Andras Toro defecting headline_Seattle Daily Times.JPG
Andras Toro is wearing the hat.

An excerpt from the book, 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes

 

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the kayakers and canoeists landed at Haneda Airport like most other Olympians, but then were whisked off to Sagamihara, about sixty kilometers west of Tokyo. The competitions for the canoeists and kayakers were to be held at Lake Sagami, a man-made reservoir in an idyllic setting developed for tourists.

To Andras Toro, it was dreamlike:

Lake Sagami was a magical place with all the oriental beauty we had only seen before in magazines…the morning mist that rose along the shoreline was beautifully surreal.

It was the perfect setting for Cold War intrigue.

Since the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Toro and his friends in the Honved Canoe Club in Budapest had given serious thought to defecting from their country, as long as it was under the hammer (and sickle) of the Soviet Union. In fact, many of his friends did indeed defect, taking advantage of their participation at the 1956 Melbourne Games.

But Toro didn’t go to Melbourne. And his bronze medal finish at the 1960 Rome Olympics only fanned the flames of his desire to win in Tokyo. Competing in the individual 1,000-meter event, Toro had his sights set on the gold. But he also smelled an opportunity—that if he did not win a medal, he would seriously consider defecting to the West.

Just saying that you want to defect, however, doesn’t make it happen. There is no defector’s manual. Who do you contact? What country would take you? How do you avoid the ears and eyes of your country’s minders? Toro spoke almost no English. Who would he even start this conversation with?

And yet, when you want something, as Paulo Coelho famously put it in his novel, The Alchemist, “all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

Off the foggy banks of Lake Sagami, the universe began to conspire for Andras Toro.

Andras Toro at Lake Sagami
Andras Toro at Lake Sagami, courtesy of Andras Toro

In the tiny community of Olympic canoeists and kayakers emerged quite unexpectedly a friend of Toro’s, Andor Elbert. Friends since their teenage years in the Honved Canoe Club in Budapest, Elbert had defected to Canada eight years prior, and was representing Canada at the 1964 Olympics. Toro, shielded behind his Hungarian minders, was of course never informed that a defector had made the Olympic squad on another nation’s team.

Then an American kayaker named Bill Smoke entered the picture. He was at Lake Sagami to compete for the US Olympic squad, but he was also looking for talent. Smoke lived in Michigan, famous for its lakes and love of boating of all kinds, and he hoped to find someone who could build canoes and kayaks so that he could start a business back home.

Smoke walked over to the Canadian dorms looking for someone who spoke English and happened to have that conversation with Elbert. Smoke wondered if Elbert knew anyone in Canada who might be willing to help him out. As a matter of fact, Elbert did know someone, but he wasn’t from Canada.

Elbert told Smoke that his friend Toro was not only good at designing and building boats, he was also hoping to defect from Hungary. Smoke in turn talked with US teammate and then-girlfriend, Marcia Jones, who was in Japan also competing in individual canoeing. She turned out to be a key connection, as her mother was Mary Francis, an attorney, one of two women to graduate from the University of Michigan Law School in 1929. She was also sympathetic to people who had to leave their home countries.

Jones said that when she was ten, they had a DP, or displaced person, couple from Latvia stay with them. “The government brought them over here,” she said. “My mother sponsored them. They lived at our place. They went to our schools. She wanted to help them out. She was a very generous person and we could afford to help them.”

When Jones told her mother about Toro, Mary Francis got to work, contacting the US Embassy in Tokyo to seek their help. According to Smoke, who eventually married Jones, his future mother-in-law was not someone you could say no to easily. Francis was able to set up a meeting for Toro at the Embassy.

So very suddenly, all of the pieces fell into place. Toro was ready to defect, resigned to most likely never seeing his family and home country ever again, but with hopes of starting anew in a new land. All that remained, strangely enough, was for him to lose.

Advertisements
toros-tokyo-number_5
The competitor number for Andras Toro and his C-1 1000-meter competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

When 1964 Tokyo Olympian, Andras Toro, rummaged through his decades of Olympian memorabilia with me last month, he uncovered his number. At his last Olympics representing his native Hungary as a canoeist, Toro wore the number 79, blue font on white material.

