Abie Grossfeld Muriel Grossfeld Armando Vega Ron Barak_May 1964_Getty
Abie Grossfeld Muriel Grossfeld Armando Vega Ron Barak_May 2, 1964. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

After the 1964 Tokyo Olympics ended, the USA gymnastics team, both men and women’s teams, were asked to tour various cities in Japan, like Kyoto and Kobe, on a gymnastic exhibition. The US team travelled with the teams from Czechoslovakia, West Germany and Japan teams in these exhibitions.

On this tour, the men got permission from the Japanese organizers that the wives of the male gymnasts on the US team could accompany their husbands on the tour. The wives had plans to depart Japan prior to the end of the tour, so the organizers agreed to arrange for their trip back to Tokyo so that they could make their flights home.

According to the assistant head coach of the men’s team and veteran of the Melbourne and Rome Olympics, Abie Grossfeld, the wives were readying to depart Kobe for Tokyo by train when they were quite suddenly given orders to stay. The head of the gymnastics arm of the Amateur Athletics Union (AAU), George Gulack, informed the team that the wives were considered “part of the team”, and thus could not leave the tour prematurely. According to Grossfeld, Gulack simply “would not budge” on the matter.

Another member of the men’s gymnastics team, Ron Barak, was on the tour with his wife, Barbie. Giving Gulack the benefit of the doubt, Barak believes that “Gulack’s heart may have been in the right place,” wanting to ensure that the American’s put on the best presence possible, much the way the U.S. men’s Ryder Cup golf team always has the wives front and center in that international competition every two years. “No matter,” Barak said, “Gulack’s methods and style were terrible.” Barak recalls that that his wife had dysentery and had to leave the tour prematurely, which she did without incident or difficulty, along with the wife and sister of teammate Armando Vega.

George Gulack_1980_Tales of Gold
George Gulack in 1980, from the book Tales of Gold

Still, both Abie Grossfeld and Muriel Grossfeld recall an emotional conflict during the post-Olympics exhibition tour, and were upset that Gulack was still making decisions on his own, without explanation. To Abie Grossfeld, the attempt to control the itinerary of the wives of the male gymnasts on the exhibition was one straw too many.

According to Muriel Grossfeld, a member of the women’s team, they were up all night discussing whether and how they should push back. The team agreed to inform the Japanese organizers that if George and Fay Gulack were not kicked off the exhibition tour, they would leave for Tokyo immediately. Grossfeld said that the Germans, Czechs and Japanese should have been enough firepower to keep the tour chugging along.

So when they gathered together in the hotel lobby the next morning, the Japanese organizers saw the American men’s and women’s teams, with their bags packed for a train to Tokyo. The organizers realized trouble was brewing. The US team explained their case, and said that it was either the Gulacks or the US team, but both would not continue on the tour. “We said we would return to Tokyo, and we had our bags packed,” Grossfeld told me. “We were ready to walk out.”

According to both Abie and Muriel Grossfeld, after that meeting, the Gulacks were no longer on the tour as a result. One can only wonder whether the Japanese had to explain this to the Gulacks, a terribly difficult position to be put in with such senior foreign guests. Were the Gulacks told to leave the tour? Did they read the writing on the wall and slip away quietly on their own?

In the end, people all over Japan were coming out to see the gymnasts in the afterglow of an amazing Olympiad, people who could not afford the money or time to go to Tokyo during the Games. They were not coming out to see the Gulacks. But news of this sudden decision did not make it to the officials in the next exhibition city apparently. When the teams were greeted and formal photos of the teams were taken with city officials, Grossfeld said that the photo ended up looking quite eerie – two empty chairs which were placed for the Gulacks, were never removed.

When the gymnasts returned to the US, Abie and Muriel Grossfeld (who were a married couple at the time) were “summoned” by the AAU to their office in New York City, as they were viewed by the AAU as the ringleaders of this “rebellion”.

