The opening ceremony was fantastic! Spectacular! The reception was extremely good and clear. The pictures are very sharp all the way through, unbelievable! – letter from Sayoko to Thomas Tomizawa on October 10, 1964
The above reviewer, my mother, was clearly biased. Sayoko was a Japanese native of Tochigi who met a 2nd generation Japanese-American named Thomas in Tokyo in 1958, got married, and moved to the United States. Thomas was in Tokyo during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, working for NBC News, which broadcasted the Summer Games to America.
In another letter a week later, my mother wrote to my father, “I have seen the Olympic show tonight 5~7 pm. I see your name every other day. Miura-san’s sister’s friends are watching the show every night. Yoko-san said ‘Tomizawa-san no go-shujin no namae ga deruwa yo!’ (Tomizawa-san’s name is coming up on the credits!)”
My mother, who passed away in May of this year, wrote several letters to her husband while he was working in Tokyo. She wrote about the errands she ran: buying replacement light bulbs for the refrigerator at Woolworths, setting a dentist’s appointment for her 5-year-old, Mike, picking up the daily newspaper for her husband, paying the phone bill.
She worried about an ongoing school bus strike that was inconveniencing all the parents. She complained that Mike’s teacher was giving too much candy to the kids. And she bemoaned the fact that her son, Roy, was crying so often she couldn’t take any decent pictures to send her husband.
I had turned one years old at the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And while I had no idea what the Olympics were then, I have a pretty good idea now. (See book.)
If 1964 were a French dessert, it was a splendid Millefeuille with airy, flaky layers sandwiching luscious cream and fresh strawberries. 2020 was a deflated Soufflé.
It was this time 7 years ago when I started researching the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
My vision was clear: write the definitive book in English on a defining moment in modern Japanese history, meet amazing people, be a talking head during Tokyo2020, and have total access to the Games.
My dream was vivid: sit in the stands with Olympians I interviewed, watching the 2020 Olympics and reminiscing about the 1964 Olympics.
Much of my vision was realized. My dream was not.
COVID-19 was simply a hurdle too high. With over 5 million deaths globally, and unfathomable heartbreak, the pandemic made a mockery of our pre-COVID priorities.
Had the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics been scheduled for Rio or Paris or LA, I believe the Games would have been cancelled: local political will would have wilted in the tired face of surging infection and death rates.
The Games Must Go On
Japan was different.
There were no lock downs in Japan. In fact, in the months from May to June of this year, infection rates in Tokyo were decreasing as athlete training was accelerating. There were great expectations that Japan would live up to its reputation as a “safe pair of hands,” hands that would ensure the health, safety and fair competition for athletes from around the world.
And under those tremulous conditions, the Government of Japan and the organizers summoned up enough political will to continue to say, “the show must go on.”
The Olympics and Paralympics, after a year’s postponement, did take place. The greatest compromise the organizers made with the circumstances was to ban spectators from sporting events and greatly restrict the movement of foreign athletes, coaches, officials, support staff and press – a move that furthered dampened the spirits of those anticipating the Games.
In the days just prior to the start of the Olympic Games, there were protests calling for the cancelation of the Games. Only one day before the Olympics opening ceremony, Ariake, the man-made islands where much of the Tokyo2020 competition would take place, was like a ghost town.
But on the afternoon of Friday, July 23, 2021, hours before the start of the Olympics, the aerial acrobatic jet team called The Blue Impulse flew over the center of Tokyo painting the Olympic rings in the sky to the delight of growing crowds, just as they did on October 10, 1964.
People began buzzing about the stadium, fighting for photo ops in front of the Olympic rings, and setting up camp for the evening. They wouldn’t be allowed in the stadium. But they knew they could watch the ceremony fireworks and drone show from anywhere around the stadium. And despite the occasional shout of protest, no one was going to stop them from joining the fun.
Over the course of the Olympics and Paralympics, the news cycle in Japan featured more stories about Team Japan and its historic Olympic medal rush (58 total, 27 gold) than the number of infections in Tokyo (which happened to peak at the exact same time as the Olympics and Paralympics). Japanese women, in fact, shined more brightly than the men.
It’s the Journey
I did not attend any Tokyo2020 sporting events, despite holding a great number of tickets. But I met friends and acquaintances from overseas here and there. And thanks to my book, I appeared on CBS and NBC in the US, CBC in Canada, NHK in Japan, countless times on BBC radio in the UK, as well as Danish and Brazilian television.
The highlight of these Olympics for me was when I organized and hosted, on behalf of the World Olympians Association, a panel of athletes who competed at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games, walking with them down memory lane, recalling the historic enormity of that Olympiad, the magical moments of competition, and the graciousness of their Japanese hosts. (See video below.)
When I started this journey nearly 7 years ago, I did not achieve everything I had hoped for at Tokyo2020. Nobody could under the circumstances.
But I remind myself of this age-old adage: it is not the destination. It is the journey.
Along this journey, I have met hundreds of athletes, coaches, Olympic and Paralympic committee administrators, sports marketers, journalists and academics – people who have enriched my understanding of the world, and of humanity.
It’s the 57th anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
That’s right, a Summer Games in Autumn. The XVIII Olympiad was held in October to avoid, presumably to avoid the heat or typhoons of August. October is certainly cooler in Tokyo. But it is also wetter. In fact, October is the month Tokyo has the most rainfall.
And it rained a lot during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And because it rained, the cooler temperatures seemed colder. In the case of road cyclists in Hachioji, it is said they could see their breath as they raced in the rain. The cinder tracks were a muddy mess. Umbrellas were de rigeur.
