Rich Stebbins_2016
Stebbins at the Northwest Express Track and Field Classic in Florida, June, 2016.

I remember the very first time you called my name. Olamide Orebamjo, announcing that I was an Olympian and now I am getting ready to hear my name called during my graduation ceremony. As I look back over the years, I can honestly say that you were not only my favorite teacher, but the best teacher I ever had.

Orebamjo was a shy, little sixth grader at Mayfield Woods Middle School in Elkridge, Maryland when she first met her social studies teacher, Richard Stebbins. But after completing his class, she was transformed, and sent a thank you note to him upon her high school graduation in 2010. She also wrote that she aspired “one day to become an attorney for the United Nations and later on become an ambassador for the United States.” Today, she is a 25-year-old judicial law clerk in Baltimore City, supporting a judge by researching, drafting opinions and memoranda, and preparing the judge for civil litigation matters.

Olamide Orebamjo
Olamide Orebamjo

Orebamjo is just one of many students at Mayfield Woods who had been deeply impacted by the ideas and the methods of their social studies teacher, who also happened to be an Olympic gold medalist from the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games. Now a retired teacher, Stebbins is also a member of the Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC) Hall of Fame for his world-class sprinting at Grambling College, and is most famously known as the third leg of the US 4×100 relay team anchored by the legendary Bob Hayes that took gold in Tokyo.

Stebbins would frame his social studies class year as a long-term competition of sorts, placing eight of the student desks at the front of the room, facing the other students. Those eight desks were for the students who achieved the highest quiz scores at different points in the year. And this had a motivating effect on students, including one named Maria, who wrote about her excitement in a year-end essay:

When you told us about your Olympian method, boy was I excited! I listened to you attentively as you told us about those great kids who had sat at your left and at your right. They had earned A’s on most of their tests and their quizzes. I remember looking at that first desk at your left and thinking, “I will be there one day.” I wanted to so badly to show you that I could really work hard and that I love learning. Now that I look back at all the hard work that I put towards being on that Olympian sit, I am thankful I did because it is such a rewarding feeling to know that my hard work pays off. Since you showed us your Olympic method I started to dislike B’s. I set my goal at the beginning of the year that if I wanted to be an Olympian my grades on everything had to be mostly A’s.

Sandra Hwang medal
Students recognized as Olympians in Stebbin’s class were allowed to wear Stebbins’ gold medal at the end of the year. This is Sandra Hwang as a sixth grader.

Stebbins wanted his students to work hard, but he also wanted them to relax and have fun. He played jazz music during quizzes, showed videos, played games. But most importantly, he drilled certain messages over and over into the heads of his eager students.

Education is a Privilege: Recalled a student named Andrew, “You made me understand that hard work and an education are a privilege, not a burden. We may think we don’t have enough, but in reality we have way too much. You made us aware of the situation of people on every continent, and of their struggle to survive daily.”

Excellence: Stebbins, his Olympian system and the fact that he had a gold medal made him a symbol of excellence to his students. But he also showed many examples of people who demonstrated excellence in their lives, including his sharing of videos of people recognized by the President of the United States for their excellence. Wrote a student named Jadah, “My favorite thing about your class was the Kennedy Center Honors (videos). I might have not looked interested but it was only because it was early in the morning but I was excited to learn about different people and what they have added to the world. I want to be something that the world admires and what to honor.”

The World is Big and Diverse: Wrote a student named Brendan in his year-end essay, “Before I came to sixth grade, I always saw the world as just a place where I live. Now, with Mr. Stebbins help, I see the world as one big history book filled with knowledge and connections. He has influenced me to travel around the world, and see many of the world’s greatest wonders. I think that knowledge is the best gift you can give to anybody and when I moved into Mr. Stebbins class that is the first thing he gave to me. I am honored that I was able to meet this wonderful man.”

