shizo kanakuri_1912 stockholm
Shizo Kanakuri at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics

He was one of two Japanese to compete at the 1912 Stockholm Olympians – the first Japanese Olympians. He competed in the 1920 and 1924 Olympics as well. And he created one of the most popular sporting events in Japanthe Hakone Ekiden.

Shizo Kanakuri also has the distinction of being the slowest Olympic runner in the history of sport when he competed in his first Olympics.

Despite setting what may have been a world record time of 2:32:45 for a marathon trial for the Stockholm Olympics, Kanakuri arrived in Sweden in terrible shape. It took 18 days for Kanakuri and his lone teammate, sprinter, Yahiko Mishima, to get to Sweden by ship and then by Trans-Siberian Railway  in time for the running competitions in July. And it was unexpectedly hot in Stockholm, with temperatures hitting 25 degrees Centigrade (77 degrees Fahrenheit), not ideal for long-distance runners.

Weakened by the travel, the lack of conditioning, the challenging local diet, and the heat, Kanakuri collapsed midway through the race, somewhere around the 27 kilometer mark. Members of a nearby farming family picked up the fallen runner and brought him to their home and cared for him until he was able to move on his own.

Despite the fact that half of the 68 starters also failed to complete the 42-kilometer race, Kanakuri was embarrassed by his failure to complete the marathon, and left the grounds without informing race officials. He then quietly returned to Japan.

But as far as Swedish officials were concerned, Kanakuri had simply vanished.

Fifty years later, in 1967, Kanakuri was “found” in Japan by producers from a Swedish television station, and to their credit, they made Kanakuri an offer he could not refuse – come back to Stockholm and complete the race.

shizo kanakuri_1912 and 1967
Shizo Kanakuri in 1912 and 1967

It was just prior to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and local businessmen were brainstorming for ways to raise funds to send Swedish athletes to Mexico. According to this link, they came up with this idea – “why not have Kanakuri ‘finish’ the marathon in front of the world’s media as a way to score some free publicity and attract sponsors to their cause?”

As The Japan Times reported, Kanakuri was very happy to start what he had always intended to finish, even if it took over half a century. At the age of 76, in front of the cameras, decked out in suit and tie, Kanakuri ran about 100 meters before breaking the tape and completing the world’s longest marathon.

Judging by press reports of the proceedings, the elderly gent was only too happy to oblige, running jovially around the last corner before charging through a special ribbon. His time was promptly read out — 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds — and, according to (historian) Sayama, the elderly racer then responded: “It was a long trip. Along the way, I got married, had six children and 10 grandchildren.”

Advertisements
Ralph Boston_Mexico 1968_from his collection
Ralph Boston jumping at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, from his collection.

Ralph Boston of Laurel, Mississippi came to Queens, New York to visit Jamaica High School in 1964. The gold and silver medalist of the Rome and Tokyo Olympics stood before the teenagers in the school gymnasium in his red-white-and-blue warm-up gear and talked about dreams, commitment and hard work. An 18-year-old high school senior and budding long jumper named Bob Beamon stared starry-eyed at Boston and wondered, having no idea that this great Olympian would be providing him life-changing advice four years later.

At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Boston was the World and Olympic record holder in the long jump, but the three-time Olympian knew he was approaching the end of his career, and knew that Beamon had a better chance than he did to re-take the long jump Olympic championship back from the Brits and 1964 gold medalist Lynn Davies.

Amateur photographer, Tony Duffy from London learned about Beamon from Boston himself. Duffy was on vacation in Mexico City, sitting poolside with England’s long jumper and ’64 gold medalist, Mary Rand, in the Olympic Village. According to Deadspin, 1964 long jump gold and silver medalists Lynn Davies and Boston walked by and sat down at the same table, and began talking about Beamon.

Ralph Boston and Bob Beamon_Mexico City
ack & Field: 1968 Summer Olympics: (L-R) USA Ralph Boston (256) and Bob Beamon (254) during Men’s Long Jump competition at Estadio Olimpico. Mexico City, Mexico 10/17/1968–10/18/1968 CREDIT: Walter Iooss Jr. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

The subject came around to Bob Beamon, Boston’s precocious American teammate, “a slash of a man, 6’3”, 160 pounds,” according to Sports Illustrated. Boston knew that Davies liked to play psychological games with his opponents, and he had some advice for Davies about the long-limbed, long-necked 22-year-old Beamon: “Don’t get him riled up because he’s liable to jump out of the f—ing pit.”