I recently purchased hard copy black and white photographs of those Games. Here are a few featuring people braving the rain, because a rainy day at the Olympics is better than a sunny day at the office.
Ever since he remembered, he loved track. Little Wendell Mottley would tag along with his dad, who was in a local athletic association in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. As he got older, he began to run in competitions sponsored by the oil companies that had refineries on that Caribbean island.
“These refineries would give off a certain smell,” Mottley told me. “And as I got closer, that smell would trigger adrenaline.”
At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the adrenaline was pumping. Mottley was all grown up, former captain of the Yale track team, and representing the upstart track team of a country that established its independence only two years before. “We were ambitious and we thought we had a chance to bring down the big boys – the USA.”
As Mottley waited for Edwin Skinner to hand him the baton for the anchor leg of the 4×400 relay race finals, he knew he had a chance to upset the Americans. By the time he got the baton, Trinidad and Tobago was already in second, but the Jamaican, George Kerr, was just inside of Mottley and created a bit of havoc for Mottley.
“I tried to run around him, but he flailed the baton so much that I had to run very wide of him, and those extra steps in a race of that quality cost us,” Mottley said. “When I came around in the final lap, I was tiring, and that allowed Robbie Brightwell of Great Britain to run past me, and we ended with a bronze medal.”
Mottley won a silver medal in the 400-meter sprint as well at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but he lost his heart to Japan.
The first time he came to Japan was for the Olympics. He knew very little about the country, except WWII and kamikaze pilots. And ikebana. Mottley is a lover of flowers, and he enjoyed the flower arrangements he saw wherever he went.
“Tokyo blew my mind,” he said. “To see the chrysanthemum all laid out in their glory – what a people to be able to do this, I thought. I was also struck by Japanese landscaping, particularly Japanese gardens, the brushing of the sand and stone, and the spare architecture. I had read about these things as a hobbyist, but I was amazed when I saw these things in person.”
Observing the care that went into the gardens and the flower arrangement, as well as how organized the Games were, nothing like he had seen at track meets in the US or Europe, he came to this realization: “It must take a very disciplined people to do these things.”
As a teenager, Mottley had a life-changing turn of luck.
Running at yet another high school meet, a track coach from Loughborough University in the UK said he knew another track coach at Yale University in the US, and would young Mottley be interested in running track there. Mottley applied and was accepted into Yale, and the head of track for the Elis was legendary coach, Bob Giegengack, who ended up being the US track coach for Team USA in 1964.
“For this coach from the UK, who knew another coach in the US who might be interested, to see me run in Trinidad and Tobago, the stars had to align for this to have happened,” Mottley remarked.
But after getting to Yale, luck would not be enough. Mottley would learn a life-long lesson in the value and impact of discipline.
Mottley was a sprinter, but Giegengack also had him run cross country, which he hated. In the winter, too cold for the boy from the tropics, he competed at indoor meets, when arenas were filled with cigarette smoke. “After running 600 meters, it felt like someone took a pitchfork to your lungs.” Then it was back to outdoor running in the Spring.
Every day was full.
“You get up in the morning, have breakfast, and take classes because at Yale there were no concessions for athletes,” he said. “Then we trained from 2 to 5:30 pm, had dinner at 6, and then studied. It was a disciplined process, a rhythm of life. All of those years of training, that was tough work for a kid coming out of the tropics. But it served me well for the rest of the life.”
Life Goes On
Mottley recalled the moments just prior to the start of the finals of the individual 400-meter sprint at the Tokyo Olympics. The athletes were inside the bowels of the stadium, the nerves of the competitors palpable. The officials were nervous, checking to make sure the right people were there at the right time. The runners were nervous as they began to hear and feel the buzz of the crowd.
“You emerge into the sunlight, the crowd is roaring, and the nervousness climbs, and all things race through your mind,” he explained. “Then you start hammering in your starting blocks, and suddenly everything gets shut out and the focus comes back. It’s silent. You’re absolutely focused, bam, and the race is on.”
After Mottley wins his silver medal at the end of the race, he sees Coach Giegengack, who gives him a salute. “That’s it. It’s relief that it’s all over.”
Mottley ended his track career a year later, going on to an amazing career in government, serving as Finance Minister for his country in the 1990s, and then in financial services as a senior advisor and investment banker at Credit Suisse.
But before he left his sporting life behind, he had one more score to settle. It was August, 1966, and Trinidad and Tobago was competing at the 8th British Empire and Commonwealth Games, which were being held in Kingston, Jamaica.
Mottley, with 1964 Tokyo teammates Kent Bernard and Edwin Roberts, joined by Lennox Yearwood faced off against Jamaica on their home turf in the 4X400-yard relay. Mottley had an agenda. He remembered how Kerr swung the baton and forced him wide in Tokyo.
So when Mottley completed the anchor leg of the finals, Team Trinidad and Tobago not only beat Team Jamaica, they set a world record, a coda to a great career in track.
The closer we get to the start, the farther we grow apart. Will Tokyo2020 be the Inclusion Games, or the Exclusion Games? Here’s an article I wrote for “Tokyo Updates.”
She was five years old, and she watched the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics with amazement.
Jackie Joyner Kersee! Carl Lewis!
And so Megumi Ikeda thought one day, this little girl from Nanyo, Yamagata in northern Japan would be as fast and as cool as Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
As it turned out, Ikeda (née Harada) simply didn’t have the athletic gifts to excel in track and field. And yet, the flame of high performance can be sparked in unexpected ways. Ikeda would go on to represent Japan at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the Beijing Olympics in individual épée fencing.