A big focus of Stebbins’ teaching was the history of African Americans. In addition to dressing up in traditional African wear, and talking about people like Miles Davis and Malcolm X, he awarded Olympians with a 365 Days of Black History calendar that featured Stebbins. “This was and is a prized possession that I still have – his photo from the 1964 Olympics is featured on one of its pages,” said a student, Sandra Hwang. “Signed by Mr. Stebbins, it says, ‘you are a seeker of truth.'”

Version 2
Sandra Hwang today.

Never Give Up: Jeremy wrote to Stebbins 11 years after taking his social studies class, describing his teacher’s penchant to quote from a popular cartoon at the time, Pinky and the Brain, secondarily to inject fun into the class, but primarily to send a message. “You incorporated your love of Pinky and the Brain into the class lesson, and into the values, you wanted to instill in your students. You used to say all the time “Brain never took over the world, but he never gave up.” You wanted us to do the same. You wanted us to have a dream and no matter how long it took not to give up. Your words ring in my ears until this day.”

You are Special: Stebbins always had something specific to say about each of his students. Amber wrote that Stebbins said something to her that stuck with her since. “I was really one of a kind, and he could tell that I was going to do great things. I will never forget that day.” Hwang was in Stebbin’s class in 2003, and she remembers ordinary days that instantly became most memorable ones thanks to Stebbins.

While I was in other classes, say math class, if Mr. Stebbins came in the room to pick up something from the teacher and saw me in the room, he would point his finger at me and, in total interruption, announce loudly to the room, “this one, she is destined to be great.”

Today, Sandra is a 26-year-old healthcare design strategist for a consultancy in Boston, with a personal goal of helping people “have a better chance at the health and happiness they deserve…and to do this work for those among us that truly need it most. Children, minorities, women, refugees, people living in homelessness, without support, without equal access, without the right to health.” She wrote to me emphasizing what a huge influence Stebbins was for her.

I cannot articulate how many young students out there need someone like Mr. Stebbins to walk into the room and declare their worth with such absolute certainty. Mr. Stebbins did not set me up to do a good job in school, have a good job, and to live a good, stable life. He set me up to dream and to elevate myself in accordance to my dreams – to aspire for excellence, for greatness, and with the kind of boldness and audacity carried by the heroes we learned about in class.

Stebbins explained in a Baltimore Sun article that he only did what his best teachers did for him when he was growing up in Los Angeles in a single-parent household. “Two teachers in junior high school saved my life — an old black man, and an old white woman,” he said. “They told me I could be somebody, that I could do something with my life.”

Those teachers did what Stebbins did for countless kids at Mayfield Woods Middle School. Orebamjo noted that to Stebbins in her letter, quoting William A. Ward.

The mediocre teacher tells.

The good teacher explains.

The superior teacher demonstrates.

The great teacher inspires.

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Gerald Ashworth, Richard Stebbins, Paul Drayton, and Bob Hayes_The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics
Gerald Ashworth, Richard Stebbins, Paul Drayton, and Bob Hayes, from the picture book, The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics (Baseball Magazine)

The American men’s 4×100 relay team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics broke the world record, and won the gold medal. A more apt description is that Bob Hayes won the team the gold medal. His historic anchor leg took the American team from 5th to 1st in arguably the fastest 100-meter leg in 4×100 relay history.

As Rich Stebbins said, “The good lord gave Bob Hayes something most people don’t have. Pure unadulterated speed.”

And yet, it is a team event. Four sprinters have to circle the track and transfer the baton successfully three times in stride in order to have a chance. Stebbins knew this. He was a member of Grambling State University’s dominant 4×100 championship team, which had a 18-match stretch where they were one or two tenths off the world record. “The secret was we had exquisite exchanges. We would walk around campus handing the baton off.”

The American relay team was in a bit of a pickle. Mel Pender and Trent Jackson were speedsters who got injured during the individual 100-meter sprint competition, so were unavailable for the relay. Paul Drayton was available but had to run with a pulled muscle in his leg. So when the coaches and sprinters gathered to discuss the make up of the team, Stebbins said Hayes looked at him explaining that Stebbins was the best relay runner in the country, and said, “He third, I’m anchor, and I don’t care who else.”