It’s possible that Boston was also messing with his rival’s head, but Boston knew what Beamon was capable of. And in fact, it was Boston who, on October 17, 1968, provided critical advice to Beamon. According to this great account in LetsRun of that day, Beamon had worked the previous day with sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos to work on his own sprinting speed. Beamon could run the 100 yards in 9.5 seconds, a world class sprinting time. But in the qualifying round, Beamon was simply too fast in his first two attempts, overshooting the board and fouling on both attempts. One more miss and Beamon’s great season up to that point, and his amazing potential for Olympic glory would evaporate, leaving the kid from Queens a footnote in the annals of the Mexico City Games, as Boston explained to me:

I said to Bob, “You can’t win gold today.” This is the qualifying round. It just moves you on until tomorrow. He was zipping down that runway. He hit his jump. It was probably as good as when he won on the second day, but he fouled it. “C’mon man,” I said. “All you got to do is jump 7.8 to qualify.” I took my jump and I qualified easily. I took off my spikes. Bob does it again and fouls by over a foot. I said, “Damn it, Bob. Just qualify!”

According to LetsRun, Beamon was extra careful in his final qualifying leap.

He lengthened his run-up, half-jogged down the runway, and did not come close to touching the board; Boston estimated he was 18 inches behind it when he took off, while Beamon thought it was closer to two feet. Still Beamon leaped 8.19 meters (26-10 ½), second only to Boston’s 8.27 (27-1 ¾). He was in the final.

The rest, as they say, is history. On October 18, 1968, Beamon watched three others foul before he started his sprint on his first attempt in the men’s long jump finals. Duffy, the amateur photographer without credentials took advantage of the lax security in the Estadio Olympico Universitario, and parked himself about 50 feet from the long jump pit.

And with his Nikkormat manual drive camera and 300mm lens, he knew to get ready for Beamon, just in case. Covering 130 feet in 19 strides, Beamon launched himself into the air. Sprinter Carlos thought that “he just kept climbing.” And as Beamon finally began his descent, his arms outstretched forward, his mouth and eyes wide open, a blend of possibility and joy etched on his visage, Duffy snapped away on his camera.

Bob Beamon_Tony Duffy
Tony Duffy’s photo of Bob Beamon

Beamon had leapt 8.90 meters. The distance was beyond what the optical sensors in place could pick up so it took some 20 minutes before they could determine the distance by tape measure. And when the board flashed 8.90 meters, Beamon did not know what that meant in feet, but when he learned that he hit 29 ft. 2½ inches, an astounding improvement on the world record of nearly two feet, he fell to his knees in emotional shock.

Everyone knew that after Beamon’s first jump the competition was over. Davies was famously quoted as telling Beamon, “you have destroyed this event.” Beamon made one more attempt, a relatively pedestrian 8.04 meters, and then stopped. He had the world record, one that no one would touch for another 23 years until Mike Powell raised the current world record to 8.95 in 1991.

An East German named Klaus Beer took the silver medal. And with a jump of 8.16 meters, Boston won the bronze medal, completing the gold-silver-bronze set he accumulated over three Olympiads. He also had the heartfelt admiration and gratitude of Beamon, the biggest story of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, as he explained to a reporter in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on October 19, 1968.

Whatever Beamon has achieved as a long jumper he said he has to credit Boston. “Ralph has helped me since I started jumping as a 12-year old,” Beamon recalled. “He has given me bits of information to help and he still does.”

Ed Caruthers with picture of silve jump

Tommie Smith was in Tokyo for the 1967 World University Games. A Japanese reporter came up to him and asked him, “Were Negroes now equal to the whites in the way they were treated?”

According to Richard Hoffer and his brilliant book about the 1968 Mexico City Games, Something in the Air, Smith said that they were not. Then Smith was asked if a boycott of the Mexico City Games was a possibility. Smith replied “you cannot rule out the possibility.” Since there was absolutely no talk of boycotts up to that point, Smith’s comment to the Japanese press spread to the international press, and by the time the 200-meter sprinter returned to American and to San Jose State College, otherwise known as “Speed City” for those on the sprint team, he was deluged with requests for interviews.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith
John Carlos and Tommie Smith

By the end of 1967, a sociology professor at San Jose State named Harry Edwards began building a consensus among university administrators and athlete, finding his voice on the issues of black inequality in America. He had formed an organization called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). On Thanksgiving Day that year, the OPHR via Edwards called for a boycott of the 1968 Olympics. This was soon followed by a list of demands, including

a boycott of all New York Athletic Club events (a logical move since the club maintained indefensible admission policies), It was also demanding the exclusion of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia from the Olympics, integration of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and, as a bonus, the return of Muhammad Ali’s championship crown. Edwards let it be known that they wouldn’t mind if Avery Brundage, “a devout anti-Semitic and anti-Negro personality,” be replaced as head of the IOC.”