Fencing is an old sport, but it is not a money-making sport. People don’t fill arenas around the world to watch fencing, wrestling, weightlifting, curling, hammer throwing, cross-country skiing, or the luge.
But every four years, billions of people watch the Summer and Winter Olympic Games.
Why do so many people watch the Olympics?
So many people watch the Olympics because they become witness to the very best athletes in the world. Human senses are lifted to their keenest. Human physicality is stretched to its limits. Human desire swells up from the deepest recesses of one’s will.
Sport, like painting, singing, dancing, acting and writing is an act of human expression. Like a sculptor in an attic, a rock band in a basement, or actors in a park, kids on the street playing football are expressing themselves.
At the Olympics, sport is art. The Olympics provide highly skilled, highly trained athletes an… (to read more, click on this link.)
Bill Barry was back in Tokyo. A silver-medalist for Great Britain in the coxless four rowing competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Barry flew into Japan as the coach of one of the rowers competing to qualify for Tokyo2020.
Amidst a State of Emergency in Tokyo, around 100 athletes, coaches and staff from 25 countries converged on Tokyo Bay for the Asia and Oceania Olympic and Paralympic Rowing Qualifier, which took place at the Sea Forest Waterway from May 5 to 7, 2021.
Barry was grateful to be here. Chungju, Korea was originally scheduled to host this qualifier in 2020, but they cancelled it with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shanghai was a possible venue before China declined to host. That’s when the Japanese government stepped in and made the qualifier possible.
“It’s a miracle it took place,” said Barry, was the national rowing coach for Great Britain at the Athens, Beijing and London Olympics. “It was turned down in Korea and China and the Japanese government came to the rescue. That’s fantastic, considering the feelings of concern of the Japanese people.”
Except for a windy Wednesday of “white horse” waves, which forced organizers to postpone the competition one day, the event’s conditions and organization were perfect. “It’s been great,” said Barry, who was coaching Husein Alireza, a rower from Saudi Arabia. “The people have bent over backwards. It’s been incredibly well organized, to the last detail.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was one reported case of a staff person from Sri Lanka who tested positive for COVID on May 5. According to World Rowing, safety protocol kicked in, and other members of the Sri Lanka team were immediately tested.
The competitors and related coaches and staff are all a part of an extended bubble that envelops the visitors from airport to hotel to venue to hotel to airport, a smaller scale example of the more complex bubble that will protect the 15,000 plus athletes and para-athletes and support personnel this summer for Tokyo2020.
Barry said that the visiting teams spent three hours at Haneda Airport, going from station to station, answering questions, getting a covid test and filling in forms.
“I gave my address, telephone and email information many times,” said Barry. “They checked everything. Security was super tight. But it’s got to be done and done properly. And it was.”
Barry said they had to download three applications onto their phones, one that was to indicate where you were, and two others where one had to self-report on one’s health, and in Barry’s case, also one to report on the health of one’s team.
From Haneda Airport, the teams were transported in individual buses to the Hearton Hotel on the edge of Tokyo Bay. They were not allowed to leave the hotel except for travel to the rowing venue. Protocol required the wearing of masks and social distance (of course), travel only within teams, one person per hotel room, meals taken alone, and repeated testing.
“We were tested when we arrived, the day before a racing event, and when we left,” said Barry. “Since the day my rower was competing was postponed, I had to get tested twice for competitions.”
The morning after the competition ended on May 7, Barry was headed to the airport and home. He was grateful to be back in Japan, and optimistic about Japan’s ability to host the Olympics.
“You wouldn’t think there was a problem,” he said. “Everyone enjoyed it. Everybody praised the organization, the volunteers, the Japanese Government, Japan Rowing Association, they all put on a great show.”
Wherever they went, they drew huge, enthusiastic crowds.
It was the summer of 1964. Young men and women wearing white tops with the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Emblem, looking something akin to the Japanese flag, ran through the streets, calling to the crowds that the Olympics were coming to Asia.
This was only 19 years after a time when Japanese troops carried their nation’s flag in battlefields of Asia.
Akiko Kuno was a 24-year old Japanese woman working in the Olympic Organizing Committee’s public relations department, and was selected as a member of the Overseas Olympic Torch Relay Mission. This relay wended its way through Okinawa and then Japan, before ending at the Opening Ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics in the National Stadium.
Kuno, who joined the mission from India, was concerned about the reception the Japanese would get in South East Asia.
The young runners, in cities like Yangon (then Rangoon) and Bangkok ran with a uniform that had the hinomaruon it. At the airport, when we parted I can’t forget what they said. They told me proudly that this was going to be Asia’s first Olympics. They said their hope was that Japan, which lost a war but recovered, can be a model of success, so that one day their own country could one day host an Olympics. “That is the dream that this torch relay gives us,” they told me.
Kuno was one of the few Japanese present to witness a near perfect execution of geopolitical “soft power” in a time when the phrase didn’t exist. She was part of a team of roughly 40, members of the Olympic Organizing Committee (OOC), a JAL crew of pilots, engineers and a stewardess, as well as the Japanese media. They journeyed together for 40 days during the international torch relay that started in Greece on August 21, and passed through Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, India, Myanmar (then Burma), Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Okinawa.
A Dream Job
It was March, 1964 and Kuno had graduated from Keio University. While most of her friends got married after graduation, Kuno wanted to be part of the Olympics. She had good English skills, having studied at Stanford University in California as well as Hope College in Michigan. Equally important, her father was a good friend of Kazushige Hirasawa, a diplomat and an influential senior journalist with NHK, who helped Japan land the 1959 bid for the 1964 Olympics with an inspiring speech.
