Geesink vs Kaminaga 2_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha
Geesink and Kaminaga, from the book, “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha”

It was Friday, October 23, 1964.

The Nippon Budokan was packed. But perhaps there was a sense of resignation at this, the penultimate day of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Despite the fact that three Japanese judoka, Takehide Nakatani, Isao Okano and Isao Inokuma had already taken gold in the first three weightclasses over the previous three days, there was considerable doubt that Akio Kaminaga could defeat Dutchman, Anton Geesink, in the open category.

After all, Geesink shocked the judo world by becoming the first non-Japanese to win the World Championships in 1961. More relevantly, Geesink had already defeated Kaminaga in a preliminary bout. So while the Japanese, including Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko who were in the Budokan, were hoping Kaminaga would exceed expectations, all they had to do was see the two judoka stand next to each other to be concerned – the 2-meter tall, 120 kg foreign giant vs the 1.8-meter tall, 102 kg Japanese.

Even though judo purists know that skill, balance and coordination are more important to winning than size, deep down many likely felt that the bigger, stronger foreigner was going to win. After all, the bigger, stronger US soldiers and their allies had defeated the Imperial forces of Japan in the Pacific War.

And so Geesink did, defeating Kaminaga handily, sending the Japanese nation into a funk.

That was late in the afternoon on October 23. About 13 kilometers southwest of the Nippon Budokan and the site of Kaminaga’s defeat, the Japanese women’s volleyball team was preparing for their finals at the Komazawa Indoor Stadium. They too were going up against bigger, stronger adversaries, from the USSR.

In this case, however, there was a lingering sense that their magical women of volleyball would defeat the Soviets. They had in fact already done so at the World Championships in 1962, walking into the lioness’ den in Moscow and winning the finals. So when nearly every citizen in Japan had settled in front of their televisions that Friday evening, having the choice of four channels to choose from to watch the match, they were gearing up to explode in celebration.

And yet, Geesink had just sunk Kaminaga, as well as Japan’s hopes of sweeping gold in the only sport at the Olympics native to Japan. Maybe we just aren’t big enough, or strong enough, some may have thought.

Hirobumi Daimatsu, coach of the women’s volleyball team, accepted the challenge and worked over the years to train his players to compensate for relative weaknesses in size and strength, with speed, technique and guts. And much to the relief and joy of the nation, the Japanese defeated the Soviet Union in straight sets: 15-11, 15-8 and a tantalizingly close final set, 15-13.

Japan's Women's Volleyball team victorious 1964_Bi to Chikara
Japan’s Women’s Volleyball team victorious from the book, Bi to Chikara

And on that Friday evening, the day before the final day of Japan’s two-week Olympic journey to show the world that they were a nation to be recognized and respected, a team of diminutive Japanese women took down the larger Soviet women.

Whatever lingering sting from Kaminaga’s loss remained, whatever bad feelings of boycotts by the Indonesians or the North Koreans may have left, even perhaps, whatever shame that came from “enduring the unendurable” after the nation’s defeat in the Second World War, may have washed away in that moment the ball fell to the ground for the final point of the match.

On that day, Japan was a nation re-born – young, confident, world-beaters.

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Anton Geesink set the judo world on fire by defeating Koji Sone in the 1961 World Championships. The tall and imposing Dutchman was the first non-Japanese judoka to win in any weight-class in a world championship.

However, Geesink wasn’t satisfied with the way he won. He wrote in his book, My Championship Judo, that he used a “halfway trick” to put Sone to the ground before immobolising him for victory. He felt that despite being the world champion, he needed to continue to improve.

When Geesink visited Japan in 1963 at the invitation of Tenri University, which had some of the best judoka in the world, he learned that Ne-Waza, or ground technique, was the Judo of the future. “In fact, it was the finals of the open weight class competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when Geesink took advantage of a failed Tai-Otoshi attempt by his opponent, Akio Kaminaga. Geesink instead ended up pushing the Japanese to the mat, immediately maneuvering for a Ne-Waza technique Geesink no doubt sharpened at Tenri University.

My Championship Judo cover

 

Geesink wrote in his book that in his time (the 1960s), Ne-Waza, or ground technique, was considered minor by many Japanese judoka purists. “They are – in my opinion – too romantic with their insistence on deciding the contest by a spectacular throw.” But he learned in Japan that for training to be successful, 60% of the time needed to be spent on Ne-Waza, and the remaining 40% on Tachi-Waza.