The main questions of the discussions between the Grossfelds and the AAU was whether they were insubordinate, or whether George Gulack made the right decisions on behalf of the AAU and the USOC. Grossfeld used as evidence a letter signed by all of the members of the women’s gymnastics team, including Janie Speaks, that Doris Fuchs should be part of the competing team.

A main part of the defense was that nepotism had an inordinate and unnatural impact on the selection of gymnasts for major competitions. The Grossfelds claimed that the appointment of George Gulack’s wife, Fay, to be judge at the World Championships, the National Championships and the Olympic Trial gymnastic competitions, was inappropriate. The issue to the Grossfelds was that Fay Gulack was “devoid of gymnastics technical knowledge”.

“Fay Gulack’s only ‘expertise’ was through being an observer as part of an audience at various competitions,” wrote Abie Grossfeld. “We challenged Fay Gulack to name just one part of the Olympic compulsory exercises in any of the four gymnastics events in that she had judged the compulsory exercises in several meets that year including the Olympic Trails and intrasquad. She could not name one part of an exercise.”

Nothing came of the meeting. But as it turned out, the state of gymnastics in the United States, and perhaps amateur sports worldwide, was in the midst not of a revolution, but an evolution. It took another 6 years, but in 1970, it was decided to replace the AAU with the United States Gymnastics Federation as the US gymnastics organization recognized by the International Federation of Gymnastics Congress (FIG). The days of Gulack and the old school my-way-or-the-highway leadership style faded into the history books.

Dale Kephart_2_Janie Speaks, Marie Walther, Muriel Grossfeld, Linda Metheny, Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan, Doris Fuchs.jpg
Team USA 1964: Janie Speaks, Marie Walther, Muriel Grossfeld, Linda Metheny, Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan, Doris Fuchs, from the personal collection of Dale McClements Kephart

The US women’s gymnastics trials were done. The women’s team was set.

Doris Fuchs, Muriel Grossfeld, Linda Methany, Dale McClements Kephart, Janie Speaks, and Marie Walther were selected to represent the United States in Tokyo at the XVIII Olympiad in 1964. The USSR and the Czechs were heavily favored, and the US women were not expected to medal. But you still have to play the game. You still have to believe you have a chance.

But even world-class athletes balance their emotions on the razor’s edge of confidence and collapse. Going into major competitions, many demand that they keep to their routines, and be steered clear of interruptions and distractions. And yet, the women’s gymnastics team faced the ultimate of distractions – a second trial to again determine which gymnasts would compete in the Tokyo Olympics.

According to a member of the women’s gymnastics team, Dale McClements Kephart, the head coach, Vannie Edwards, unexpectedly held an intra-squad competition on October 15, only a day prior to the start of the women’s competition. Of the 7 members of the women’s gymnastics team (including the alternate), four were asked to join the competition: Fuchs, Grossfeld, Speaks and the alternate, Kathy Corrigan.

Dale Kephart_3
Dale McClements Kephart, from her own collection

This is how McClements Kephart described the day in her diary, through her 19-year old eyes:

October 15th:  All the teams competing with us worked with us in the competitive gym and it was run like the meet.  We marched in, a gong was sounded at the beginning or our workout at an event and at the end.  We had 30 minutes.  then we marched to the next event, etc.  Our order of competition will be F.X., vaulting, Bars and Beam.  As far as our team is concerned, the order is not good, but it probably won’t matter that much.  Again we ended up making fools of ourselves (officials).  Here all the other teams made good use of the time by going through approximately 2 compulsories and an optional.  Instead three of us had a meet and all we worked was compulsories.  Doris, Muriel and Kathy competed compulsory and optional and Janie in only 2 events. 

A big strain was put on all of them and Linda, Marie and I didn’t get to hardly get up on the equipment because they had to all warm up and go through compulsories and optionals.  Then we had our little meeting and Doris was named the alternate.  This wasn’t really a shock, but it still hurt to know they were making such a big mistake.  Doris did crack during the competition.  Many of the Japanese, the Czechs and Russians feel it is all wrong and cannot understand it.  I do know the officials dislike her as a person and I’ve decided that this is what really happened.