With Hirasawa’s help, Kuno became a staff member of the Olympic Organizing Committee, which was located in the Akasaka Rikyu Palace, the residence of the Crown Prince before the war. She was assigned to the public relations department, which was located in the study of the Crown Prince.
Kuno had several duties. She took visiting International Olympic Committee (IOC) and National Olympic Committee officials on tours of the various venues that workers were rushing to complete in time for the Games. She coordinated with the international news agencies. For nations that were sending athletes but did not have diplomatic relations with or embassies in Japan, she sourced English-speaking Japanese men who belonged to the Junior Chamber International Japan, people who had the time and means to assist the people from those countries.
And she was asked to take care of the most senior person in the Olympic movement – Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee. Kuno said she was routinely asked to take dictation and type up documents for him, not an easy task for a famous taskmaster.
He said type this and that, and there were a lot of mistakes. I was so scared. I never worked as a secretary. Brundage had a warm heart but he did not smile and he had a short temper.
Of course, when Brundage flawlessly delivered his speech, in Japanese, soliciting the Emperor of Japan to open the Tokyo Olympics, he thanked Kuno for her support in making sure his pronunciation was well practiced.
The Sacred Mission
One day in July, 1964, her role suddenly expanded. Kuno’s supervisor came up to give her an order – that she would be assigned to the overseas torch relay mission. Her only thought? “YAY!”
The Japanese mission that oversaw the operations of the international torch relay traveled together with the sacred Olympic flame, their journey spanning 12 countries and about 16,000 kilometers. This meant that they had to journey by plane. They flew on a DC-6B, a prop plane called “City of Tokyo,” which was outfitted with special safety measures to carry two specially designed containers filled with kerosene and modeled on the design of a coal-mine safety lamp.
Kuno was one of two English interpreters on the team. The first one traveled with the team from Greece to India. Kuno relieved her in Calcutta, India and took responsibility for the second half of the international torch relay. She explained the daily plan.
The City of Tokyo arrives in the destination’s airport.
Fumio Takashima, the OOC chairman of the Olympic Torch Relay Committee, lights a torch from the flame of the safety lamp.
A local dignitary or the NOC Head waits with an unlit torch and Takashima lights his torch.
Then he passes the flame to the first actual local runner.
The runners follow a route to the national stadium of that country, or a city hall or a large public space with a big stand.
The evening included a reception where members of the torch relay mission dined and mingled with the local dignitaries. (Kuno translated for Takashima during these events.)
The next day was the process in reverse, where runners followed the same route back to the airport. According to Kuno, on average, there were about 15 runners one way, and another 15 on the return, although there were also official runners who accompanied the torch bearer.
All the runners were young men and women, their uniforms and the torches donated to them by the Tokyo OOC.
During the course of the relay, the roads were filled with spectators hoping to get a glimpse of the Olympic flame. The organizers escorted the runners with cars preceding and following the torch bearer. Kuno, who was always in the car behind, was particularly anxious during those times.
The fuel within the torch, a mixture of red phosphorus, manganese dioxide and magnesium burned a flare-like red for only 6 minutes. Kuno’s mission was to make sure that the runner got to the next runner within 6 minutes. Having the sacred flame fizzle out in front of thousands would have been humiliating. It wasn’t going to happen on her watch.
The crowd came out onto the road. My job was open the window say in English, “GET AWAY!” And when that didn’t work, I shouted in Japanese, “DOITE!” That got their attention. And the flame never died out.
Kuno remarked that every member of the mission felt it was imperative that the flame never go out during the relay. She said that the President of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, Yasukawa Daigoro, took exceptional risk management measures. After the flame was ignited by the sun in a ceremony in Olympia, Greece, he made sure that he got a part of that flame, which he kept on his person.
In those days, Japanese would keep warm on cold evenings with metal mini-heaters the size of a lighter called kairo, which contained a piece of heated charcoal. According to Kuno, Yasukawa, who did not accompany the international tour, ignited a flame for his kairo, and put it in his pocket…just in case the DC-6 City of Tokyo crashed.
Kuno said she was saddened to see the flame go out twice in Fukushima during the start of the Tokyo2020 Torch Relay. For her, the flame represents a powerful symbol for humanity that should never go out.
While working as a part of the torch relay mission, I was so occupied with my responsibility to not let the flame die out. I remember I was so moved to see all these excited people on the streets. I think they saw the flame as a symbol of eternal peace and hope. Throughout the relay, I felt that Asian people were united with the same hope and dream – that war will never happen again.
It is time to remember Olympians who participated at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and passed away in 2020. I’ve been able to identify 37 such Olympians, a few I knew personally. They were medalists and participants from all parts of the world, and a wide variety of sport. And in this annus horribilis, several were victims to coronavirus. They will be missed.
Here they are, in alphabetical order by last name.
Csaba Ali swam for team Hungary at the 1964 Toyo Olympics, in the men’s 4×200 meter freestyle relay as well as the 400 meter individual medley. He passed away on December 27, 2020 at the age of 74.
Fernando Atzori won the gold medal in flyweight boxing at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. From a small town called Ales in Sardinia, Italy. Atzori taught himself boxing, went on to be an Olympic champion as well as a European flyweight champion as a professional in 1967, defending his championship nine times before losing it in 1972. After a long illness, Atzori died on November 9, 2020 at the age of 78.