Stebbins was very confident in his hand-offs and could do so with either his left or right hand, and so when Hayes told him he wanted the baton in his right hand, Stebbins made the exchange with his left. Hayes is so fast that he almost outran Stebbin’s hand-off. But the baton landed firmly in Hayes’ right palm, and off he went, racing into history.

Fifty two years later, at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Stebbins saw on his television a team that reminded him of the importance of great baton passing. “The Japanese team that won silver – their passing was exquisite.”

Rich Stebbins_high sc hool
Stebbins, crossing the finish line in the anchor leg of the 4 x 100 relay for Fremont High School leading them to the 1962 Los Angeles City Championship. (Photo Courtesy of Richard V. Stebbins)

 

Virachai Tanasugarn in Yokohama
Virachai Tanasugarn in Yokohama

 

The Indonesians and the North Koreans were in Tokyo. They were only one day away from setting foot in the National Stadium and parading before 70,000 cheering spectators at the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on Saturday, October 10, 1964. But on Friday, October 9, the national teams of those countries, hundreds of athletes, coaches and administrators, abruptly turned around and went home. Many cried as they waited to board the trains away from Tokyo, and their chance at competing at the highest level.

Virachai Tanasugarn was on the Thai national Olympic team, a guard on his country’s basketball team. He was in Tokyo to play in a qualifying tournament with nine other national teams, with the chance to play in the beautiful Kenzo Tange Gymnasium Annex, and the hope of competing in the Olympics. And like the Indonesians and the North Koreans, he did not stay in Tokyo long enough to participate in the Games. But unlike the Indonesians and the North Koreans, he left with a sense of adventure and excitement.

Thai basketball team in Yokohama
National Thai basketball team in Yokohama; Tanasugarn is #13.

From September 25 to October 4, ten teams vied in the qualifying round for four spots, in order to be a part of the 18 national teams to play in the Tokyo Olympics. Tanasugarn was on the Thai team, a spot player on the bench, who was simply excited to be in Japan. Despite starting off well, defeating Indonesia convincingly 85-50, the team proceeded to win only 3 of their 9 matches.

Tanasugarn, like his teammates, did not expect to make the cut. They were there to get experience, like so many of the other athletes from Southeast Asia. This was actually Tanasugarn’s second Olympic qualifier as a basketball player. When he was in Rome with hopes of helping the Thai team make the Olympics, he remembered looking at the spaghetti, cheese and ketchup and having no idea what they were or how to eat them. But when they came to Japan, they were happy to see more familiar food. They walked around Yokohama, went to Kamakura to visit the Big Buddha, and played lots of basketball against much better teams.

Tanasugarn was so confident that the Thai team would not qualify that he had already bought an airplane ticket for California to leave before opening ceremonies. After graduating from Thammasat University, he was encouraged to go to the United States by a cousin who graduated from the University of California Berkley, and was practicing as a medical doctor in California.

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(TOP) Tamarine Tanasugarn, Virachai Tanasugarn, Monica Seles, (BOTTOM) Rose Tanasugarn, the mother of Monica Seles

So unlike the Indonesians and North Koreans, Tanasugarn was excited to be leaving Japan just prior to the start of the Games. At the age of 26, with essentially no English ability, he was embarking on a new life in a new world. He went to a high school in San Francisco that had an adult education program where he learned English, and met his wife to be. He got his JD at the University of West Los Angeles School of Law, but could not find work in the legal field. Eventually, with his wife and mother, he opened up a Thai restaurant in Hollywood named Thai House, which he ran for 8 years.

Through a friend’s introduction, Tanasugarn was able to put his first daughter, Rose, in the Jack Kramer Club, where some of the best tennis talent was being groomed: Tracy Austin, Lindsey Davenport and Pete Sampras. Their coach was Robert Lansdorp, and Rose showed progress as a tennis player. However, after 6 years Rose decided she did not want tennis to be the primary focus in her life, and left competitive play.

