Basil-Heatley-Abebe-Bikila-Kokichi-Tsuburaya
Basil Heatley, Abebe Bikila, Kokichi-Tsuburaya

Basil Heatley, who streaked to silver in the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, passed away on Saturday, August 3, 2019. He was 85.

The gold medal in that marathon went to Abebe Bikila, who simply outclassed the field of 78 to become the first to win two straight Olympic championships in the marathon. At the halfway point, Heatley was 12th, laboring in the high humidity of the Tokyo air and with a cramp in his rib cage. He  thought his careful pace may have lost him the race, but he built up his speed and overtook his competition one by one, setting up a most dramatic Olympic marathon finish.

After Abebe finished in world record time in 2:12:12, the 70,000 spectators bubbled like water ready to boil over as Japanese Kokichi Tsuburaya entered the National Stadium. No Japanese had medaled in athletics and the crowd was anticipating a silver medal in this marquis event the day before the end of a very successful Olympics in Tokyo.

And yet, the unassuming Heatley entered the stadium and doused the flame, as I described in my book 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan.

And yet, soon after Tsuburaya entered the stadium, so, too, did Heatley, only seconds behind. The Brit knew this was his chance. “Fifteen years of racing told me that, at that moment, an injection of pace was necessary, and possible, to overtake the runner in front of me,” he said. Just before the final curve of the stadium’s cinder track, Heatley turned on the jets and sprinted by his rival. For a battle that took over two hours and sixteen minutes, Tsuburaya lost his chance for silver by four seconds.

(Watch above video from 2 minute 12 second mark to see end of marathon.)

I never met Heatley face to face, nor talk with him, but I did have the honor to exchange emails with his wife Gill who transcribed Heatley’s answers for me. I learned that he was a reluctant marathoner, and the 1964 Olympics was only his sixth marathon ever. Heatley liked to run on the track, 1 milers to 6 milers, up to 10k, as well as 12k cross country races.

After winning the 1956 Midlands Marathon, his first ever marathon, he felt that marathons were not only punishing, they were cruel. “…when I looked round the dressing room and saw everyone in an awful state, I remember saying that if we were four-legged, the RSPCA (Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) would ban the Marathon.”

And yet, Heatley realized that he was not fast enough for the shorter distances if he wanted to compete at the Tokyo Olympics. He realized that he had the fortitude and discipline to excel at the marathon and focused his energy there. He told me that he would run to and from work, and compete in a race every Saturday, running some 100-120 miles per week, the equivalent of four to five marathons a week.

With qualification for the Tokyo Olympics on the line, Heatley entered the Polytechnic Marathon in June, 1964, and set the world record with a time of 2:13:55.

Despite his success, Heatley told me that he did not like the marathon. And yet, he felt his track experience was critical for his success in the 26-mile race.

I did not like the marathon.  Perhaps I was more than a little scared of it.  Especially after so many years of racing 1-6 miles.  I think that my regime of fast road running was in fact better marathon training than it was for 10km on the track for which I was doing it.  Looking back, I can see that Tsuburaya ran himself to a standstill.  Had the race ben 25 miles he would have been second.  Had it been 27 miles he maybe would not have finished, and for that I salute him.

Heatley was not one to boast or play to the crowd. He was famous for avoiding the press, and he told me that he got little satisfaction winning Olympic silver, and had no intent to run again in Mexico City as Tsuburaya famously promised.

Any feeling of elation was tempered by both my own tiredness and the knowledge that Bikila had beaten us all by over 4 minutes. On the medal stand I was confused.  How do you celebrate a second place if you are so far behind the winner? I never wanted to go to run a distance race in Mexico City.  Simply – altitude.

But he was proud to have represented Team GB in 1964, which he said was one of the best Olympic squads in his nation’s history.

“We had been a very successful team,” he said in the video interview below. “In 64, I still regard that we were the best British team to leave these shores.”

Advertisements
Kokichi Tsuburaya afer the marathon
After the grueling marathon

Do your best. Persevere. Never give up.

Ganbatte! Akirameru na!

These are values that resonate with the Japanese. You see it in the office worker who stays late to get things done, night after night. You see it in the high school baseball player who dives left and right after dozens if not hundreds of ground balls in the rain. You see it in the artist who tirelessly works the pottery wheel until she gets the exact curvature in the clay she sees in her head.

Kokichi Tsuburaya exemplified those values. And when he drove toward the finish line of a grueling 42-kilometer marathon race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, on the verge of grabbing a silver medal in track and field, where Japan had found no success, 70,000 Japanese shouted and screamed their encouragement, attempting to will Tsuburaya on to a strong finish. And yet the drama laid out before the spectators had the sickly feeling of inevitability. Just as Tsuburaya emerged from the shadows of the tunnel entrance, a few meters behind so too did Basil Heatley, a Brit hot on the Japanese’s heels.

