans at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics sent him past Kokichi Tsuburaya at the end of the 42-kilometer marathon, snatching silver from the Japanese hero. Heatley of Kenilworth Warwickshire England was a powerful cross-country runner who set the world record for the marathon in the qualifier for the Tokyo Games. Heatley passed away on August 3, 2019. He was 85.
A four-time Olympian, Ivan Kizimov of Novocherkassk, Russia won four Olympic medals from 1964 to 1976, including a bronze medal in the Mixed Dressage team event. One of the great equestrian dressage riders ever, the 1976 Montreal Games were the only one he did not medal. After retiring competitive dressage, Kizimov became the head coach of the Soviet national dressage team. Kizimov dies on September 22, 2019. He was 91 years old.
Neale Lavis was a two-time Olympian, an equestrian who competed at both the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Olympics. At the Rome Games, he was the youngest member of the Australian eventing team that won gold. He also took silver in the individual eventing event in Rome. The native of Murwillumbah, New South Wales rode a horse called Cooma, which he bought for 100 pounds, and refused an offer of 10,000 pounds after the Olympics. Lavis passed away on October 6, 2019. He was 89.
A native of Salt Lake City, Blaine Lindgren won the silver medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He was initially awarded gold but after 45 minutes of intensive review, first place was given to American teammate Hayes Jones. Lindgren passed away on October 5, 2019. He was 80.
The Norfolk, Virginia native, Thompson Mann, was the fastest backstroker in the world when he set the 100 meter world record at exactly 60 seconds in September, 1964. A few weeks later, he was the lead leg in the 4×100 meter medley relay at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. His backstroke that kicked off Team USA’s relay was timed at 59.6 seconds, making him the first person ever to break the 60-second barrier in the backstroke, helping his team to a world record time of 3:58.4, the first time ever for the medley relay under 4 minutes. Mann, who was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1984, passed away on April 4, 2019. He was 76.
He had recently arrived that first week of October, 1964, and was feeling crappy. Peter Snell was not peaking in time for the Tokyo Olympics.
“I had a form of claustrophobia for the first few days in Japan,” wrote Snell in his autobiography, No Bugles No Drums. “The weather wasn’t too good, it was a strange country with a vast population and I was feeling depressed. I spent the fourth day in bed with a slight temperature and a very sick feeling. I was able to jog the fifth day and eventually got back on to my schedule but at this stage John (his teammate) was going particularly well and I was finding it hard to keep up with him.”
And yet, the 1960 800-meter champion at the Rome Olympics went on to achieve legendary status at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: not only becoming one of four Olympians ever to win back-to-back 800-meter Olympic championships, but also being the only Olympian since 1920 to win gold in both the 800-meter and 1500-meter distances in the same Olympics.
The Japanese were buying televisions, this magical device that brought the world into their homes. And with the Tokyo Olympics arriving in October, 1964, sales for color television were soaring like their pride in hosting the Olympics.
The Tokyo Games had a massive impact on the psyche of the Japanese – no event in the history of Japan was viewed as much by as many people. Reports of television ratings in Japan vary wildly depending on the source. One source explains that over 75 million people watched some part of the Olympics over the two-week period, for a rating of 97.3%. That’s amazing since the population in Japan at the time was about 100 million.
Another source explains that three of the four highest rated programs in Japan in 1964 were related to the Olympics:
15th NHK Red and White Song Battle (NHK General, December 31) 72.0%
Tokyo Olympic and Volleyball Women’s Final “Japan vs Soviet Union” (NHK General, October 23) 66.8%
Tokyo Olympics Closing Ceremony (NHK General, October 24, 16: 52-18: 20) 63.2%
Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony (NHK General, October 10 13: 43-15: 20) 61.2%
But I suspect this list from Wikipedia is misleading as it focuses on ratings for one channel. The number one program, the annual new year’s eve programming (Red and White Song Battle) was broadcast only on NHK. But the Tokyo Olympics, on the whole, was broadcasted on multiple channels, sometimes up to five channels covering the same event. That was the case for the Opening and Closing ceremonies, as well as the highest rated event during the Olympics – the women’s volleyball final – when the Japanese defeated the Soviet Union to win gold.
One can say, with little exaggeration, that nearly everyone in Japan was watching that match.
Think about that – when was the last time an entire nation’s eyes were watching the same exact thing, united in their attention and feelings? In recent years, I can think of only moments of disaster and distress: 9.11 in the US or 3.11 in Japan.