Kazim Ayvaz, three-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler from Turkey, died on January 18, 2020 in Heisingborg, Sweden. A native of Rize, Ayvaz won the gold medal in lightweight Greco-Roman wrestling for Turkey at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He also competed at the 1960 and 1968 Summer Olympics. Ayvaz continued to wrestle until 1969 and was inducted into the FILA International Wrestling Hall of Fame in September 2011. He was 81.
Cliff Bertrand was a sprinter from Trinidad and Tobago, and he was a fellow New Yorker, running track at New York University, where he got his master’s degree. He got his Doctor of Education degree from Columbia University, as well as a law degree at Queens College. Bertrand ran in the men’s 200 meters and 4×400 meters relay team for Trinidad and Tobago at both the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Bertrand died in Long Island City, NY on November 28, 2020.
Heinfried Birlenbach was a shot putter from West Germany, a three-time Olympian who competed at the Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich Summer Olympics. According to his profile, Birlenbach was “an educated draftsman, then gas station attendant, petrol station owner, owner of a sauna company, and eventually became an insurance businessman,” in addition to being an “avid discus thrower and weightlifter.” The man who was born in the city of Birlenbach, died there on November 11, 2020, a few weeks from turning 80.
Tony Blue was a member of the Australian track and field team, competing in the 800 meters at the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. He also competed in the 4×400 meters relay in Tokyo. He would go on to get his medical degree and practice medicine in Brisbane. The doctor from Dubbo died on October 1, 2020. He was 84 years old.
Miguelina Cobián of Cuba passed away on December 1, 2019 in Havana. She was 77 years old. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, she was the first Cuban ever to reach an Olympic sprint final, finishing fifth in the 100 meters. She was also on the Cuban 4×100 meter relay team that took silver behind the United States at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. It is said that the great Czech runner, Emil Zátopek discovered her, and actually trained her early in her career.
Ernesto Contreras was a cyclist representing Argentina, who raced in three Olympics, from 1960 to 1968. Competing in the 4000 meter Team Pursuit in all three Olympiads, as well as the 100 kilometer Team Time Trial in 1968. Contreras was one of Argentina’s best known cyclists. He was born in Medrano, and died in Mendoza on October 25, 2020. He was 83.
Manuel da Costa was a competitor in the 50-meter rifle, prone, representing Portugal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He was a 44-year-old Olympian, who didn’t start shooting until he was 41 years old. He died on April 20, 2020, 93 years young.
Osvaldo Cochrane Filho was a member of the Brazilian water polo team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Born in Vitoria, Brazil, Filho passed away at the age of 87 on December 9, 2020 from the effects of COVID-19.
Armando “Chaparro” Herrera was the captain of the Mexican national basketball team who led his team at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics. The man from Juarez passed away on October 14, 2020, at the age of 89.
William Hill was one of 39 members of the Hong Kong team that went to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Hill ran in the men’s 200 and 400 meter sprints, and also had the honor of carrying the Olympic torch as it made its way through Asia into Hong Kong. He was 75 years old when he passed away on July 27, 2020 in Wong Chuk Hang, Hong Kong.
Wolfgang Hoffmann won the silver medal in the middleweight division of judo for Germany, when that sport debuted at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Hoffmann studied in Japan and taught judo for many years, publishing a book, Judo – Basics of TachiWaza and Ne-Waza, which he co-wrote with judoka Mahito Ohgo. Hoffmann died on March 12, 2020 in his hometown of Cologne, Germany, a couple of weeks shy of his 79th birthday.
The greatest athlete in the world in 1964 was Willi Holdorf, who won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The native of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, Holdorf was a humble man who led a powerful German team that took 3 of the top 6 spots in the decathlon, overcoming the favorite from Taiwan, C. K. Yang, as explained in my blog post here. Holdorf passed away on July 5, 2020, at the age of 80.
Mariya Itkina competed on the Soviet Union women’s track and field team in three Olympics from 1956 to 1964. As stated in her profile, she “has the unfortunate distinction of having placed fourth at the Olympics the most times of any athlete, four, without ever winning a medal.” She did so in the 4×100 meter relay at the Melbourne Games, in the 100-meter, 200-meter races as well as the 4×100 meter relay at the Rome Olympics. Itkina died on December 1, 2020 in Minsk, Belarus at the age of 88.
Alexander Ivanitsky won the gold medal in the heavyweight freestyle wrestling competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. After retiring from wrestling, Ivanitsky was a sports journalist until 1991, ending his career as chief sports editor for the USSR State Committee on Television and Radio. He oversaw the broadcast of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It is said he died on July 22, 2020 after he went into a forest to forage for mushrooms. He was 82.
György Kárpáti of Budapest, Hungary was a four-time Olympian, winning three gold medals as a member of the powerhouse Hungarian men’s water polo team, including the infamous “Blood-in-the-Water” finals when Hungary defeated the USSR in the finals at the 1956 Melbourne Games. Kárpáti won his third gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, after which he also got his coaching degree. As coach, he helped lead Hungary to a gold medal the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Kárpáti died on June 23, 2020, a week before turning 85.
Dr. István Kausz, a two-time Olympian who won the gold medal in men’s team épée for Hungary at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. After obtaining his medial degree, he went on to become the team doctor for the Hungarian swim team and assisting as a member of the medical team for the Hungarian aquatic team from the 1972 to the 2012 Olympiads. Kausz passed away on June 3, 2020 in Budapest at the age of 87.
Alfred Kucharczyk was a Polish gymnast who competed at the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Representing the Radlin Gymnastic Club, Kucharczyk was an active coach and tutor to other gymnasts, including 2008 Olympic vault champion Leszek Blanik. The native of Radlin died on December 2, 2020, at the age of 87.