In 1967, Ed Caruthers was the best high jumper in the world. After having tasted a bit of what competition with the best in the world was like at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Caruthers was determined to return to Mexico City and win the gold medal. He told me that his track and field teammates in Tokyo, like Mel Pender and Willie Davenport, were committed and working hard to return to the Olympics and redeem themselves of the disappointment they faced in Tokyo. So when confronted with the possibility of a boycott, the initial reaction of these Black American athletes was different from others like Tommie Smith and John Carlos – they did not believe that a boycott was the right play.

“When Dr Martin Luther King was killed on April 4, 1968, there were a lot of things going on in my mind,” Caruthers told me. “What was I going to do? What is this country going to be like? There were a lot of issues that weighed on me. In the end, I was not in favor of the boycott, and I told those guys. I told them we had to run our asses off and win, which could give us more of a voice, more of an ability to throw light on these issues. You don’t get the best audience if you boycott.”

Ed Caruthers and Dick Fosbury

In the end, the desire to compete and to take advantage of the massive audience tuning into the Olympics won over those who considered a boycott. As Smith teammate, John Carlos said in this Orange County Register interview, “I strongly thought boycotting. For many of us, it as a childhood dream to compete in the Olympics. For Ed (Caruthers), it was a double-whammy because he’d been before, gotten a taste and he wanted to go and shine.

As the world saw, Smith and Carlos saw a non-violent way to protest the state of Blacks in America, by famously donning a black glove and raising their fists in the air while bowing their heads as they stood on the winners’ podium and listened to the American national anthem. They had won the gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-meter sprint, but they were suspended from the rest of the Games for their actions.

As written in that Orange County Register article, Caruthers is still close to Smith and Carlos. A statue dedicated to the two sprinters was placed at their alma mater, San Jose State, remembering that time when they silently but powerfully spoke out for equal rights.

“If they’d boycotted the Games, nobody would remember them,” Caruthers said. “But now, here we are 40 years later, and people are still talking about it.”

Ed Caruthers Dick Fosbury and Valentin Garilov
Ed Caruthers Dick Fosbury and Valentin Gavrilov

In 1967, Ed Caruthers was the number one high jumper in the world. As a senior at the University of Arizona that year, Caruthers won the high jump competition at the NCAA indoor championship and tied for first at the NCAA outdoor championships in Provo, Utah. Adding gold in the high jump at the Pan American Games in Montreal, Caruthers lived up to his nickname – “All World.”

On September 16, 1968, a few weeks before the Summer Olympics, Caruthers cleared 7′ 3″ (2.20 m) on his first attempt to win the US track and field trials and get his ticket punched for Mexico City. A 17-year-old named Reynaldo Brown surprised the field by also clearing 7′ 3″ on his first try to make the Olympic squad.

But the most watched athlete in the trials, Dick Fosbury, made 7′ 3″ on his final attempt. As Caruthers explained to me, if Fosbury had not cleared 7-3, then the third high jump spot would have gone to John Hartfield, who cleared 7ft 2 inches in fewer attempts than Fosbury.

So Caruthers, was going to his second Olympics, after faring poorly in Tokyo in ’64. As AP put it in a September 30, 1968 article, “on the basis of his past record and his timely readiness, Caruthers must be the favorite.”

Unfortunately, being a favorite is not a guarantee or even a promise. The line between first and fifth are slim centimeters. And the high jump competition can be a painfully long process. Here’s how Caruthers recalled the competition to me:

2.22 meters is 7-3 1/4. At that height, I had it down to a science. I wanted to jump 7′ 3″ or 7′ 4″ by my sixth time. Initial jumps are 6-6 (which I could skip). A lot of the others missed, so it took a long time to just get to a height I wanted to jump, at 6 11. I had already warmed up, but I had to sit for about 90 minutes because those guys were missing so much. So my plan didn’t work out.

I ended up missing twice both at 7′ 0¼”(2.14 m) and 7′ 1¾” (2.18 m), probably because I wasn’t warmed up. So I was getting scared. I didn’t warm up like I was supposed to, or get my speed going like I needed to. I wasn’t hitting my plant well. It was a long day for the rest of the guys, but it didn’t affect Fosbury at all. He had no misses. He was right on.