When Heatley accelerated past a depleted Tsuburaya like a biker passing a pedestrian, the growing balloon of hopes an entire nation held for Tsuburaya seemed to deflate in those seconds it took Heatley to get to the finish line. It must have been a tremendous disappointment.

But then again, that’s OK. To the Japanese, Tsuburaya was not a loser. He was one of them, a man who tried so very hard, who did his very best, who never gave up. As he said in interviews after the marathon, “I will practice hard towards Mexico City.”

Of course, Tsuburaya was a product of his national cultural traits. But more impactfully, he was his father’s son, as described in Ichiro Aoyama’s book, The Lone Runner – The Kokichi Tsuburaya Story.

.

Kokichi Tsuburaya 7 years old
Little Kokichi at 7 years old, smiling front and center.

The seven children in the Tsuburaya household had to work hard, cleaning the house, preparing the bath, cooking, planting the rice, raising the livestock when they hit the age of 10. These were not easy tasks, and the head of the household, Koshichi Tsuburaya, believed that his children needed to be disciplined to ensure they did their chores. He ordered his children around military style, shouting directions like “Attention!” “Right face!” “Go Forward!” He made them wear shorts in the winter. He made his children repeat chores if they weren’t done properly, and of course he would hit them to make sure they knew they had done something improperly. Training included bayonet skills, just in case.

As a child Kokichi liked to run, and when his dog ran, little Kokichi liked to try to keep up with the dog. But one day, when he was 5, Kokichi felt a sharp pain in his legs and his back. The father (named Koshichi) then noticed that their boy’s left leg was shorter than his right. Knowing how little their little Kokichi would complain about anything, the parents took him to the hospital, where they learned that their boy also had tuberculosis arthritis, which causes pain in the weight-bearing joints of the hips, knees and ankles. So from an early age, Kokichi felt pain whenever he ran.

And yet, Kokichi loved to run. He looked up to his older brother, Kikuzo, who ran competitively. Kokichi often joined his older brother, and the elder brother saw the kid brother keep up, despite being 7 years younger. The brothers would often go for runs in the evenings. But their father didn’t approve of running for the sake of running. “You can’t live off of running,” he would say as a warning to his sons.

One time the brothers came home a little later than usual, and the entire family was seated at the dinner table quietly, waiting to start eating until the two boys sat down. The father kept quiet until the boys returned late again from running, and again told his boys angrily, “You can’t live off of running.” In order to avoid the glare of their father, the boys would sneak out for a run while their father was taking a bath.

Finally, one night, Koshichi the father confronted Kokichi the son and asked him, “If you run, will you stick to it?” The son said yes, to which Koshichi said, in the approving way of gruff dads, “Once you decide to do this, don’t quit halfway through.”

Kokichi never quit. In fact, he took his commitment to running very seriously. In high school, he trained very hard for a national 5,000 meter competition. He did not win, and without anyone’s urging, shaved his head to account publicly for his loss.

When Kokichi graduated from high school, he did something that made his father proud – he joined the Ground Self-Defense Force and became a soldier like his father had been. Japan has a long tradition of long-distance relay races, and Kokichi was slated to join the team representing the Self-Defense Forces in a national long-distance race. At the time of the race, Kokichi was in the hospital with a high fever. On top of that, Kokichi kept the fact that a slipped disk in his back was also causing him tremendous pain. Despite all that, Kokichi Tsuburaya insisted on running the longest leg of the race.

It was this commitment, this perseverance that eventually endeared Tsuburaya to the public. And through it all, even his father, who thought nothing would ever come of his running, was quietly very proud of his son.  His father would often send Kokichi letters of encouragement, saying how worried he was for his son. And when Kokichi returned home from his bronze-medal finish at the Tokyo Olympics, he was surprised to find that his parents kept all sorts of newsclippings, medals and trophies of his accomplishments , or could not sleep on the eve of the Olympics, and worried deeply about his health.

They were deeply proud of their little Kokichi. And likely, so was an entire nation.

 

Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Shiina Ishige, for her in-depth research that contributed heavily to the writing of this post.

Heatley Bikila Tsuburaya on medal stand 1964
Basil Heately, Abebe Bikila and Kokichi Tsuburaya on the medal stand

Abebe Bikila strolled into the National Stadium like he owned it. And he did. The lithe Ethiopian, a member of the Imperial Bodyguard of his nation, was about to meet expectations at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics – to become the first person to win marathons in two consecutive Olympics.

The first time Bikila did so, he was an unknown, and made headlines by running barefoot on the roads of Rome in 1960 to win marathon gold. When he crossed the finish line in Tokyo, amazingly over 4 minutes earlier than the second place finisher, the audience marveled at how fresh Bikila was – so fresh that he did calisthenics and jogged in place as if he were readying for the start of a marathon.

In other words, the actual competition in the marathon was for second. And in the race for second, Japan was ready to explode in celebration.