In terms of uplifting moments, never was Japan more united, or prouder, than at 9 pm on October 23, 1964, when the final point sealed the victory for the Witches of the Orient, as the women’s basketball team was affectionately called.
I must admit. I believe I felt a bit of that unity and pride 55 years later, in September and October 2019. The Rugby World Cup is currently being held for the first time in Asia, and the host country, Japan has the only Asian representative in the tournament.
Japan kicked off the tournament on September 20, 2019, defeating Russia 30-10. The television rating was 18.3%, attracting a peak of 26 million viewers. On September 28, Japan pulled off an upset, upending Ireland 19-12, igniting celebrations across the country, and sending ratings higher with 29.5 million viewers. As excitement and expectations noticeably grew among casual and non-rugby fans, viewers of the Japan-Samoa match on October 5 climbed to 47 million.
With three wins in hand during the tournament pool plan, a Japan victory against Scotland would send Japan into the Top 8 for the first time. Nervous but hopeful, over 54 million people were tuned into to watch, attracting a peak rating of 53.7% at the end of the match, when Japan realized their dream of advancement into the elimination round.
Alas, the Brave Blossoms could not survive the South African python that squeezed the life out of the Japanese ruggers. Ratings during the course of the match suffered as viewers realized that the impossible dream was indeed just a dream.
But the dream is the thing. Japan was living a dream vicariously through the incredible energy and surprising skill of the Brave Blossoms – these upstarts turned world beaters.
Is the 2019 Rugby World Cup a sign of things to come? Will the 2020 Tokyo Olympics raise expectations of triumph and pride? Will Japanese heroes emerge to capture the imagination of children and adults across the nation? Will the Olympics unite Japan in a way that exceeds the unity inspired by the Japanese ruggers?
There is little doubt in my mind – the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will bring the nation together.
At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the kayakers and canoeists landed at Haneda Airport like most other Olympians, but then were whisked off to Sagamihara, about sixty kilometers west of Tokyo. The competitions for the canoeists and kayakers were to be held at Lake Sagami, a man-made reservoir in an idyllic setting developed for tourists.
To Andras Toro, it was dreamlike:
Lake Sagami was a magical place with all the oriental beauty we had only seen before in magazines…the morning mist that rose along the shoreline was beautifully surreal.
It was the perfect setting for Cold War intrigue.
Since the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Toro and his friends in the Honved Canoe Club in Budapest had given serious thought to defecting from their country, as long as it was under the hammer (and sickle) of the Soviet Union. In fact, many of his friends did indeed defect, taking advantage of their participation at the 1956 Melbourne Games.
But Toro didn’t go to Melbourne. And his bronze medal finish at the 1960 Rome Olympics only fanned the flames of his desire to win in Tokyo. Competing in the individual 1,000-meter event, Toro had his sights set on the gold. But he also smelled an opportunity—that if he did not win a medal, he would seriously consider defecting to the West.
Just saying that you want to defect, however, doesn’t make it happen. There is no defector’s manual. Who do you contact? What country would take you? How do you avoid the ears and eyes of your country’s minders? Toro spoke almost no English. Who would he even start this conversation with?
And yet, when you want something, as Paulo Coelho famously put it in his novel, The Alchemist, “all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
Off the foggy banks of Lake Sagami, the universe began to conspire for Andras Toro.
In the tiny community of Olympic canoeists and kayakers emerged quite unexpectedly a friend of Toro’s, Andor Elbert. Friends since their teenage years in the Honved Canoe Club in Budapest, Elbert had defected to Canada eight years prior, and was representing Canada at the 1964 Olympics. Toro, shielded behind his Hungarian minders, was of course never informed that a defector had made the Olympic squad on another nation’s team.
Then an American kayaker named Bill Smoke entered the picture. He was at Lake Sagami to compete for the US Olympic squad, but he was also looking for talent. Smoke lived in Michigan, famous for its lakes and love of boating of all kinds, and he hoped to find someone who could build canoes and kayaks so that he could start a business back home.
Smoke walked over to the Canadian dorms looking for someone who spoke English and happened to have that conversation with Elbert. Smoke wondered if Elbert knew anyone in Canada who might be willing to help him out. As a matter of fact, Elbert did know someone, but he wasn’t from Canada.
Elbert told Smoke that his friend Toro was not only good at designing and building boats, he was also hoping to defect from Hungary. Smoke in turn talked with US teammate and then-girlfriend, Marcia Jones, who was in Japan also competing in individual canoeing. She turned out to be a key connection, as her mother was Mary Francis, an attorney, one of two women to graduate from the University of Michigan Law School in 1929. She was also sympathetic to people who had to leave their home countries.