As many sports fans know, Fosbury introduced a revolutionary style of jumping. It may not seem so revolutionary today, because everybody leaps over the bar head first, one’s back arching over the bar with one’s legs whipping upwards and over, hopefully landing on the mat on one’s back staring at the bar in its place. But in 1968, everyone else straddled the bar, their foot being the first thing over the bar, and Fosbury’s Flop was thought to be so unusual and awkward, people were amazed it worked.

After three hours, only three men had cleared 7′ 2½” (2.20 m): Fosbury, Caruthers, and the Soviet, Valentin Gavrilov. Fosbury and Gavrilov may have had the mental edge, as they both had not missed a jump, while Caruthers had missed as many as 4 times up to that point.

However, when the bar was raised to 7′ 3¼” (2.22 m), Gavrilov crashed out, missing on all three attempts. Caruthers missed once, but then cleared the height. Fosbury, still on a roll, made the height on his first attempt. Thus it was down to Fosbury and Caruthers for gold.

The bar was raised to 7′ 4¼” (2.24 m). Caruthers told me he was tired, having jumped 10 times over a long dragged-out period. They both missed their first two attempts, but Fosbury made it over on his third.

And so now I’m trying to figure what do I do. Even if I clear it, I’m fighting myself. Do I not jump and wait to the next height around 7′ 5″ or do I go ahead and jump here, pass and get three more jumps? I can’t lose the silver medal. If I clear it I get three more tries.

But I’m getting tired. If I pass, it gives me another 6 minutes to sit there and get relaxed and put everything into one more jump. What did I want to do? I was really close on most of my attempts. Maybe I just get this height and sit down and relax. Fosbury started to have issues too.

I chose to go ahead and try to jump it. I’m over the bar but hit it coming down. My trailing leg, my left leg, hits the bar, scraping it as I’m coming down. If I had been an inch further out, I would have cleared the bar. That was the competition right there.

Caruthers and Fosbury pushed each other, setting the Olympic record three times in the course of the battle. Fosbury would emerge as one of the stars on arguably the best US team in Summer Olympic history. Not only that, Fosbury’s success in Mexico City changed the thinking of track coaches and high jumpers around the world, immediately impacting how high jumpers jumped. Four years later in Munich, more than half of the high jumpers employed Fosbury’s technique. And from 1972 to 2000, 34 of 35 Olympic high jump medalists “flopped.”

As Caruthers reflected, Fosbury’s way of jumping “was a novelty. But when he won gold, all the kids wanted to copy him.” And when Caruthers thought back to that September day at the US Olympic trials, when Fosbury made his fateful last leap to clear 7′ 3″, his body brushing the bar, he today understands that moment may have changed history.

If Fosbury had not cleared 7-3, John Hartfield would have made the team and Fosbury would have stayed home. If Fosbury had not been on the team, Caruthers may have stood on the top podium with a gold medal, and perhaps even more significantly, the Fosbury revolution would not have happened.

“That one jump in the trials in Lake Tahoe – if he didn’t make that last jump, it would have taken another two or three Olympic Games before anyone tried it. But because he won the gold medal, high jumping changed forever.”

Szewińska and her Tokyo medals
Szewińska and her Tokyo medals

In 1964, one of the more powerful track and field teams at the Tokyo Olympics was the team from Poland. Jozef Szmidt won his second straight gold in the triple jump. Andrzej Badenski took bronze in a tough men’s 400-meter competition, and the Polish men from the 100-meters relay team took silver behind the Americans.

The 4×100 women’s relay team did even better, streaking to gold and an (apparent) world record in Tokyo. The women who ran the second leg was Irena Kirszenstein Szewinska. The then-20-year-old from Warsaw was starting a career that would carry her through five consecutive Olympiads. In that period, she captured an amazing total of seven Olympic track and field medals.

In addition to her gold medal in the 100-meter relays and a silver in the 200 meters, she was a silver medalist in the long jump as well. But she was indeed a sprinter at heart, and set 10 world records in the 100 meters, 200 meters and the 400 meter sprints.

At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, she won her first individual sprinting gold medal in the 200-meter sprint finals in come-from-behind style. Seemingly behind 4 or 5 other runners, when she hit the straightaway, she accelerated and pulled away with ease, as you can see in the video below.