Gergely Kulcsár was Hungary’s greatest javelin thrower, winning a silver and 2 bronze medals over four Olympiads from 1960 to 1972. Kulcsár was Hungary’s flagbearer in the opening ceremonies in Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich. He continued to coach until 1980, seeing one of his athletes, Miklós Németh win gold in the javelin throw at the 1976 Montreal Games. Kulcsár died on August 12, 2020 at the age of 84.
Matti Laakso was a three-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler from Iimajoki, Finland. A welterweight, Laakso competed at the 1960, 1964 and 1972 Olympiads. His brother, Martti Laakso, was a two-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler, and they competed together at the 1972 Munich Olympics. A police officer throughout his career, Laakso was one of the most dominant wrestlers in Finland, winning 24 Finnish titles. He died on November 3, 2020. He was 81 years old.
Jānis Lūsis of Jelgava, Latvia passed away on April 29, 2020 in Riga. He was 80. The top men’s javelin thrower in the world in the 60’s and 70’s, Lūsis was a four-time Olympian from 1964 to 1976, winning bronze, gold and silver at the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympics respectively for the USSR. A world record holder in the javelin toss, Lūsis was married to Elivira Ozolina, who competed in the women’s javelin at the 1960 (gold) and 1964 Olympics. Their son, Voldemārs Lūsis, was an Olympic javelin thrower as well, competing at the2000 and 2004 Olympics for Latvia.
Dick Lyon was a member of the Lake Washington Rowing Club and a two-time Olympian. He was in the boat for the US men’s coxless fours that competed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and won the bronze medal despite overcoming near disaster In the heats. The native Californian, Lyon passed away on July 8, 2020, a month before he would have turned 80. I had the great honor of interviewing Dick for my book on the Tokyo Olympics, and I wrote about his passing here. I am so sorry he is no longer with us.
A legend of long-distance walking, Paul Nihil, passed away on December 15, 2020 in Gillingham, England. The native of Colchester became Great Britain’s first male track and field athlete to compete in four Olympiads when he raced in the 20-km walk at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Twelve years earlier at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Nihil took the silver medal in the 50-kilometer walk. A man who race walked into his seventies, Nihil died at the age of 81 after contracting COVID-19.
Leonid Osipov was a three-time Olympic water polo athlete who won bronze, silver and gold respectively at the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympiads on the team from the Soviet Union. He was 77 when he died on November 5, 2020.
Maria Ilwicka-Chojnacka-Piątkowska was a three-time Olympian who represented Poland in Athletics at the 1952, 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Multi-talented, Piatkowska competed in the 4×100 meters relay at all three Olymmpiads, as well as the long jump in Helsinki and Rome and the 80-meter hurdles at the Tokyo Games. Piatkowski fell victim to COVID-19 and passed away on December 19, 2020 at the age of 88.
Gunter Pfaff was a four-time Olympic canoeist, who won a bronze medal for Austria in the kayak doubles with Gerhard Seibold. He rowed kayaks in singles, doubles and fours from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and served as the flagbearer for Team Austria during the opening ceremonies of the Montreal Games. Pfaff died on November 10 in Garsten, Austria on November 10. He was 81 years old.
Doug Rogers won the silver medal in judo’s heavyweight class in the Olympic debut of that sport at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. A Canadian from Truro, Nova Scotia, he moved to Japan when he was 19 to learn the martial arts among the best, studying under legendary judoka, Masahiko Kimura. His life in Japan is portrayed in a short film called “Judoka.” Rogers competed again at the 1972 Munich Games when judo resumed as an Olympic sport. I never interviewed Rogers, although I enjoyed exchanging emails with him. I really wished I had met him. Rogers passed away on July 20, 2020 at the age of 79.
Huba Rozsnyai was a sprinter on the Hungarian men’s track team, and ran in the 100 meter individual as well as the 4×100 meters relay competitions. On December 4, 2020, Rozsnvai passed away from the effects of COVID-19. He was 77.
Haydar Shonjani represented Iran as a swimmer in the men’s 100 meter freestyle at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first ever Iranian to compete as a swimmer in the Olympics. He returned to the Games in 1976 on the Iranian water polo team. Shonjani passed away on November 8, 2020 at the age of 74.
Balbir Singh was on the field hockey team that restored golden glory back to India at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Singh also competed on the 1968 team that took bronze. The man from Sansarpur, Punjab was a member of the Punjab Police, rising to Deputy Superintendent of Police, and retiring as Deputy Inspector General in 2001. Singh died on February 28, 2020 in his hometown at the age of 77.
I interviewed Janell Smith Carson for my book. She was 17 when she ran in the women’s 400-meter competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Although she ran an American record of 53.7 seconds in the Olympics, she could not get to the finals. Born in Texas, she grew up in Kansas where she set the world record for the indoor 400 meters and got on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She told me that she was recruited by famed track coach Ed Temple to run for Tennessee State, but Smith did not want to leave home. Smith passed away on July 25, 2020 after a long battle with cancer. She was 73.
Three-time Olympian, Per Svensson won the silver medal in light-heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The native of Sollefteå, Svensson would go on to represent Sweden at the 1968 and 1972 Summer Olympics. He passed away in Sundsvall on December 17, 2020 at the age of 77.