Jones said that when she was ten, they had a DP, or displaced person, couple from Latvia stay with them. “The government brought them over here,” she said. “My mother sponsored them. They lived at our place. They went to our schools. She wanted to help them out. She was a very generous person and we could afford to help them.”
When Jones told her mother about Toro, Mary Francis got to work, contacting the US Embassy in Tokyo to seek their help. According to Smoke, who eventually married Jones, his future mother-in-law was not someone you could say no to easily. Francis was able to set up a meeting for Toro at the Embassy.
So very suddenly, all of the pieces fell into place. Toro was ready to defect, resigned to most likely never seeing his family and home country ever again, but with hopes of starting anew in a new land. All that remained, strangely enough, was for him to lose.
In 1959, when Tokyo was awarded the XVIII Olympiad by the IOC, Seiko’s President, Shoji Hattori, was determined to make Seiko the official timer of the Olympic Games. In 1960, he sent a telegram to one of his watch design section managers, Saburo Inoue, with instructions that would forever change the fate of the Japanese watch company—”Intend to handle official timing duties. Go to Rome Olympics in August and observe timing procedures.”
Inoue was deeply skeptical of the idea, and for good reason. “I’d never seen timing devices for the Olympics,” he said. “I didn’t know how they used their stopwatches, or what types they would need. We couldn’t do computer simulations, so we had to work out every single thing by trial and error.”
But again, as explained in the 2012 The Daily Telegraph article, ignorance proved to be bliss.
In those days, it was the prerogative of the local organizing committee to select the company that would supply the timers, and it was likely they would choose the tried-and-true Swiss watchmakers—Omega or Longines. Up till then, they were the only firms trusted with ensuring accurate times in Olympic competition.
In contrast, Seiko’s experience in building timers specifically for sports was zero. Such was the confidence of Hattori and Japan at the time—that anything was possible if they tried.
Without assurance of a contract for the Olympics, Hattori asked his three group companies to work on Olympic-related projects: large clocks, stopwatches, crystal chronometers, and a new idea, a device that could print the times of competitors right after the end of a race. They were called printing timers, and this revolutionized the way results of competitions were determined.
In only two years, Seiko was producing sports stopwatches that passed the standards of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Technical Committee. In a track and field competition in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, the IAAF was witness to a successful test, as the Japanese-made stopwatches proved accurate and reliable.
Seiko had already successfully developed quartz technology for small watches, and used this crystal technology for long distance races, like the marathon among others. Developing this quartz technology was key to developing Seiko wristwatches of the future that would stay accurate over longer periods of time.
More significantly, perhaps for the athletes, was Seiko’s development of the printing timer, a machine that would electronically time and print the results of an event, up to 1/100 of a second for track events.
This machine had a significant impact on a high-visibility competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics—the women’s 80-meter hurdles final.
On October 19, at the National Stadium, Karin Balzer of Germany and Teresa Cieply of Poland settled into their starting blocks. When the pistol shot rang, an electric signal was sent via wire to a printing timer, as well as a signal to a camera that would take special photo finish pictures, and a signal to a large spectator clock that set the second-hand in motion.
In a stunning finish, Balzer, Cieply, and Australian Pam Kilborn hit the tape seemingly in a dead heat, all three timed by officials at 10.5 seconds. Despite numerous officials with hand stopwatches that measured in tenths of seconds, officials could not determine a winner.
The officials preferred not to hand out three gold medals, and fortunately, had a fallback plan—the latest timing technology from Japan.
When the runners arrived at the goal, a picture was taken by a slit camera, manufactured by Japan Photo Finish Co. Ltd. After thirty seconds, the image’s negative was transmitted as a reflected image, and converted in three minutes to a positive print. The information from Seiko’s printing timer was integrated into an image noting times in hundredths of seconds. The photo would show not only the athletes, but time, and thus the order in which they finished.
Thanks to the printing timer, it was revealed that Balzer completed the race in 10.54 seconds, 0.01 seconds ahead of Cieply, who was also only 0.01 seconds ahead of Kilborn. While the IAAF officially recognized times to the tenth of a second, in this case, they accepted the recorded electronic time to the hundredth.
The printing timer contributed mightily to the evolution of timed sports, and led to the creation of the famed, global printing company—EPSON—its name a simple mash-up of the words “son of electronic printer.”