What caught my eye was that on the back of the material were the unmistakable pads of velcro. The reason it drew my attention is that I had always been bothered by the way athletes, particularly track and field athletes, have their numbers or names attached to their jerseys. They are sporting sleek, high performance jerseys, and yet their names or numbers are commonly printed on paper, and quite sloppily attached by safety pins. It’s not a big issue. It just doesn’t look cool.

alison-felix-and-name-card-fasteners

There has to be a better way.

At every Olympics, organizers are always looking for better ways to do things. Perhaps someone deep down in one of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics planning teams thought that velcro was a better way to help identify athletes.

Velcro was developed in 1941 by a Swiss electrical engineer named George de Mestral. The iconic story is that on a walk with his dog in the woods, he came home with burrs stuck to his pants, which made him wonder. When he looked at the burrs closely, he noticed that the burrs had tiny hook-like tendrils, which somehow caught themselves in the tiny openings of his pants material. Out of that insight, de Mestral patented the fasterner idea called velcro, which is a combination of the French words “velours” (velvet) and “crochet” (hook).

Velcro was seen as a light, flexible, non-metallic way to attach or seal things. In 1968, NASA used velcro in their space suits, sample collection bags and on their lunar vehicles, increasing its geeky cool cred.

So attaching name and number plates to uniforms with velcro makes sense, initially. Why are we not using that space-age technology today? My guess is that using velcro is a bit of an operational pain because it requires two to tango – you need to place the “vel” on one thing and the “cro” on another. Toro’s number plate had the “vel”. I can’t imagine the organizers at Lake Sagami requiring all canoeists to wear a special jersey that had the hook pads…but I suppose they did.

And so, the old-school pin fasteners…now they’re beginning to make sense.

jt-ad-cigarette-manners_throw-away
Japan Tobacco 2011 ad series, entitled “Smoking Manners for Adults”; they had been releasing similar ads since the early 1960s.

When I first moved to Japan, the first pleasant surprise was the everyday practice of taking my shoes off before entering a home. After doing that for a while, it nearly disgusted me when I came back to New York where everywhere was parading around the house in the shoes that stepped in all kinds of you-know-what outside.

I also noticed how many white cars there were on the road, and that they gleamed with newness. Then I noticed all cars on the roads looked new, nary a dent or smidge of mud to be seen. And of course, you have to look hard to find garbage on the ground, even in highly congested megalopolis of Tokyo.

So it came as no surprise to read this short article in the October 11, 1964 Japan Times.

No Litterbugs

Spectators at the opening ceremony were generally well-mannered, garbage men at the National Stadium said Saturday night. Trash collected at the stadium after the opening rites was more than 12 tons, but there were few “litterbugs”, they said.

People were given a polyethylene trash bag at the entrance. Printed on the bag was a direction in English: “Please use this etiquette bag for tidying around you.”

Three hundred waste baskets and 250 ashtrays were placed in the stadium and most people used them. In addition, a finger-sized aluminum cylinder with a cap was given to each to be used as a portable ash tray.

When I read that last line about 18 months ago, it was a bit hard for me to imagine what that cylinder looked like….until last week, when I visited four-time Olympian, Andras Toro, in California. Toro, who was an Olympian in Japan in 1964, happened to have a couple, and they looked like this.

ashtrays-from-1964_1

In the cylinder is a message from the benefactor, International Lions Club, District 302, based then in Nihonbashi Tokyo. It wasn’t a message against smoking, this despite a report the next day that four out of every ten youths started smoking before the age of 20, or the fears of cancer. No, it was a message of cleanliness, and fire prevention.

LET’S BANISH CIGARETTE BUTTS FROM ALL THE STREETS IN THE WORLD

This is a cigarette butt container. Please use it in the stand while watching games. Many of these were donated to Tokyo Olympic Games Organizing Committee by All Tokyo Lions Clubs of International Club 302 District and their members for you people coming to see the Olympic Games. We are advocating a campaign in an effort to

STOP THROWING BUTTS AWAY. SMOKE WHERE AN ASH-TRAY IS.

We are sure you may think it strange that we have to advocate such a thing now in the capital of Japan that is proud of being a civilized country. We don’t blame you at all if you do.

But, What a shame! There are not a few people as you see smoking while walking and throwing cigarette butts away in the streets in this biggest city in the world – Tokyo. Now we will present a very interesting fact to you. Take a look a t the following table indicating that FIRES CAUSED BY CIGARETTES are never, superseded by fires of other origins even in other notable cities in the world.