Kinuko Tanida Idogawa was a member of Japan’s historic gold-medal winning women’s volleyball team that defeated the Soviet team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first time volleyball was an Olympic sport. That match was one of the most watched sporting events in Japanese history. One of the famed “Witches of the Orient,” Tanida was known for her strong spikes, and contributed greatly to the team’s gold-medal victory. A native of Osaka, Tanida passed away on December 4, 2020 at the age of 81. I was proud to share the screen with her in the History Channel documentary, Tokyo Legacy, which covers the history of Tokyo since the end of the war to 2020.
Juan Torruella sailed in four straight Olympiads, from 1964 to 1976, representing Puerto Rico. A graduate of the Boston University law school, Torruella served associate judge of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico before serving as US federal judge for over forty years since President Gerald Ford appointed him as a federal judge to the district court in Puerto Rico. As stated in his profile, “his most publicized case came when Torruella ruled on the appeal of 2013 Boston Marathon bomber and murderer Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, which overturned his death sentence.” Torruella died on October 26, 2020 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the age of 87.
Wojciech Zablocki completed in four Olympiads as a fencer for Poland. After capturing silver medals on the Men’s sabre team at the 1956 and 1960 Summer Games, he ended his Olympic career at Tokyo with a bronze medal on the Polish sabre team. Zablocki was an architect who designed sports facilities as well as a watercolor artist, and married a well-known actress and activist, Alina Janowska, who passed away in 2017. Zablocki died on December 5, 2020 a day before his 90th birthday.
Slaven Zambata was the captain of the Yugoslavia football team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Although his team finished sixth in the tournament, the man from Sinj starred with Dinamo Zagreb, leading them to four Yugslav Cups. One of the most prolific scorers in his country’s football history, Zambata died on October 29, 2020 in Zagreb, at the age of 80.
In 1964, Japan was preparing an extravaganza for the world, and they just had to get it right. Over 5,000 athletes from over ninety nations were coming to Tokyo. So were thousands of government and sports officials, members of the press, coaches, athlete-family members and sports fans from all parts of the world. If they could show the world that they were peace-loving, Western-like, modern and eager to contribute, then they could stand tall with the other great nations of the world.
Only two decades before, the Japanese were considered Asian upstarts, aggressors, and in some parts, cruel barbarians who would die for the Emperor without a thought. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics was the biggest coming-out party in Asian history, and Japan wanted to change perceptions, and look its absolute best.
Hundreds of known pickpockets were plucked off the streets by police months in advance. Gangs were prevailed upon to send their scarier-looking yakuza out of town. Signs were posted around the city declaring that urinating in the streets or littering would not be tolerated. Bars were closed by midnight. Taxi drivers were advised to drive with “proper traffic manners.” Local citizens brushed up their English and, overcoming their normal reticence, proactively sought out foreign visitors who looked as though they might need guidance. For a while, “May I help you?” was the most commonly heard phrase on the streets.
Stories abounded about the lengths to which the Japanese hosts went to look after visitors in need of help. To rescue an Australian couple who had lost bullet train tickets to Kyoto, their hotel voucher and a notice of remittance so they could pick up cash at a local bank branch, the manager of the Japan Travel Bureau at the pier where they docked raised money from his own staff to buy new train tickets, called the hotel and arranged for the couple to stay without the voucher, and made arrangements with the bank so the cash would be made available.
When a European prince reported his Dunhill tobacco pouch lost at the equestrian event at Karuizawa, an entire Self-Defense Force platoon combed the 33-kilometer course and found the pouch in less than an hour. A journalist who had dropped his signed traveler’s checks—in a nightclub as it turned out—got them back after the Mama-san spent two days tracing and deciphering his illegible scrawl, and then rang the hotels and the Press House before finally discovering to whom they belonged.
Billy Mills, hero of the 10,000-meter event, also came in for some of Japan’s famous omotenashi (hospitality). As a Native-American subjected to his own share of suffering back home, he empathized with his hosts:
In Japan, I saw people who were so courteous and polite. I knew underneath there had to be this anger. I could relate to the pain. Almost a sacredness of the way they contained the pain, and the respect they showed. They were like the elders I knew, who controlled their pain, and still showed respect to others.
Mills and his wife, Pat, had plans to return to the United States a day before the end of the games and so would not be joining the USOC-arranged transport to the airport. When the USOC refused to make any special arrangements for Billy—an amateur with little discretionary cash in his pocket—he turned to his Japanese hosts, who expressed surprise that the Americans would not take care of a gold medal winner and one of their biggest stars.
They picked up our bags, and put them in the largest, widest limousine I had ever seen, with Japanese and Olympic flags up front and an American flag on the back. We took off with two motorcycles escorting us to the airport. We left Japan in style.
The XVIII Olympiad was Japan’s big test. And if they passed, they thought, the world would welcome them back with open arms. And they did indeed pass that test, thanks to a stunning alignment of purpose across government, corporations, educational institutions, and local neighborhoods. As Azuma Ryūtarō, Tokyo governor and member of both the IOC and Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee, wrote in 1965:
One of the intangible legacies of the Tokyo Olympics is that it gave Japanese people the opportunity to be united for the first time since World War II. Additionally, the Tokyo Olympics succeeded in playing a vital role in connecting the East and West in terms of worldwide peace and sports. As a result, the world began to show greater respect for Japan and its people.
In pursuit of a greater good, there is often sacrifice, both big and small. In a Japanese culture that prioritizes the group over the individual, keeping personal preferences and needs submerged in order to cater to the perceived interests of the neighborhood, classmates, team members, or colleagues at work are calculations of emotional and social intelligence that Japanese make every day.
To the Japanese, the sacrifices the individual must make to the group are most often seen as praiseworthy, symbolic of a powerful value in Japanese society.