After winning a bronze medal in the 200 meters at the Munich Olympics in 1972, Kirszenstein Szewinska reinvented herself. In 1973, she began competing in the longer 400 meters, and as her IAAF Hall of Fame profile page states, “she quickly proved very adept at the new distance. The following year she became the first woman to break 50 seconds over one lap of the track.”

“My favorite event was the 200 meters because deep down I felt like a sprinter,” she said in this short video on the Polish Olympian. “My heart always belonged to sprint. Nevertheless, I always treated the 400 meters as a long spring, and that’s why I was successful at that distance as well.”

Szewińska 400 meter finals Montreal
Szewińska pulling away in the 400 meter finals at Montreal

In Montreal, at the age of 30, she punished the competition, set a world record, and won her most satisfying gold medal.

“I had been running for 20 years. During that time, there were many important moments. But I suppose the most important moment of all of them was the last gold medal I won at the Montreal Games for the 400 meters.”

One of the greatest women track and field stars of the 20th century, Kirszenstein Szewinska has continued her career in sports as an administrator, including Vice-President (1995-1999) then Executive Board Member (1999-2003) of the World Olympians’ Association (WOA), member of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) Women’s Committee (1984-2007).

Vera Caslavska and Josef Odlozil married
Vera Caslavska and Josef Odlozil married

The pace set by the Kenyans was relentless. The thin air of Mexico was punishing. Favorite Jim Ryun, weakened by a bout with mononucleosis, was whipped by 3 seconds, as Kip Keino dashed to a gold-medal finish in the 1,500 meters at the Mexico City Olympics.

Thirteen seconds after Keino crossed the finish line, Josef Odlozil of Czechoslovakia, finished in twelfth place. It was a poor finish compared to his silver medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but in the end, Odlozil won the bigger prize.

At the end of the 1968 Olympics, Odlozil married compatriot, and one of the darlings of the Mexico City Games, Vera Caslasvska. The Czech gymnast who won three gold medals in Tokyo, did even better in Mexico City with four more golds. Thousands of people came out to the Mexico City Cathedral to wish the Olympic couple well.

Their marriage was to last not quite 20 years, ending in divorce in 1987. Those 20 years must have been filled with mini dramas, as Odlozil apparently worked for the Czech Army, while Caslavska struggled to establish a productive career after returning from Mexico City. She had supported anti-government movements, and protested against the Soviet invasion after the so-called Prague Spring. Caslavska was not allowed to leave the country or get coaching work.

Odlozil and Caslavska had two children, a boy named Martin and girl named Radka. It appears that relations between father and son were poor, possibly leading to a tragic conclusion.

On August 7, 1993, Odlozil was in a placed called “U Cimbury”, described as a “disco-restaurant” in this post from Once Up a Time in the Vest. As it turned out, Odlozil’s estranged son Martin was also present. Words were exchanged. Punches were thrown. Odlovil fell to the ground, hitting his head, and subsequently fell into a prolonged coma. A little over a month later on September 10, 1993, Odlovil died.

vera caslavska and josef odlozil prague castle_ALAMY
Vera Caslavska and Josef Odlozil Prague Castle_ALAMY

His son Martin was sentenced to four years in prison for murder.

His wife, Vera, fell into depression and was rarely seen in public.

Was Josef looking for his son Martin? Was it true that Martin, upon seeing his father, went to the DJ and request a song called “Green Brains” that was considered offensive to members of the Czech Army? Did Martin, in a fit of rage, go to his father’s car and vandalize it?

All the eyewitnesses were said to be drunk. The only thing that was clear – father and son were in the same place where a fight took place, and Odlovil fell to the floor unconscious.

From the Fall of 1968 to the Fall of 1993, a 25-year drama came to a horrific close.

Being an Olympic champion shields us not from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

A Teaching Moment at the Singapore Sports Museum
A Teaching Moment at the Singapore Sports Museum

Canagasabai Kunalan strolled through the Singapore Sports Museum, walking his guest through Singapore’s greatest sporting achievements, explaining the history with enthusiasm, with the skills honed over decades as a teacher.

But C. Kunalan was more than just a teacher. As we walked through the corridors, passers-by would recognize the fit, elderly gentleman as the man who held the title, Singapore’s fastest, for decades. In fact, Kunalan had held at different points the fastest marks in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters in Singapore track history.

It was 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, when Kunalan set the Singapore record for 100 meters, a mark that stood for 33 years.