When McClements Kephart wrote the word “officials”, she was referring to George Gulack, the head of the chair of AAU Gymnastics, and his wife, Fay Gulack, who was the women’s team manager in Tokyo. McClements Kephart felt that the Gulacks, for some reason, did not like Doris Fuchs personally.

At the end of that impromptu competition, the alternate on the team, Corrigan, was added to the starting team, while Doris Fuchs was unceremoniously switched from starter to alternate.

Abie Grossfeld, who was the assistant coach of the men’s team, and who observed this intra-squad competition, watched as Fay Gulack judged Speaks, and watched as Speaks fell off the balance beam twice. Muriel Grossfeld told me that Fay Gulack claimed Fuchs’ performance in the trial’s uneven bar competition was flawed, that her split – a leap off of the beam with legs spread – wasn’t high enough. But Fay Gulack didn’t buy that explanation because she also saw Speaks fall off the beam in the compulsory twice.

To the Grossfelds, Speaks performed poorly, and Fuchs was the third best member of the team as well as a superior performer in the uneven bars, so the change in team roster was seemingly inexplicable.

 

Abie Grossfeld
Abie Grossfeld

 

 

A day away from the biggest competition of their lives, the team was in turmoil, and the issue was escalated to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). In a hastily arranged “trial”, Abie and Muriel Grossfeld argued the defense of Fuchs, explaining that Fuchs had already made the team in the trials and should be one of the final six members of the team. The Grossfeld’s explained that she wasn’t the seventh best on the team, she was actually the third best overall performer.

But the passionate appeal fell on deaf ears. When all was said and done, the USOC official said that it was the head coach’s decision. The head coach of the women’s gymnastics team was Vannie Edwards, who refused to change his mind. According to Abie Grossfeld, after the gymnastics teams arrived in Tokyo, Edwards told him that George Gulack, wanted Doris Fuchs to be the alternate. Grossfeld said that Edwards went along with the decision because “he was afraid that GG (Gulack) would hurt his future gymnasts in competition.”

In the end, Speaks finished worst on the American team in the all-around individuals, 62nd of 83 competitors. But to be fair, Marie Walther and Muriel Grossfeld finished 60th and 58th respectively. The team overall finished an underwhelming ninth, as the powerful Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Japan teams took gold, silver and bronze.

Then again, was the team given a chance, prepped to be their best on the biggest stage in their sport? Probably not. 

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Vera Casalavska, from the book, Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha

It was 2011, at the gymnastics World Championships in Tokyo, and a special luncheon was held at the Olympic Stadium. Abie Grossfeld, an assistant coach of the US men’s gymnastics team in 1964, was at that luncheon, and remembers when Vera Caslavska entered the room. “All stood up and gave her a standing ovation,” he wrote. “That’s the respect we all gave her.”

Caslavska was the Queen of gymnastics in the 1960s, taking the reins from legendary Russian gymnast, Larisa Latynina. After Latynina won consecutive golds in the All-Arounds in Melbourne in 1956 and in Rome in 1960, Caslavska did the same in Tokyo in 1964 and then in Mexico City in 1968. In addition to a team silver medal in Rome, Caslavska (pronounced cha-SLAF-ska), won a total of 11 medals in her Olympic career, including 7 gold medals. She is the most decorated Olympian from Czechoslovakia, before or after her country broke apart.

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Takashi Ono, Vera Caslavska, Abie Grossfeld, and Yuri Titov at the World Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo, 2011; from Abie Grossfeld

She was also immensely popular due to her beauty queen looks. As a former coach described her, she was “like someone you’d take to the high school prom. She had a big bouffant hairstyle and a very womanly body.” Right after the Olympic Games in Mexico City, she married fellow Czech Josef Odlozil in a Roman Catholic ceremony in Mexico City, an event that “was mobbed by thousands of supporters,” cementing her hold on the public imagination.