While in the United States, Tanasugarn had divorced and re-married, having a daughter with his second wife that they named Tamarine. In 1982, he returned to Bangkok with Tamarine, then just 5-years-old. Tamarine began to focus on her tennis with her father as coach until she was 20, and then proceeded with professional coaches and increasingly competitive tournaments.

Tamarine would go on to become Thailand’s most successful female tennis player ever, reaching the quarter-finals in Wimbledon in 2008 and the Wimbledon doubles semifinals in 2011, climbing as high as #19 in the world, and competing in four Olympics, from 1996 to 2008.

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The writer and Virachai Tanasugarn at Rama Garden Hotel

Her father, Virachai, utilizing all the wisdom and insight he learned from observing Lansdorp and some of the best up-and-coming talent in the world at the Jack Kramer School in the 1970s, and watching first hand his daughter Tamarine rise to world-class levels, embarked on a career of tennis coach. At the Rama Gardens Hotel in Bangkok, he continues to coach tennis at the age of 80.

Little did he know in Tokyo what future lay before him as he embarked the Pan Am flight for America in October, 1964.

He looks at the tennis courts with pride, knowing that his daughter Tamarine, and the success she had, helped build the foundation for tennis in Thailand today.

Doko ni mo nai kuni

“Doko ni mo Nai Kuni” is a two-part drama and is the incredible and true story of how three men escaped war-torn China at the end of World War II and convinced General Douglas MacArthur to repatriate over 1.5 million Japanese abandoned in Manchuria. One of the three men is the father of Olympian, Paul Maruyama, a judoka who competed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. If you’re in Japan, tune into NHK at 9PM on Saturday, March 24 and 31, 2018.

昭和20年。満州で丸山邦雄(内野聖陽)は終戦を迎えた。150万以上の日本人はソ連占領下の満州で略奪や暴行にさらされ、飢えと寒さの中、多数が命を落としていく。新甫八朗(原田泰造)、武蔵正道(満島真之介)とともに祖国日本に訴えるため満州脱出を決意する丸山。妻・万里子(木村佳乃)は後押しするが、新甫の妻・マツ(蓮佛美沙子)は危険な行動に不安を隠せない。脱出に踏み出す3人を次々と絶体絶命の危機が襲う。(NHK)

To spouses and sweethearts alike, a very happy Valentine’s Day from The Olympians!

Nikolai Prodanov and Diana Yorgova_2
Nikolai Prodanov and Diana Yorgova, from the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964 Kyodo News Service

Gymnast Nikolai Prodanov and javelin thrower Diana Yorgova of Bulgaria are the first Olympians to marry during the Olympics, tying the knot in the Olympic Village of the 1964 Tokyo Games.

Hal and Olga Connolly kiss_Mainichi Graf_11.3.1964
Hal and Olga Connolly, from the November 3, 1964 edition of magazine, Mainichi Graf

Americans Hal (hammer) and Olga (discus) Connolly sneak a kiss through a fence that prevented men from gaining access to the women’s rooms in Tokyo. They famously met at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics when she was Olga Fikotova of Czechoslovakia, and they both took home gold.

Ken Matthews_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha
Ken Matthews and his wife Sheila moments before their famous hug, from the book, Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha

Brit Ken Matthews, gold medalist of the 20K walk at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, gets a celebrated hug from his wife Sheila after his victory.

Mike Larrabee and wife kiss_Mainich Graf_11.3.1964
Mike Larrabee kisses his wife Margaret, from November 3, 1964 edition of Mainich Graf

Double gold medalist (400m, 4x400m relay), Mike Larrabee, gets a lengthy kiss from his wife, Margaret. Larrabee of Team USA as you can see in the picture also placed the gold medal he had just won from his 400-meter finals around her neck.