At the 1964 Olympics, there were two sailors who came in eighteenth overall in a sailing category called the Flying Dutchman (FD) competition. But they came in first in the hearts of the Japanese.
On October 14, Stig Lennart Käll and his younger brother, Lars Gunnar Käll, in their boat Hayama, were sailing in the third race of seven in the FD-class competition when they saw a capsized boat ahead of them, and the two crew members floating in the middle of Sagami Bay.
Making a quick decision, the Käll brothers steered their way toward Australian sailor Ian Charles Winter, and plucked him out of the water. They then proceeded to the capsized Australian boat, Diablo, to rescue the second member of that crew, John Gregory Dawe, and pulled him into their boat as well. In addition to the Australians, six other boats failed to complete the race, which likely meant rough conditions. And yet, the Swedes, with two extra passengers, still managed to finish the heat.
The exploits of the Swedish crew were publicized nationally in the Japanese press. Fans from all over the country sent a barrage of letters and gifts of appreciation to the two Swedish sailors who were singled out for their sacrifice to the greater good.
It was also well publicized that the captain of the Japanese women’s volleyball team was making a sacrifice for the good of her volleyball team, as well as for the country. At the age of thirty-one, the team captain, Masae Kasai, was older by about six or seven years than most of her teammates. She had intended to retire from volleyball and get married after leading her team to Japan’s first World Championship in a victory over the Soviet Union in 1962. In fact, some felt that Kasai’s duty to Japanese society, as a woman, was to get married and have children, not to play volleyball. Kasai herself made it clear she wanted to move on and start a family.
But in the end, the call for gold and glory for Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was so strong that she decided to delay retirement, and thus surrender herself to two more years of long, punishing hours in the gym. Her sacrifice was eventually rewarded, however, as she did make it to the altar in a highly publicized wedding after the Games ended.
Another story was that of Takashi Ono, the legendary veteran gymnast from Akita, Japan, who had already garnered twelve medals (including four golds) from the 1952, 1956, and 1960 Olympiads. At thirty-three, Ono was the oldest member of the 1964 team.
Ono’s strongest discipline was the horizontal bar. It was vital he did his best to give his team a chance for gold. But Ono was in considerable pain due to a right shoulder injured in his preparations for the Olympics. To ease the discomfort, he was injected with an anesthetic, which resulted in the loss of feeling in his entire arm.
According to Rio Otomo, who wrote about the gymnast in her article, Narratives of the Body and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Ono’s injury was a major narrative of the Olympics, one also taken up by famed writer Yukio Mishima:
The horizontal bar had been cruelly attacking his shoulder for some time. His shoulder then became the enemy of the perfection that Ono was aiming to achieve. It was assaulting him from within, as if it had been a spy who sold his soul to the enemy camp.
Less known to the public were the apprehensions of Ono’s wife and teammate on the women’s gymnastics team. As Otomo wrote, Kiyoko Ono was concerned that attempting difficult maneuvers in the air with a damaged arm could result in a terrible fall, and so she whispered to her husband as he approached the bar, “Please do not die; we have children.”
Not only did Ono survive, the grit he showed that day helped lead his team to the gold medal.
While so many of the 5,000 athletes who came to Tokyo in 1964 did not expect to win a medal, they did not want to be humiliated either. But in one of the most memorable sports events of the Tokyo Olympics—the men’s 10,000-meter competition—a runner from Sri Lanka had placed himself in a most embarrassing situation.
Formerly a colony called British Ceylon, Sri Lanka had existed as an independent nation for only sixteen years prior to the 1964 Games, and no one from Sir Lanka was expected to win a medal. But if you weren’t paying attention, you might have thought that one of their runners was battling for victory in the 10k race.
With 150 meters to go, the lead pack was jockeying for position in the home stretch, each passing a runner with the number #67. In fact everybody was passing #67, who had gotten lapped several times!
Number 67 was a slight man named Ranatunga Koralage Jayasekara Karunananda who competed in both the 5k and 10k races in Tokyo. After getting lapped in the first 1,000 meters of the 10k race, he continued to fall off the pace. When the eventual winner flared wide and put on a burst of speed to win dramatically in the final meters, Karuananda had a perfect view, only meters behind.
But while the winner ended his race in elation, Karunananda crossed the finish line knowing he was last…with four more long laps to go. He could have stopped. If he did, he would have joined the nine others who did not finish, and no one would have noticed.
Instead, the officer in the Sri Lanka Army, known to friends as Karu, plodded on.
The spectators at first were bewildered. Wasn’t the race over? Why was this guy still running…and running…and running? And yet, as Karunananda ran, the crowd noise went from ambivalence to encouragement. With three laps to go, the crowd began cheering the lone competitor as he made his way around the stadium track.
The winner of the race wanted so much to take a victory lap around the stadium but was thwarted by a Japanese official who told him to stay put. After all, the race was still on. Instead of the gold medalist, here was the last place finisher bathing in the growing cheers of 70,000, who likely only minutes before learned that #67 was Karunananda of Sri Lanka.
And when Karunananda rounded the last turn, he sprinted down the straightaway, crossing the finish line to a standing ovation and a thunderous cheer, as if he had just snatched his island’s first medal.
It is said that Karunananda told reporters at the Olympic Village that he was only doing what was expected of an Olympian. “The Olympic spirit is not to win, but to take part. So I came here. I took part in the 10,000 meters and completed my rounds.”
Karu became an overnight star in Japan, his desire to complete the race a symbol of the core value of perseverance so central to Japan’s successful rise from the rubble. Karu represented every hardworking man and woman in Japan, and they loved him for that.