Well, what do you think. Surprising there are so many fires caused by cigarette, isn’t it? That is why we vote for and our sincerest and outspoken prayer…..LET’S BANISH FROM THE WORLD SMOKING AND THROWING BUTTS IN THE STREET.

Now that’s a message that still resonates today!

jt-ad-cigarette-manners-olympics

dsc_0361
Me between 1964 Tokyo Olympians, Billy Mills and Andras Toro

One of the biggest sports stories of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was the come-from-behind sprint by Billy Mills to win the 10,000 meter finals.

For nearly two years, I’ve been hoping to meet the man. And last week, I met Billy Mills!

Thanks to fellow ’64 Olympian, Andras Toro, I enjoyed a couple of hours with Mills and his wife Pat. There’s so much to write about, but let me tell this story first.

On September 7, 2013, the International Olympic Committee gathered in Buenos Aires, Argentina to vote on the final three contenders to hose the 2020 Summer Olympics. The three cities up for selection were Istanbul, Turkey, Madrid, Spain and Tokyo, Japan.

A few months prior to the vote, Billy Mills and Pat Mills thought they could not remain silent, that Japan had a special place in their heart, and that if anyone could pull off a great Olympics, it was Japan. They very quickly produced a 1-minute video explaining why Japan should host the 2020 Games. They were not asked to do so, but based on phone calls he received from Japanese government and Tokyo2020 officials, Mills’ endorsement was a tremendous boost of confidence. It may have even played a role in the decision making.

Here’s the video – a rousing endorsement of Tokyo, Japan – from one of the brightest stars of the first Olympics held in Japan.

 

Of the three cities today that are bidding to host the 2020 Olympic Games, they’re all enchanting, they’re magical. They all could host a very successful Olympic Games. However when you consider the world today, there’s only one city that could truly capture the full potential and the spirit that the Olympic Games has to offer to the world. And that’s Tokyo. My vote? Tokyo, Japan 2020.

img_3884
Andras Toro and me.
Andras Toro, four-time Olympian, was one of the most dramatic stories of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. At the age of 24, as his dream of realizing a medal in the 1000-meter singles canoeing event evaporated on Lake Sagami in the semi-finals, the Hungarian made the fateful decision to defect from his homeland, Hungary, to a new land, the United States.

Toro is writing a book on his life and times, and I had the great honor of meeting him in Northern California a few days ago. I will write more detailed posts on his life in the future….but first, let me share some of the memorabilia of an Olympian.
 The first photo is of Toro’s bronze medal and jersey he won at the 1960 Rome Olympics in the 500-meter doubles canoeing competition.

dsc_0315

The next is a certificate of his fourth place finish in his canoeing event at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. It has the signatures of the head of the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee, Daigoro Yasukawa, and the head of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage. There must have been thousands of these documents. I wonder if they actually signed each one…

participation-diplomo_andras-toro

Here is a gift sent to him and other Olympians, a traditional Japanese wooden doll, known as “kokeshi“, which was a gift of a student’s association. You can see this particular doll was sent to Toro from a junior high school in Miyagi Prefecture.

dsc_0250

The fairly large silk “furoshiki” below was likely handed to many visiting Olympians to the Tokyo Games. A furoshiki is a piece of square material which is a traditional way of wrapping items, like a bento box, with the corners coming together in a knot. This particular furoshiki was also a way for sporting goods manufacturer to market their company.

mizuno-furoshiki

How about this lovely bottle opener that states it’s a gift of Shinjuku, which is an area where the Olympic Games were being held. The back of the box explains that currency in the time of the Edo Period (some 400 to 500 years ago) were oval in shape and made of gold, and that this particular bottle opener was a talisman of luck. Strangely, the item is called a “can opener”, so luck will definitely be needed if that’s what you’re trying to open.

dsc_0282

And of course, there are pins galore. As I have written about previously, trading pins is a common activity at the Olympics. Toro appears to have hundreds if not thousands of pins accumulated over decades of Olympics.

dsc_0339

After Toro gained American citizenship, he went on to compete in canoeing as a member of Team USA, as well as fulfill other roles as a canoeing coach for a Team USA and as an executive within the US Olympic Committee.

dsc_0312