Jim Hines set the world record in the 100-meters in Mexico City with a time of 9.95, considerably faster than Kunalan’s 10.38. But when you think about it purely from a statistical perspective, Singapore had a tiny talent pool. The population of Singapore in 1968 was 2 million, only 1% of the entire US population, and roughly the same population of Hines’ state of Arkansas that year.

C Kunalan in Mexico City_2
Kunalan finishing third (719) in a 100-meter heat to advance. Eventual gold winner Jim Hines strolls into the finish.

Kunalan defied the odds, advancing beyond the first round at the Mexico City Games to be recognized as one of the top 32 fastest men in the world. And if you know the history of Southeast Asia in the 1960s, you know that in 1968, Singapore was only in its third year as a sovereign nation. It wasn’t clear until the last days before departing Singapore whether Kunalan had the funds to even travel to Mexico.

In the end, Kunalan made it to Mexico City, and he was there to compete. But he knew, as a sprinter, he and his teammates were significantly behind those in the advanced industrial economies, or in the nations under the flag or influence of the Soviet Union. In his biography, C. Kunalan – Singapore’s Greatest Track and Field Athlete, written by Steven Quek, a one-time colleague of his in the National Institute of Education, Quek explains how support and role modeling by others contributed to his development.

At the Mexico City Olympics Kunalan recalled simple but powerful gestures: USA Assistant Track Coach Stan Wright offering Kunalan the use of Team USA’s masseurs for a pre-competition rub down, or Bahaman sprinter Tom Robinson coming up to Kunalan to suggest that the Singaporean be aware that he was exerting too much effort into the first 20 meters of his sprint, when he should in fact be conscious of staying relaxed. “Tom, a world-class athlete, was willingly sharing advice with an unknown from Asia. Kunalan never forgot this.”

After Kunalan’s competitions ended, he was then able to watch the very best athletes in the world demonstrate the highest levels of physical achievement:

Ever the teacher, Kunalan understood that for Singapore athletes to succeed internationally, to reach the world-class levels on display at the Olympics, their training must improve, as he explained in a letter to his wife:

We must get very serious about training. There are about 6 short men all doing 10 or 10.1. Why? Arms and legs big!! Mine only 1/2. You know darling! If I can get their strength, I will be doing 10 sec too.

C Kunalan in Mexico City_1
C, Kunalan in Mexico City

Kunalan would retire from track in 1970, but would go on to become one of Singapore’s most successful primary and secondary school teachers, twice being recognized as “Teacher of the Year”. He currently works for the Singapore Sports Council, in offices near the Singapore Sports Museum.

Maybe you’ll be lucky to see him there, get a tour like I did, and learn from a man who has literally lived the history of Singapore sports.

Lance Wyman
Lance Wyman

Lance Wyman was an aspiring graphic designer in 1966 when he learned that the International Olympic Committee and the Mexican Olympic Committee were looking to hire a team to create the emblem and associated design concept for the entire 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games.

He and his partner, Peter Murdoch, thought to themselves, why not us? They booked a one-way ticket to Mexico City, which is all they could afford, according to this brilliant podcast from 99 Percent Invisible, hoping to make a name for themselves.

Wyman_Mexico_68_Olympics_radiating

One disadvantage the two American designers may have had initially was that they had never been to Mexico, and knew practically nothing about the country’s culture or history. So they embarked on a crash course immediately. When they visited the Museum of Anthropology, examining the stone murals of the Aztec and Mayan civilizations, they were struck by the similarities in artwork centuries before to the 1960s, when op-art was a popular form of expression.

“I actually was floored by some of the early cultures,” says Wyman in the podcast, “because they were doing things that we were doing in a contemporary way with geometry and with graphics.” The podcast went to explain that the bold lines and bright colors and geometric shapes reminded Wyman of the kind of Op art that was popular among contemporary artists back in New York.

lance wyman peter murdoch
Lance Wyman, his wife Neila, and Peter Murdoch (1966)

 

Wyman thought that they should take advantage of the circles in the digits of ’68, which is the year of the Mexico City Olympics, and blend those circles into the five Olympic rings. Additionally, the techniques of op-art, also known as optical art, which uses techniques of contrast and geometry to create an illusion of movement, were employed as waves of lines surrounding the text and numbers. Those lines were based on a new font Wyman and Murdoch created, made up of three lines that always curved, but never bent.

Their design was so impactful, that the Olympic organizing committee began employing their design in collaterals even before they informed Wyman and Murdoch that they had won the competition.