Brigthwell and Packer_Tokyo Olympiad 1964 Kyodo News Service
Robbie Brigthwell and Ann Packer from the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964 Kyodo News Service

 

Arguably the biggest power couple of the 1964 Olympiad were Team GB track stars Robbie Brightwell (silver medalist in 4×400 relay) and Ann Packer, seen here hugging after Packer’s gold medal win in the 800 meter finals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad.

 

Unification flag Koreas
By Various – Outline drawn by Ksiom, Blue color from the Olympic rings., CC BY-SA 3.0,

It seems hard to believe that a nation would willingly drop usage of their flag to appease another nation, but that is what both North and South Korea are doing at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

The North Korean rocket tests in 2017 were raising tensions around the world, particularly in Asia, but South and North Korean leaders came to an agreement in January to unite the teams of the two border nations, so that they march together on opening day under the same flag.

The flag is starkly simple, a blue silhouette of the Korean peninsula on white. There are variations that include various islands, but the one that will be seen at the Winter Games will be one that includes the oval of Jeju Island near the southern tip of the peninsula.

North and South Korea have united under one flag at three previous Olympics: at the 2000 Sydney Summer Games, the 2004 Athens Summer Games, and the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. But since then, they have marched under their own flags, most recently at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.

North and South Korean Flags

There is precedent for this symbolic unity.

East and West Germany were put together under a single team at the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Winter and Summer Olympiads. Their flag was made up of the tri-colors black, red and yellow with the Olympic rings in white centering the flag. The national anthem was Beethoven’s Ninth – Ode to Joy.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in December, 1991, twelve nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union were banded together under the name “The Unified Team,” also known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). These countries were banded together in this manner because the now independent nations did not have enough time to establish National Olympic Committees with the International Olympic Committee in time.

At both the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics and the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, members of the Unified Team marched under the Olympic Flag, which was composed of the Olympic Rings on white background. Their national anthem was the Olympic theme.

It’s been eleven years, but North and South Korea will again march under the same flag. The Olympics of Ancient Greece were said to be about taking a pause in the political belligerence of mankind.

Of course, not everyone’s happy about it, as protests against North Korea’s role in the PyeongChang Olympics grow in South Korea. As this AP reports states:

Discontent has grown in South Korea in recent days over plans to include North Korea in high-profile roles during next month’s Games — complaints that prompted protesters on Monday to burn a North Korean flag and an image of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, in public.

May the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which will bring enemy brothers together, show us a better vision of ourselves.

protests against north korea
South Koreans burn a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in front of the Seoul railway station on Jan. 22, 2018. They were protesting a visit by Hyon Song Wol, head of North Korea’s art troupe. (Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)
Rose and Yamanaka
Murray Rose and Tsuyoshi Yamanaka

February

May

Betty Cuthbert 4_winning gold in the 200-meters at the 1956 Melbourne Games
Betty Cuthbert edges Christa Stubnick in 200-meter finals at the Melbourne Games

August

October

November

December

 

Syd Hoare from The A to Z of Judo
Syd Hoare portrait from back cover of his book, The A to Z of Judo
Lones Wigger_medal stand 1964
Lones Wigger waves to fans after receiving his first gold medal, in 1964 at the Tokyo Olympics. He is flanked by silver medalist Velitchko Khristov of Bulgaria, left, and bronze medalist Laszlo Hammerl of Hungary.

“He must have nerves of steel to fire such a score,” said a spectator of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics of Army First Lieutenant, Lones Wigger, who was competing in the smallbore rifle prone competition. Wigger’s score of 597, which set a new Olympic and world record.

Unfortunately for the American, a Hungarian named Laszlo Hammerl went next and tied Wigger’s score, and because of a tie breaker, went on to take gold. Wigger’s silver medal was his first of three Olympic medals. He got his gold medal four days later in the 50-meter rifle three positions competition, and got his revenge as well as Hammerl finished in third.

Competing in three Olympiads, Wigger is considered one of the greatest competitive rifle shooters in the United States. He passed away on December 14, 2017. He was 80 years old.

