Foldi Vakhonin Ichinoseki
Foldi, Vakhonin and Ichinoseki on the medal stand

It was an image that went round the world – a smallish man lifting a huge amount of weight, and then lifting one leg like a stork, lounging about in a lake.

Alexey Vakhonin, competing in the bantamweight class (56kg or less) was attempting a clean and jerk of 142.5 kilograms. If he succeeded, he’d win gold. Imre Folde of Hungary had already lifted 137.5 kilograms in the clean and jerk to take the lead. In fact, the Folde camp thought they had gold locked up.

In 1964, at the Tokyo Summer Games, there were three types of lifts required in the weightlifting competition: the press, the snatch and the clean and jerk. The best of the three lifts were totaled to determine the winner. Folde had started well, pressing 5 kilos more than Vakhonin, and 10 more than the Japanese favorite, Shiro Ichinoseki. Vakhonin lifted 105 kilos in the snatch, 2.5 kilos more than Folde, so Folde was leading by 2.5 kilos before commencing the clean and jerk.

Vakhonin had to lift 140 kilos to tie Folde, or 142.5 kilos to win. Lifting 142.5 kilos would also result in the highest weight total ever lifted in bantamweight competition up to 1964.

Aleksey Vakhonin on one leg_1964
Aleksey Vakhonin wins gold on one leg

Here’s how eyewitness and British journalist, Neil Allen, described the lift in his book Olympic Diary, Tokyo 1964:

He walked fast, the little man from Shakhty City, across the platform. Like some cowboy film hero in a hurry to get the gunfight over. He breathed out, breathed in, and down went his hands wrapped round the bar. It came up to shoulder level and Vakhonin’s face was blank with concentration. Then his neck strained, his eyes started from their sockets, his face slowly turned purple. But the bar went up.

Slowly the normal colour returned to the new Olympic champion’s face. At the same time his introvert behaviour changed to that of an extravert. As he stood there under the load of iron he gently lifted first his right foot and then his left to show that it all had been comparatively easy.

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Manikavasagam Jegathesan of Malaysia (#415) at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Life is long, and full of complexity. As one can’t see the forest for the trees, one also can’t know how actions today will shape one’s situation months or years later. Manikavasagam Jegathesan of Malaysia was only 16 years old when he took center stage in the 1960 Rome Olympics, the first of three Olympiad appearances. Little did he know that his entire life would be shaped by the Games, particularly those in Tokyo in October of 1964.

“When the Rome Olympics started, every winner became my hero. I was so impressionable,” Jegathesan told me. “Livio Berrutti was the 200-meter champion, and he ran in sunglasses. I was targeting him. I was going to be him. From that point on, I never ran a race without dark glasses. In my first heat, I ran against Milkha Singh, the Flying Sikh. He was another hero.” Jegathesan did not make it beyond the first heat in Rome, and his Olympics competition was done.

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Jegathesan running a heat with Milka Singh at the 1960 Olympics

But when the Tokyo Olympics rolled around in 1964, Jegathesan was the fastest man in Asia, Asian Games champion in both the 100 and 200-meters. And when he crossed the tape at 20.5 seconds in Singapore a few months before the Olympics in a 200-meter race, there were hopes he could challenge for the finals in Tokyo.

Jegathesan took to the blocks first with the 100 meters, where he hoped to be the first Malaysian to make it beyond the first round. He made the cut with a time of 10.6 seconds, but was eliminated in the second round – which was OK. He got the nerves out of the way, and was ready to do damage in the 200-meter competition.

In round one of the 200-meter competition, Jegathesan ran toe to toe with Canadian superstar, Harry Jerome, who had already taken the bronze medal in the 100-meter finals. Then in the quarterfinals, Jegathesan ran against Paul Drayton, who eventually won silver in the 200 meters, and his hero, Livio Berruti, the 1960 200-meter champion from Italy. He finished just behind those two to qualify, becoming the first Malaysian to make it to the semi-finals. That would take place the next day, so Jegathesan was ready for a good night’s sleep.

But a good sleep never came. He awoke in the middle of the night, his throat sore, his body feverish. He could not sleep, his condition now feeding a growing anxiety about his prospects in the 200. When morning arrived, he took off for the stadium, angry that his chance at glory was at risk. Jegathesan ran as hard as he could, but finished last in his semi-final heat. He trooped on as a team member of the Malaysian 4×100-meter relay team, but ran poorly, and pulled out of the 4X400 meter relay.

His Tokyo Games finished, Jegathesan went to the Olympic Village infirmary and met the physician on call, Dr Yoshio Kuroda. The doctor diagnosed chicken pox, which is a contagious, uncomfortable disease. So the doctor ordered Jegathesan to bed in the hospital, and thus could not participate in the closing ceremonies. Jegathesan did go on to compete in the 1968 Games in Mexico City, where he made it again to the semi-finals of the 200-meter competition, and set the Malaysian record of 20.92 seconds, which still stands.