Like the Brits, with Brian Kilby and Basil Heatley, the Australian Ron Clarke, the other Ethiopian Demissie Wolde, as well as Americans Billy Mills and Buddy Edelen, the Japanese had a trio of strong marathoners in the competition, Toru Terasawa, Kenji Kimihara and Kokichi Tsuburaya.

As explained in this detailed article, at the 10K mark of the 42K race, Clarke was setting a pretty fast pace at 30:14, with Jim Hogan of Ireland and Bikila following. Around the 20k mark, Bikila took the lead and never looked back. The race for 2nd was on, with Clarke and Hogan about 5 seconds behind Bikila, and a second pack including Wolde, Tsuburaya, Jozsef Suto of Hungary and Antonio Ambu of Italy.

Kokichi_Tsuburaya 1964_adoring fans

With about 7 kilometers to go, Bikila, Hogan, Tsuburaya and Suto were in the lead, with Heatley rising to fifth. Amazingly, Hogan dropped out of the marathon despite being in position for a silver medal, leaving the Japanese from the self defense forces, Tsuburaya in second. Heatley and Kilby were coming on, passing Suto with only 2 kilometers to go.

Heatley was advancing and could envision a bronze-medal finish, but didn’t think he could pass Tsuburaya. “I didn’t expect to catch him,” Heatley recalls, “but he was a target.”

Bikila entered the National Stadium triumphantly, winning with an ease that both shocked and surprised the crowd. But the crowd went wild a few minutes later when Tsuburaya entered the stadium. At their home Olympics, Japan had medaled in wrestling, judo, boxing, weightlifting, gymnastics and swimming among others, but not in track and field. Tsuburaya was about to change that, in front of the biggest crowd possible.

And yet, soon after Tusburaya entered the stadium, so too did Heatley, only about 10 meters behind. Just before the final curve of the stadium’s cinder track, Heatley turned on the jets and sprinted by Tsuburaya. For a 2nd place battle that took over 2 hours and 16 minutes, Tsuburaya lost his chance for silver by four seconds.

Writer, Robert Whiting, was watching this match on the television, confident that Tsuburaya would make Japan proud with a silver medal only to see that expectation burst before the eyes of an entire nation, as he explained in this article.

The cheering for Tsuburaya was building to a crescendo when suddenly Great Britain’s Basil Heatley came into view and proceeded to put on one of Olympic track and field’s great all-time spurts. He steadily closed the gap in the last 100 meters, passing Tsuburaya shortly before the wire, turning the wild cheering in the coffee shop, and in the stadium, and no doubt in the rest of Japan, into one huge collective groan.

Bob Schul, who three days earlier, became the first American to win gold in the 5,000 meter race, watched the end of the marathon with some dismay.

Abebe entered the stadium to great applause. He finished and went into the infield and started doing exercises. Finally the second guy, Tsuburaya came, and the crowd roared. But so did Heathley of England. Sharon asked if Tsuburaya could hold on to 2nd place. I said I didn’t think so. Heatley caught him about 150 meters before the finish. And the crowd became very quiet. The Japanese guy was going to get third. And when he did finish, the stadium did erupt. And that was the only medal they won in track and field.

 

Heatley on the heels of Tsuburaya
Heatley hot on the heels of Tsuburaya

 

When Kokichi Tsuburaya was a boy in elementary school, he competed in an event common throughout Japan – a sports day, when children compete against each other in a variety of activities, like foot races. After one such race, Koshichi Tsuburaya, the young runner’s father, chewed him out for looking behind him during the race. “Why are you looking back during the race. Looking back is a bad thing. If you believe in yourself, you don’t need to do so.”

Many years later, with over 70,000 people screaming in the showcase event of the Olympics, people were yelling, “Tsuburaya, a runner is behind you! Look back! Look back! He’s close!” Was Tsuburaya recalling that childhood scolding from his father? Would it have made a difference if he did?

While Tsuburaya’s very public loss of the silver medal must have been the source of pain, not only for Tsuburaya, but also of the nation. But in the end, there were no hard feelings. After all, Tsuburaya won Japan’s only medal in Athletics, a bronze in the marathon, an achievement beyond the nation’s initial expectations. Writer Hitomi Yamaguchi wrote of this pain and pride in a 1964 article.

Tsuburaya tried so very hard. And his efforts resulted in the raising of the Japanese flag in the National Stadium. My chest hurt. I applauded so much I didn’t take any notes. Since the start of the Olympic Games, our national flag had not risen once in the National Stadium. At this last event, we were about to have a record of no medals in track and field. Kon Ishikawa’s film cameras were rolling, and newspaper reporters were watching. People were waiting and hoping. So when Tsubaraya crossed the finish line, we felt so fortunate! When I saw the Japanese flag raised freely into the air, it felt fantastic. Tsuburaya, thank you.

You can watch the dramatic second-place finish to the Tokyo Olympics marathon at the 5:38 mark of this video:

Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Marija Linartaite, for finding and translating the last quote.