Wigger never considered himself a natural talent. He prided himself on his work ethic, and continuous desire to practice and improve. As this article explains, persistence is all.

Wigger’s philosophy was clearly stated on a sign that hung in the Fort Benning indoor smallbore rifle range. In plain view for all to read and absorb, it read “Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not: Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Lones Wigger_Olympia 1964 Tokio
Lones Wigger, from the book in German titled Olympia 1964 Tokio

In this article, Wigger outlined things to do to be a world-class shooter:

  • Train Just As if You are in a Competition: You have to learn how to train just as if you were in a big competition. You work on every shot. You have got to learn to treat it just like a match — to get the maximum value out of every shot. You have got to use the same technique in practice and in training. A lot of shooters have a problem because they change their technique from practice to the match. In competition, you work your ass off for every shot. You have to approach the training the same way.
  • Shoot in Every Competition You Can Get Into
  • Do Everything Possible to Prepare: When Gary Anderson was a kid, he couldn’t afford a gun or ammunition. He had read about the great Soviet shooters. With his single shot rifle, he would get into position, point that gun and dry fi re for hours at a time in the three different positions. He had tremendous desire. He wanted to win and he did whatever he could to get there. When he finally got into competition, he shot fantastic scores from the beginning.
  • Visualize Winning to Train the Subconscious Mind: You picture in your mind what you want to do. You have to say, OK, I’m going to the Olympics and perform well. Picture yourself shooting a great score and how good it feels. You are training your subconscious mind. Once you get it trained, it takes over.
Kader Rahman and Sarinder Dillon
Kader Rahman, Sarinder Dillon at Indian Recreation Club in Hong Kong

They were the lowest seeded team, and had already lost their first three matches to Malaysia, Belgium and Canada. Their fourth match at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was against India, a global field hockey powerhouse and a favorite to win gold.

But somehow, Hong Kong – a team of part-time players, primarily bankers who stayed fit in amateur clubs – held India scoreless in the first half of play. That would be akin to Team USA basketball team being tied 20-20 at the half in an Olympic first rounder against Team Haiti, for example. In the half-time huddle, the India coaches and players must have been scratching their heads wondering why they weren’t trouncing Hong Kong.

In the second half, Honk Kong had lost two of their regular defenders to injuries, and eventual gold medalist India went on to score six unanswered goals to indeed trounce Hong Kong, a team that would go 0-6-1 and place 15th of 15 teams in Tokyo.

But that was OK. After all, the players from Hong Kong were in one sense, lucky to be in Tokyo at all. Sarinder Dillon was left half on that Hong Kong field hockey team, and recalled in late 1963 that there was an outside chance Hong Kong could make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics, so they had better be ready just in case.

Hong Kong was outside the top 16 before the Olympics. But we were told that there was a good chance that one of two teams might drop out, so the president of the Hong Kong Hockey Association told us that training would start in January and that we should turn out. We thought, “this is a golden opportunity.” Hopefully a team or two would drop out, so we had to get fully fit and develop as players.

In the subsequent months, the field hockey teams from France and Poland would drop from the list, allowing Hong Kong’s field hockey team to qualify. Now it was up to the players. “We were 17 players, almost all of us bankers,” Kader Rahman, who played right half, told me.

I worked for Bank of America, others Hong Kong Bank, for example. And in those days, bankers played field hockey in amateur leagues. But when we realized that we had a chance at the Olympics, we worked at our offices from 9 am to 5pm, then took a bus to King’s Park and played a match every night. On Sundays, we played two matches. It was tough training for ten months, and most of the time, we still had not qualified.

Eventually, the Hong Kong Hockey Association selected 30 players from the various clubs for special training, eventually whittling down the team to 17 – all from different clubs. Due to the international nature of Hong Kong at the time, it was a very multi-cultural team with 7 Portuguese, 3 Indians, 2 Pakistanis, 3 Malays, and an Irishman and a Scot – all Hong Kong permanent residents. “When we walked around the Olympic Village with Hong Kong on the back of our jackets, other athletes were amazed at our team make up,” said Dillon. “We had no Chinese on the team as the few who played in Hong Kong were from the lower divisions. We all spoke English, but would sometimes talk to each other in Chinese. This further amazed the other athletes.”

