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)
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aska cambridge in rio
Aska Cambridge

When around 98% of a nation is perceived to be of the same ethnicity, it stands to reason that nationality and ethnicity are viewed as one and the same.

But Japan has been a magnet for those seeking opportunity as well as for Japanophiles, particularly since the economy boomed in the 1980s. As the influential Japanese television entertainment industry increasingly viewed diversity as a way to get more viewers, Japanese-speaking foreigners became more popular. Children of mixed marriages, those who essentially grew up Japanese, have now become de rigeur on Japanese television.

I was one of those foreigners who came to Japan in the 1980s, but because I am of Japanese ethnicity, I have been able to blend in. I get neither fingers pointed at me, nor praise for my Japanese proficiency. But even though my cultural background is American, I can see why the attention of Japanese still, to this day, perk up when a non-Japanese is in their midst. The non-Japanese is such a tiny population that they really do stick out. Like the majority of the film, Lost in Translation, the minority experience for the “gaijin” in Japan is clichéd. And yet true.

So when the Japanese men’s 4X100 relay team very unexpectedly took silver at the Rio Olympics, losing only to the vaunted team from Jamaica, it was a very special moment for Japan. Not only did the Japanese excel in an area they are not customarily strong in – the sprint – a 23-year-old named Aska Cambridge (ケンブリッジ飛鳥), the child of a Japanese mother and a Jamaican father – was a proud member of those Japanese speedsters. He ran for the Japanese squad, he speaks fluent Japanese, and yet, he doesn’t fit the everyday look of what most Japanese perceive as Japanese.

Mashu Baker and his mother
Mashu Baker and his mom.

When a 21-year-old Japanese won judo gold in the 90kg weight class at the Rio Olympics, Japan cheered. At the 2012 London Games, no Japanese won gold in judo, the most Japanese of all the Olympic competitions. In fact, no Japanese had won the 90kg weight class since it was introduced in 1980. So who brought back the glory? A person named Mashu Baker (ベイカー茉秋), the son of a Japanese mother and an American father.

At first glance, he looks Japanese. But it’s the name that sticks out. Baker is clearly not a Japanese name, and it is written in the press in katakana, the script reserved for foreign words. Interestingly, the first name “Mashu”, while spelled out in Chinese characters, was likely chosen because of its close approximation to the name “Matthew”. I don’t know what’s written on his US passport, but it’s possible the Bakers decided they wanted their son to be identified in Japan as a “ha-fu”, a child of mixed parentage.

“Ha-fu” over the decades, perhaps centuries, have on the whole experienced more prejudicial than preferential treatment. But I do not underestimate the power of role models. I am sure that the brilliant examples of Aska Cambridge and Mashu Baker will continue to help revise how Japanese, and the rest of the world, perceive what a Japanese is.

And that’s a good thing.

One of my go-to books for great images from the Tokyo Olympics is the coffee table to me, “Tokyo Olympiad 1964” published by the Kyodo News Agency. On one page, the book tells a wonderful story about the joy of victory through three fantastic pictures.

Ewa Klobukowska anchored a Polish women’s team that won gold in the 4 X 100 relay race, and set a world record time of 43.0 seconds, defeating the American and British teams that took silver and bronze respectively. Klobukowska, who also took bronze in the women’s 100 meter compeition, was so happy in victory that when requested by an official to return the baton, she didn’t want to give it back. I’ve provided the captions from the book below.

“Hannah, we’ve made it.” Poland’s anchor Eva Klobukowska (center) embraces Teresa Barbara Ciepla (extreme right), excited over the world record their team set in the Women’s 400 M Relay.
“Say, young lady, you can’t take it with you!”
“But I want to. I love this baton.” – Poland’s Eva Klobukowska.

“Eva, give it to me.” Poland’s Teresa Barbara Ciepla takes the baton past the official into the dugout.

Five years later,