But the reason why the 99 Percent Invisible podcast is so fascinating is that Wyman’s design concept was so powerful, it was co-opted by a group in some ways trying to undermine the Olympics. And Wyman didn’t mind.

Mexico was undergoing a significant socio-economic and political transformation, brought on by a stronger economy. But there was reason to believe that the fruits of the growing economy was not trickling down to the middle classes or the masses, or at least not fast enough. In Mexico City, anti-government protests were happening frequently enough in the summer of 1968, that the government began to get uneasy that their Olympic Games, scheduled to open in October of that year, were under threat.

As related in a previous post, a series of anti-government protests in Mexico City culminated in a protest where around 10,000 university and high school students met at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas on October 2. The government decided enough was enough, and sent armed troops through the crowds and opened fired. Only 10 days prior to the start of the Mexico City Olympics, dozens, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands were killed that day.

As the podcast explains, students began to co-opt Wyman’s designs. One common image was one of a white dove that was ever present in Mexico – a white image on black. The students went all over town painting red splotches on the dove’s white breast as if it had been pierced by a bullet or a knife.

dove-protest-600x150

As this 99 PI article describes, Wyman’s designs were so universal they could serve both sides of the political war:

Despite his relative isolation at work, Wyman heard about the massacre. “When I heard about it and how severe it was it was a very difficult situation because I was working for the government and I couldn’t do anything about it,” he says. He empathized with the students and had mixed feelings about continuing his work.  But, in a way, he didn’t need to choose between the government and the protesters. His designs found a way to serve both sides.

My Onitsuka Tiger Mexico City sneakers

I love my Onitsuka Tiger sneakers. I bought white high tops last year, but this year, I bought Made-in-Japan Mexico 66, red leather with golden Onitsuka stripes – they fit like a glove and look great!

When a young accountant and middle-distance runner named Phil Knight put on a pair of Onitsuka Tigers, so many years ago, he must have loved them too. In those early years of the Sneaker Wars, that primarily pit German brands Puma and Adidas against each other, this recent Stanford grad still had his MBA thesis paper in his head – “Can Japanese Sports Shoes Do to German Sports Shoes What Japanese Cameras Did to German Cameras?”

On a trip to Japan in 1962, Knight made it a point to meet Kihachiro Onitsuka, whose company made the Tigers. As Barbara Smit wrote in her landmark book, Sneaker Wars, Knight fast talked his way into a distributorship.

Although he didn’t have any business to his name, Knight cheekily introduced himself as an American distributor, instantly making up Blue Ribbon Sports as a company name. He bluffed so convincingly that Onitsuka gave him an exclusive deal to sell Tiger in the United States.

Onitsuka and Bikila
Kihachiro Onitsuka with Abebe Bikila at that fateful meeting.

So in January, 1964, Knight and his friend, the famed track coach of the University of Oregon, Bill Bowerman, officially formed the company, Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS), and became the exclusive distributor for Onitsuka Tiger athletic shoes. For close to a decade, BRS made Onitsuka Tiger sneakers available to American consumers, as well as Bowerman’s own track team members, including Kenny Moore who wrote the book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. One day Moore was in the middle of a casual 20-mile run when he felt pain in his right foot. When Bowerman told Moore to show him his shoe, it was a Tiger model TG-22. After ripping the shoe apart with his hands, he said “If you set out to engineer a shjoe to bend metatarsals until they snap you couldn’t do much better than this,” he said. “Not only that, the outer sole rubber wears away like cornbread. This is not a shit shoe, it’s a double-shit shoe.”

As it turns out, BRS unwittingly marketed the TG-22 as a running shoe, when actually it was a high-jump shoe. Regardless, this shoe autopsy led to a spark of ingenuity in Bowerman – a prototype of a new running shoe: “The outer sole was industrial belting. A cushiony innersole ran the entire length of the shoe, under a shock-absorbing arch support.” Moore explained that he ran thousands of miles in these prototypes, which continuously got tweaked, until finally BRS and Ontisuka decided to mass produce in 1966.

They wanted to call the new shoe, The Aztec, in honor of the coming 1968 Mexico City. Unfortunately, Adidas had already began selling the Azteca Gold. Then Knight had an epiphany – to use the name of the conqueror of the Aztecs. And thus was born the iconic running shoe, The Tiger Cortez.

Blue Ribbon Store Front_onitsuka

The Cortez made BRS a viable company. John Jaquar, who would join the board of directors, would recall the many times Nike tried to discontinue the Cortez. “But people kept wanting them, so they making them,” he would say. “It was the first stable, cushioned shoe for the roads, a comfortable shoe, and so many people liked it that it was the first shoe that made running shoes acceptable in fashion.”