In addition to the training on top of their day jobs, the members of the field hockey team were tasked with raising funds themselves. The head of the Hong Kong Hockey Association, who doubled as the Olympic squad’s team manager, went to many companies appealing for contributions. In the end, each team member was still required to put up a thousand Hong Kong dollars each of their own money to help pay for airfare, as well as the required fee for board and lodging in the Olympic Village.

Since Dillon was a student, he was asked to pay only 130 Hong Kong dollars, which his school kindly covered. But Dillon could not escape other duties required. In early September, weeks prior to the start of the Tokyo Olympics, the Olympic torch made its way through Asia, coming to Hong Kong via Manila. As Dillon was the youngest HK Olympian, he drew the short straw and got assigned midnight guard duty of the Olympic torch, to ensure its safety before it took off for Taipei the next day.

Hong Kong Field Hockey Team_1964
The Hong Kong Field Hockey Team of 1964; Sarinder Dillon seated on the ground lower left, Kader Rahman standing far right

Like the torch, the Hong Kong team made it to Tokyo, enjoying the awesomeness of a global event decades before television and the internet could bring instantaneous news and images to our homes and hands. Sarinder recalls his amazement at seeing his field hockey heroes from India and Pakistan in the Olympic Village, and naiveté at thinking that the song he repeatedly heard was the Olympic theme, only to learn it was the American national anthem.

But feelings of awe and wonder were often muffled by the reality of the Games. From October 11 to 18, Hong Kong lost their first 6 matches scoring only 2 goals to the oppositions’ 25. Their final match was against Germany, a team made up of East Germans that would eventually place 5th in the Olympic tournament. The German team and fans in the stands were expecting a rout, a shut out, based on Hong Kong’s previous matches.

Hong Kong did not comply. They scored a goal in the first half to lead the mighty Germans 1-0. In fact, they led the Germans throughout the match. With minutes to go, the players on the Hong Kong team could taste victory, a moment all underdogs dream of – a chance to shine on the biggest stage of them all.

“We were playing a blinder, out of our usual selves,” said Rahman. But then, Hong Kong, with a mere two minutes to go, was assessed a penalty resulting in a short corner chance for Germany. And when the ball flew through the air towards the line of Hong Kong players, it somehow hit the shoulder of one of the defenders and deflected into the goal. When the final whistle blew, it was Germany 1 – Hong Kong 1.

And that was the last time a team from Hong Kong, of any sport, participated in the Olympics. “Our team was 100% amateur compared to other countries in 1964 we played,” reflected Rahman. “Our results were not great, but we enjoyed our time. And today, our hockey team remains the only team from Hong Kong to go to the Olympics.”

1 Denmark 2 Great Britain 3 USA
Straigh Four finals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: 1 -Denmark, 2 – Great Britain, 3 – USA; from the collection of Theo Ted Mittet

If you think about it, we rowed together for over 3,000 miles in an intense period of several months. We rowed differently from others, we had our own thing. And here comes Geoff. He was on the Harvard team we had beaten him in the US Olympic Trials. He was an alternate, so he was wearing his blazer walking around the Ginza, having a gay old time….and then suddenly he’s told, “you’re in a boat. Get ready!”

That was Phil Durbrow, who suddenly, in the first heat of the straight four (aka coxless four) rowing competition at the Tokyo Olympics, coughed up blood and collapsed, stopping their shell dead in the water. The crew from the Lake Washington Rowing Club (LWRC), who believed, up to that moment, that they had the team and the swing to take gold, simply willed the boat across the finish line. Finishing meant being eligible for the repechage, but they would have to do so without Durbrow. Durbrow of Menlo College explains.