On August 30, 2016, Vera Caslavska of Prague, passed away. She was 74 years old.

In the 1960s, as gymnasts began blending athleticism and balleticism, Caslavska seemed to find the right balance. Muriel Grossfeld, a member of the US women’s gymnastics team, and she told me that in the 1960s, judges were trying to find the right standard to judge gymnasts. “Until we got the new scoring system, scoring was like a pendulum. One time the more artistic gymnast won, but maybe the next time the more athletic gymnast won. I think Caslavaska blended both very well.”

Why was she so good? As Muriel Grossfeld told me, “she worked hard. She was a perfectionist. Her work ethic was enormous. I remember her working on routine after routine on the beam. 40 times a day!” Makoto Sakamoto was also a member of the US men’s gymnastics team in the 1960s and agreed with Muriel Grossfeld’s assessment. Sakamoto was at a dual US-Czech gymnastics meet in the winter of 1964 where he saw Caslavska compete. He told me he admired the professionalism and preparation of Caslavska.

“I was sixteen and she was about 21 years old.  We both won the all-around  title, but what I remember most about her was the way she prepared for her performances.  Instead of having her coach carry the heavy vaulting board, she did it by herself. When the uneven bar snapped in half  during one of her performances, she just waited patiently until a replacement bar could be installed.  Then she performed her routine without any mistakes.”

Sakamoto also remembers when Caslavska dominated at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He had been training in Tokyo and was actually in the hospital recovering from a ruptured achilles tendon when he “witnessed on black and white television one of the most moving artistic performances” he had ever experienced: Caslavska’s floor exercise routine at the Mexico City Games, performed to the “magic rhythm of the Mexican Hat Dance.” Muriel Grossfeld, who was in Mexico City agreed, telling me “that was a very smart song selection, was fun and built a lot of enthusiasm in the arena.”

She was so dominant in the 1960s that Caslavska is still the only gymnast, male or female to have won gold in every individual artistic gymnastic discipline. As 1984 Olympic gold medalist, Bart Connor, recently said about Caslavska, “She was one of the most dominant gymnasts of her time, balanced in all the events and completely comparable to someone like Simone Biles.”

Mako Sakamoto and Roy_ 1I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many Olympians from the 1964 Summer Olympics, over the phone, but yesterday I met in person with my very first oversees interviewee, Mr Makoto Sakamoto. Mako-san was visiting Tokyo, and it was a tremendous honor to meet the highest scoring performer on the US Men’s Gymnastics team in 1964.

Born in bombed-out Tokyo Japan, Mako-san left for the United States with his family when he was 7. At the age of 16, he got his US citizenship. At the age of 17, he was recognized as the country’s best gymnast, and represented America in the country of his birth, competing with the very best in the world, finishing 20th overall in the individual competition.

The world of men’s gymnastics at that time was dominated by countries like Japan, USSR,

31 JUL 1984:  THE UNITED STATES TEAM CELEBRATE AFTER RECEIVING THEIR GOLD MEDALS FOR THEIR VICTORY IN THE MENS TEAM GYMNASTICS COMPETITION AT THE 1984 LOS ANGELES OLYMPICS. THE USA TEAM COMPRISES PETER VIDMAR, BART CONNER, MITCHELL GAYLORD, TIMOTHY DAGGETT, JAMES HARTUNG AND SCOTT JOHNSON.
31 JUL 1984: THE UNITED STATES TEAM CELEBRATE AFTER RECEIVING THEIR GOLD MEDALS FOR THEIR VICTORY IN THE MENS TEAM GYMNASTICS COMPETITION AT THE 1984 LOS ANGELES OLYMPICS. THE USA TEAM COMPRISES PETER VIDMAR, BART CONNER, MITCHELL GAYLORD, TIMOTHY DAGGETT, JAMES HARTUNG AND SCOTT JOHNSON.
Yugoslavia and Italy. The US was competitive, but not considered a threat.

But in 1984, a team whose head coach was Melbourne and Rome Olympian, Abie Grossfeld,