Time passed. Jegathesan completed his medical studies and went on to practice as a medical officer for the Malaysian government. In 2003, Dr. Jega, as he is now often called, was at an international athletics meet in Hyderabad, India. He was serving at the medical station for this event when in walked a man from Japan who took one look at him and said, “You’re the guy with chicken pox!” Dr Jega was reunited with his doctor at the Tokyo

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Bill Bradley

Bill Bradley has the kind of career that makes me sigh:

  • Gold medalist on the USA basketball team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics
  • College Player of the Year at Princeton in 1965
  • Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in 1965
  • NBA championships with the New York Knicks in 1970 and 1973
  • Induction into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1983
  • Elected to the US Senate in 1977
  • US presidential candidate in 2000

While in office as a US Senator in 1986, Bradley sent the editors of the book, Tales of Gold, documents that explain Bradley’s views on the Olympics at the time. Here is a summary of Bradley’s thoughts:

bill bradley olympian card 2End the Requirement of Amateurism: Bradley felt that the international playing field was not level, and that if athletes and National Olympic committees were truly trying to maintain amateur status, then certain capable, but financially weak athletes would struggle to train and compete, if not drop out all together. “First we need to have one uniform standard of eligibility, making skill the only criterion for competition and abandoning the ridiculous notion of amateurism in a world of differing social and economic systems,” Bradley wrote. “The traditional amateurism of an Avery Brundage eliminated the lower and middle classes of capitalist countries from competition. Without some form of subsidy they could not afford to compete against wealthier athletes. Since compensation for athletic services violated Olympic rules, officials often found less obvious ways to reward poorer participants. As a result, many athletes had to be dishonest about their compensation. It is time for the hypocrisy to cease and the rules to be modified by allowing open competition.”

Eliminating Team Sports from the Olympics: This I found intriguing. Bradley wrote, “I think we need to abandon team sports in the Olympics because they too easily simulate war games. One has only to look at the Hungarian-Soviet water polo game in 1956, or the Czech-Soviet ice hockey match in 1968, or any time the Indians and the Pakistanis play field hockey, to recognize that these contests go well beyond friendly competition.”

What I found confusing was Bradley’s next statement about the time he received his gold medal at the 1964 Olympics. “We should continue to recognize individual achievements. I will never forget that moment standing on the platform after beating the Soviets in the finals, watching the flag being raised and listening to the national anthem being played. It gave enduring meaning to the years of personal sacrifice.” After all, Bradley would not have received his gold medal for basketball if there were no team sports. And as I have written, the biggest factor for the US basketball team’s success was the coach’s ability to drill a powerful team concept into the minds of the players.

bill bradley olympian card

The Olympics – Not Just About Sports: Bradley was channeling the founder of the modern Olympic movement, Pierre de Coubertin, with this idea. de Coubertin actually had non-sport competitions in the categories of architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture in the Olympics from 1912 to 1948. Wrote Bradley, “We also need to champion individuals other than just the fastest, strongest, and the most agile among us. Why not extend the Olympics to two months and also recognize creative, intellectual, and artistic ability? A film festival, poetry readings, concerts, cultural shows, and athletic events might even run simultaneously at an expanded Olympics. The whole person should be the theme of the festival. The emphasis would not be on the rewards to be taken home but on the experience of living for two months in a microcosm of the world.”

A Permanent Home for the Olympics – Greece: Bradley provided these words in 1986, in a decade where the 1980 and 1984 Olympics were heavily boycotted along Cold War lines. He wrote, “The Games should be permanently located in their ancient birthplace, the country of Greece. This permanent home would come to be identified with the Olympics as an institution, and the Games would no longer be identified with the nationalistic displays of temporary hosts. The way it now is, too often the host country attempts to produce a gigantic display of nationalism. This also encourages a situation where the Olympics infringe on the domestic politics of the host country, as happened in Mexico City and Montreal. If the Games had had a permanent home in a neutral country, it is probable that neither the United States in 1980 nor the Soviets in 1984 would have withdrawn from the Games.”

ujlaky-Rejto IldikoShe is one of the greatest fencers of all time, winning two gold medals at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games on a strong Hungarian squad, one in individual foil, and another in team foil, four years after winning a team silver medal in Rome. She went on win silver and bronze medals in Mexico City, Munich and Montreal, for a total of seven medals over five Olympic Games.

And Ujlaky-Rejto Ildiko was deaf.

And just as true in Budapest as it is anywhere else in the world, a child with differences – in this case, ear pieces, reading lips and general inability to react to the sounds of the world around her – gets mocked and mired in low self-esteem.

While it is hard to find verbatim comments in English by Ildiko, there is this quote from a deaf fencer named Jennifer Gibson, who explains the challenge. “Being the only one at school who wore hearing aids was not easy and in fact, it was extremely difficult. It was the same with sports, I was the only kid who wore hearing aids on the teams I’ve played on. At the time, in the 70‘s and 80‘s, most teachers and coaches were ill prepared to deal with someone like me. They lacked the proper training and understanding on how to teach to people with a disability, particularly hearing loss. It was essentially a whole new ball game for all of us. From a very young age, I’ve had to be very forward about my hearing loss and inform the teachers or coaches that I couldn’t hear them, particularly in large or noisy environments. Very few of them took the initiative to find alternative means of communicating with me such as using a clipboard or talking to me one on one.”

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Ildiko, left, competing at the 1964 Olympic Games

Ildiko likely had similar experiences to Gibson, except decades earlier. She picked up fencing at 15. She worked with coaches who instructed her by giving feedback and direction on paper. But there is no getting around the fact that hearing the clash of blades is key feedback to the fencer. Again, here is Gibson explaining the challenge for deaf fencers: “One issue is that some fencing calls rely on hearing the blades come in contact with each other which means I am unable to do that. Bear in mind that it’s also very difficult to see the fencers faces due to the tight metal weave of the mask. When they try to talk to me while wearing the mask, I actually hear very little.”

But as we see from time to time, those with the will to overcome challenges often find a way to slingshot to phenomenal accomplishment.

women's hungarian foil team 1964_Ildiko 2nd left
Ildiko with the Hungarian women’s foil team (2nd from left)