I sat behind Ten Nash, who was a very powerful rower. I sat behind him and my job was to even things out. Now, suddenly, Geoff had to sit behind Ted and figure out how to fit in the best he can, in maybe, two or three rowing sessions before the finals. Rowing is wonderful when there is no excess baggage. All in the boat who have to act like one, and think the same things and feel the same things and respond in the same way, balance each other perfectly. They need to be aware of currents and winds and course, and the competitors – It’s an incredibly complicated thing if you were to do it with your left side of your brain. But actually, you do it with your right side of your brain. It’s like going down the highway on the other car’s bumper doing 70 miles per hour thinking little about it. Geoff didn’t really have time to get all that.

And yet, Geoff Picard, the alternate, did.

Picard was from Harvard, training under the famed coach Harry Parker, who taught a totally different stroke technique to his rowers. According to Lyon, Pocock taught the LWRC rowers to slow down before the catch, the moment the oar hits the water, extending their reach further than the average crew, and driving fast. The Harvard rowers were trained to be slower with the hands right after the release and faster on the catch.

In the repechage, the US coxless four (which means four rowers without a coxswain), were up against France, Japan and Australia. France kept pace with the Americans for 1,500 meters, but the re-jigged team with Picard in the shell, pulled away in the final 150 yards to win by two boat lengths. Picard seemed to fit in well enough. But according to Nash, in Mallory’s book, “with our different west coast technique and rhythm, he told me he never totally felt in synch.”

With that victory, America was heading into the finals. The reality was, the repechage was only the second time the four had rowed together – would they really be able to come together in only two days and win a medal? As a matter of fact, Picard filled in admirably, giving the team a chance for a medal.

In the finals on October 15, at the Toda Rowing Center, Nash, Picard, Lyon and Mittet made a valiant effort. They fell behind quickly in the first 250 meters, in fifth behind the Netherlands, Denmark, Britain and Germany. According to Nash, the four began falling into synch, and started to move ahead, making up water on Denmark who had taken the lead. In fact, at the 1,500-meter mark, the US crew was actually in second, just in front of the Brits.

But in the final 250 meters, the Danes held on for gold. The Brits had a bit more in the tank than the American team, grabbing silver. The American team, despite the calamity of Durbrow’s sudden exit in the first heat, still managed to grab the bronze medal.

Nash bemoaned his tactical error to start the team out aggressively at the start, which may have contributed to a loss of rhythm in the early stages. But they all knew they were fortunate to get a bronze medal. “We were very thankful to have a man of Geoff’s quality as an alternate,” Lyon told me. “Another 20 to 30 strokes, we could have come together in time….”

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Bronze medalists Ted Nash, Geoff Picard, Dick Lyon and Theo Ted Mittet; from the collection of Theo Mittet.

Durbrow remembers those mixed emotions of October, 1964. “I never did see them win the bronze,” said Durbrow. “I was in a pretty deep funk. I had been trying to get to the Olympics since I was 16, and I was in a great position to do something significant.” Instead, Durbrow left Tokyo dissatisfied. To add insult to injury, the army immediately ordered him back into service in Laos.

But time heals and Durbrow has moved on, as have his teammates. One day, some 52 years later, Durbrow got a package in the mail. It was from Ted Nash, and inside the box was his bronze medal from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and a short note saying that he wanted Durbrow to have it. “Without you, our boat might not have even got to the Olympics at all.”

Mittet, remembering those days of glory half a century ago, understood that those hard days of training, the pain, the excitement, the heartbreak were all worth it for the lasting memories and the friendships forged as brothers in arms.

Yes, we have earned honor as competitors. But, we have been given so much more from our chosen sport over our life time. How could we have imagined this in our youth? Let us always remember those who encouraged us, nurtured us and mentored us along the way. If we are lucky, we have had the opportunity to do the same for others. Perhaps we have done so unknowingly – because of who we have become “deep down.”

Receiving their medals
Receiving their bronze medals; from the collection of Theo Mittet.