The Cortez helped drive growth for BRS and Onitsuka Tiger in the mid-1960s, proving that the relatively quick decision for Kihachiro Onitsuka to sign Phil Knight up as US distributor was indeed a good one. And yet that decision, eventually led to conflict, and the birth of the world’s dominant sneaker brand – Nike.

Lew Alcindor and Coach John Wooden
Lew Alcindor and Coach John Wooden

The 1964 US men’s basketball team had a chip on its shoulder because it was feared they would be the first American team to lose a game in the Olympics, even with NBA champions Bill Bradley, Walt Hazzard, Mel Counts, Luke Jackson and Jeff Mullins, as well as famed coach, Larry Brown. USA took gold fairly handily at the Tokyo Games.

But one could argue, in retrospect, that the 1968 US men’s basketball team had even less star power and a greater chance of losing a game. There were future NBA champions Jo Jo White and Spencer Haywood, but the rest were a collection of (certainly) great athletes, many of whom ended up bouncing around the American Basketball Association.

The person who could have been the center of attention on the team was the UCLA star, Lew Alcindor. Alcindor, who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, led his high school to three straight NYC Catholic championships, and then, from 1967 to 1969, three straight NCAA championships with UCLA.

Abdul-Jabbar was in his collegiate prime, but declined to go to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. In fact, he boycotted the Olympics to protest what he believed to be injustice for black Americans. The now NBA hall of famer and 6-time NBA champion published a book entitled “Coach Wooden and Me“, and explained his rationale, as excerpted in this article from NBC Sports. He wrote that while he wanted to go to Mexico City and play against the world’s best, he felt that it was more important to raise his social activist voice:

…the idea of going to Mexico to have fun seemed so selfish in light of the racial violence that was facing the country. The previous summer had seen two major riots, one in Newark that had lasted five days, and one in Detroit that had lasted eight days. And on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated. White America seemed ready to do anything necessary to stop the progress of civil rights, and I thought that going to Mexico would seem like I was either fleeing the issue or more interested in my career than in justice. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I did go and we won, I’d be bringing honor to the country that was denying our rights.

Coach Wooden and Me

The decision to boycott by the great center for the UCLA Bruins spurred “a firestorm of criticism, racial epithets, and death threats.” But he explained that the UCLA administration and his famed coach, John Wooden, did not try to dissuade Abdul-Jabbar from his conviction to protest. And yet, Abdul-Jabbar, then and for many years later, felt in his heart that Wooden did not approve. Although Wooden never voiced his views, Abdul-Jabbar thought, “I just knew that he was very patriotic. He had been a lieutenant in the navy during World War II. I couldn’t imagine him endorsing my refusal to play in the Olympics and bring glory to the U.S.”

But he was wrong.

Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his book that he received a letter from a woman he did not know about a letter that she got from Coach Wooden, in reply to her letter to him criticizing Abdul-Jabbar’s decision to boycott the Olympics.

Dear Mrs. Hough,

The comments of this most unusual young man also disturbed me, but I have seen him hurt so much by the remarks of white people that I am probably more tolerant than most.

I have heard remarks within his hearing such as “Hey, look at that big black freak,” “Did you ever see such a big N—-r?” and others of a similar nature that might tend to turn the head of a more mature person in normal times. I am truly afraid that he will never find any peace of mind regardless or not of whether he makes a million dollars. He may be able to afford material things, but they are a poor substitute for true peace of mind.

You may not have seen or read about the later interview when he said that there were so many things wrong at present of the treatment of his race in this country that it was difficult for him to claim it as his own.

Thank you for your interest,

John Wooden

Wow. To have one’s perceptions flipped 180 degrees in a moment, to realize that such unspoken assumptions, living quietly in one’s bosom for decades, were false, can be both dagger and balm.

I read the letter again. Then again. Oh, Coach, I thought, I wish I’d known how you felt. If only to ease the burden you’d taken on to defend me. I thought back on my own arrogance at thinking I understood the man by reducing him to the kind of easy stereotype, the very thing that I’d been complaining about my whole life when it was done to me. He’d been too humble ever to say anything to me about the letter. Most people would have made a point of telling me how they’d come to my defense. But Coach Wooden didn’t care about receiving credit. A good deed was its own reward. Seeking praise or gratitude would have negated the deed.

I will have to add “Coach Wooden and Me” to my read list.