Here is how Geesink explains a particular Ne-Waza technique – the Kesa-Gatame:

My opponent is recumbent on his back. I am at his right side, my right leg stretched forward, resting on the outside of the foot. My left leg is bent, so that I sit in what one might call a hurdling posture (think of hurdle-racing). My right arm passes around his head, so that I can hold his upper-arm with my right hand. With my left arm I lock in his right arm, which is gripped around my body. My armpit presses against his wrist and with my left hand I grip him precisely under his elbow. Consequently my opponent’s right arm forms a right angle; his elbow sticks out.

Kesa Gatame_My Championship Judo
Kesa Gatame, from the book, “My Championship Judo”

By concentrating my full weight on his trunk, resting only on the outside of my right foot and on the sole of my left foot, so that my buttocks have no contact with the ground, it has become impossible for him to move. If my opponent should succeed in resting the back of his head on the ground, he might be able to develop enough strength to free himself from my immobolising hold. To prevent this, I draw my right arm so tight that his head is moved forward, away from the ground. He has now become quite helpless, immobolised.

And when that actually happened in the finals of the open weight class at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when Geesink immobolised Kaminaga in this Kesa-Gatame hold, an entire country fell into collective shock.

Sasae Tsuri Komi Ashi 1_My Championship Judo
Sasae Tsuri Komi Ashi 1, from the book “My Championship Judo”

In the second half of the 1950s, Anton Geesink made a commitment to improving his judo technique by training in Japan for 3-month periods. One of the techniques he learned in Japan was Sasae-Tsuri-Komi-Ashi, which literally means blocking, propping, lifting and pulling. Geesink called it the Lifting Leg Block, and it became yet another weapon in the Dutchman’s arsenal.

In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, that is the technique Geesink used to handily defeat Ted Boronovskis of Australia in the semi-finals of the open weight competition.

Here is how Geesink explained this technique in his 1966 judo manual, My Championship Judo.

From Shizen-Tai I firmly advance my right foot to my opponent’s left leg and place this foot against the inside of his left foot almost as if I am trying to lift his leg. My opponent’s natural reflex will then be to raise that leg. My first aim has been attained: he has shifted his full weight on to one leg (his right) and on that leg I am now going to concentrate my attack. (in the picture) you can see how I have moved in; my body strongly inclined to the right, my right foot on the inside of his left foot; he has instinctively lifted his left foot (Picture 1).

Pressing my body tightly against his, I now raise my left arm towards me, thus pulling him forward, and – as with any other throw – place the elbow of my right arm against his left side. At the same time I put my left sole against the outside of his right ankle, my leg being practically straight. Thus his full weight is shifted towards his toes and he is, therefore completely off balance. By pulling my body still a little further to the left and by continuing to prop his right foot with my stretched left leg, I can easily bring him to the ground (Picture 2).

By developing the techniques of Okuri-Ashi-Harai, Uchi Mata, and Sasae-Tsuri-Komi-Ashi, Geesink became a well-rounded judoka. This development in technique, combined with his strength, led to a thunderclap heard throughout the judo world in 1961. Geesink became the first non-Japanese in any weight class to win the world championships. He did so in the open weight class by defeating some of the strongest Japanese judoka: Akio Kaminaga, Hitoshi Koga, and Koji Sone. And yet Geesink felt he still needed to evolve. See part 4 for why and how he developed his Ne-Waza capability.

Sasae Tsuri Komi Ashi 2_My Championship Judo
Picture 2
Geesink vs Kaminaga_Tokyo Olympiad 1964_The Kyodo News Service
Anton Geesink staving off fans at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics_ from the book “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha”.

It was shocking. When Or Sasson of Israel extended his hand to Islam El Shehaby of Egypt to express a match well fought at the Rio Olympics, the Egyptian turned and walked away.

There were no words in anger, no fists raised in threat. But in the world of sportsmanship, and more specifically in the gruff quietude of judo, the action of El Shehaby was akin to a slap in the face.

In Judo, there is an expectation of restraint and calmness, regardless of whether one makes the perfect throw or is body slammed in twisting agony, whether one wins or loses. When Anton Geesink shocked all of Japan by handily defeating Akio Kaminaga to win the gold medal in the open division of the 1964 Olympics, Geesink did not revel in his victory. In fact, right after the referee tapped his shoulder to indicate his victory, Geesink had to deal with an unexpected breach of etiquette by Dutch fans who sought to storm the judo mat in victory. He jumped to his feet and walked towards them, his right hand extended in a halt sign, and a hard stare stopped them in their tracks.

The two competitors then kneeled facing each other, getting their judo-gi in order in a matter-of-fact manner. They stood and bowed. Geesink walked up to Kaminaga impassively, but when he reached over to offer a small hug to his competitor, Kaminaga offered a smile of resignation and happiness for the other, which in turn gave Geesink permission to smile back in relief.

James Bregman and his brotherhood of judoka understood this interaction to be proper.

Bregman won the bronze medal in the middleweight class in judo’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Summer Games of 1964. Some say, he should have had a shot at gold if not for a quick judgment call that went the other way.

james-bregman_1964-tokyo-olympics_2
Bregman (#5) throwing an opponent at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics_ from James Bregman’s personal collection.

Bregman had defeated Argentinian Rodolfo Perez to get to the medal round. He faced off against Wolfgang Hofmann of Germany for a chance at gold. Towards the middle of the match, Hofmann got Bregman in an arm bar, “an effective one” as Bregman put it. “He nearly broke my arm.” Bregman told me that he approached Hofmann with an uchimata, but Hofmann blocked it. Then Bregman performed a left ip-pon seoi-nage over the shoulder and threw Hofmann to the mat, but not for a full point. They rolled and Hofmann then got Bregman in an arm lock. Bregman was able to stand up and also got Hofmann off the mat.

According to Bregman, the rules of judo at the time stated that if a person is in an arm lock but is standing, and the person who is giving the arm lock is off the ground, then the referee is supposed to say “matte”, stopping the match briefly so that the judoka can re-set. And in fact, the referee did indeed say “matte“, which means “wait”. Hofmann either didn’t hear that, or ignored it, and continued with the arm lock. Bregman thinking his arm was about to break, tapped out and gave up. In that instant, the referee simply ignored the fact that he had said “matte“, and awarded the match to Hofmann.

“I’m like, ‘what'”, said Bregman. “I’m in a lot of pain holding my elbow walking off the mat. But in judo, you don’t say a word, you show no emotion, and you honor your opponent as a victor, in a gentlemanly fashion. And you accept the referee’s judgment.”

What was more important was how he was greeted by his colleagues at Meiji University, home of the toughest judoka in the world in the 1960s. “When I won the bronze, the Japanese judoka came over and congratulated me and hugged me. It was like Meiji had won a gold medal. They were ecstatic for me.”

Judoka James Bregman Part 1: To Be a Waza-shi

ben-campbell
Members of the US Olympic Judo Team in 1964: George Harris, James Bregman, Yoshihiro Uchida, Paul Maruyama and Ben Nighthorse Campbell

When it was announced in 1960 that judo would make its Olympic debut in 1964 in Tokyo, Ben Nighthorse Campbell knew he had to be there. He had to be there not only to compete in the Olympics, but also to train. Japan was the mecca for judo, a martial art developed by IOC’s first representative from Japan, legendary Jigoro Kano.

So after years of training in the United States in high school and college, as well as in the US Air Force in South Korea, Campbell resolved to go to Japan and train at the Japanese judo powerhouse, Meiji University. In the 1960s, there was no organized funding system to train and support American athletes in judo, so Campbell sold his car and his house, and even cashed in his life insurance policy to pay for his trip to Japan.

“I’m not sure what I was thinking,,,it’s really hard,” Campbell told me. “You can’t believe the difference (between training in the US and Japan). You have to live with a lot of bruises. I was training 5 hours a day, first at Keishicho (where the police trained) in the morning, and then at Meiji in the afternoon. If you broke your nose, you had to show up. If you broke something else, you had to stand at attention for hours until you healed.”

Campbell, who would go on to serve in the US House of Representatives and the US Senate from 1986 to 2005, representing the state of Colorado, said in his biography, Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior, “the training, in fact, was absolutely brutal. My nose was broken a couple of times, I lost two teeth, and I guess I broke or dislocated virtually every finger and toe I’ve got and suffered any number of bruises, contusions, and swollen ears.”

Training with the very best judoka in the world twice a day every day in Japan shaped Campbell into a champion, as he won US national titles from 1961 to 1963, and a gold medal in the open weight division at the Pan American Games in 1963. He also attended the Tokyo International Sports Week, which was held precisely one year prior to the actual start of the 1964 Olympics. This was a dress rehearsal for officials and planners, a way to test out preliminary operational plans, including the opening ceremonies. But it was also a legitimate sports competition for athletes who were invited.

Campbell was already in Japan for Tokyo International Sports Week, and pulled off what was considered an upset at the time. He defeated the captain of the Meiji University team, someone who was considered a strong candidate to make the Japan judo team. So when Campbell went to New York City for the Olympic trials, he was at the top of his game. He went on to win seven out of seven matches, five of them on falls, and won a spot on the US Judo Team.

ben-nighthorse-campbell-in-competition

With only four months to go before the Tokyo Olympics, Campbell had to stay in shape and stay away from major injury. Unfortunately, he was not in Japan, where the competition was keen. Instead he trained against a large number of inexperienced judoka, which according to Campbell, can be unpredictable, and lead to awkward maneuvers that can lead to injury. As it turned out, Campbell had just such an experience, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. With the Olympics around the corner, Campbell felt he had no choice but to grin and bear the pain.

In his first bout in the Budokan during the last days of the Tokyo Olympics, Campbell faced off against Thomas Ong of the Philippines. The match was over in seconds, as Campbell simply rushed Ong and swept his legs out from under him for an ip-pon. His second-round opponent was a far heavier opponent from Germany, Thomas Glahn. And in the midst of battle, Campbell’s knee gave way, and then so did any chance of winning a medal. Campbell forfeited and hobbled off the mat. “If my knee was OK, I could have beaten him,” Campbell told me.

ben-nighthorse-campbell-and-anton-geesink_from-an-american-warrior
Campbell and Geesink, from the book Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior

Glahn would go on to earn a bronze medal, but could not do better as he lost to Japanese judoka, Akio Kaminaga. As it turns out, Kaminaga was the only Japanese not to win gold when he lost famously to the huge and hugely talented Dutch man, Anton Geesink.

And then the Olympic Games ended. It was time to say farewell. Campbell was hanging out with one of his friends from California, Don Schollander. Having won four gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics, the swimming golden boy Schollander was pegged to carry out the American flag for the closing ceremonies. But according to Campbell, Schollander had to leave, literally during the closing ceremony. So somehow, during the march in the stadium, Schollander handed Campbell the flag for the rest of the march. Campbell’s knee was aching. Cold winds were whipping through the late October evening. And the flag and its pole, apparently, is not so light. But according to Campbell in his biography, it was a weight he would bear with pride, not just on that day, but throughout his days of service.

Campbell has never forgotten that moment. He remembered it clearly twenty-five years later when, as a member of Congress, he voted for the amendment to make desecrating the American flag a crime. “I got some heat from the liberals for that vote, but it made no difference to me. I told my colleagues on the House floor that I didn’t fight in Korea or carry our flag in the Olympics so some fool could burn it.”

From the book, “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha”

He was 6 foot 6 inches or nearly 2 meters tall. When Anton Geesink entered a judo tournament, in a time when there were no weight classes and a 120-kilogram giant like Geesink could compete against a 70-kilo judo-ka, he intimidated. Geesink was a European storm, and the Japanese could hear it coming in the early 1960s. In 1961, Geesink defeated the Japanese champion Koji Sone, ending Japanese domination in the sport.

In 1964, it seemed pre-ordained that Geesink would make it to the finals. But the Japanese held out hope that Akio Kaminaga, would rise to the occasion and uphold national pride. And there they were, in the Budokan, facing off. Ada Kok, winner of two silver medals in swimming at the Tokyo Olympics, was there to witness. Kok is Dutch, and as a reward to medalists, the Dutch Olympic Committee invited Kok to watch her compatriot, Geesink, in the judo open weight finals.

Geesink vs Kaminaga_Tokyo Olympiad 1964_The Kyodo News Service
Geesink asking the crowd to quiet down. From the book “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha”

“I had just turned 16, so I accepted this invitation as something normal. It was just a fight to me at the time. But on reflection, I realized I was watching a culture shock of sorts, going throughout Japan. The Budokan was silent. Quiet. I could hear people crying. It was like a solar eclipse had suddenly blackened out all of Japan. It was a feeling of doom.

“But of course, it was tremendous for us, the Dutch. And I remember the Dutch officials were elated, and wanted to jump on