French fencers Jean-Claude Magnan and Cathérine Rousselet-Ceretti on bicycles_Bi to Chikara
French fencers Jean-Claude Magnan and Cathérine Rousselet-Ceretti on bicycles, from the book Bi to Chikara

The bicycles of the Olympic Village were the invaluable commodity of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Olympians scrambled to find or keep a bicycle so that they were ensured of easy transport around the vast grounds of the Village.

But bicycles, even in the hands of the best athletes in the world, were sometimes considered an accident waiting to happen.

American gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto told me of one night in an area that was so dark, he ended up “running (my bicycle) into a three-foot pond”. Gold medalist distance runner, Bob Schul, explained in his autobiography, In the Long Run, that the bicycles were not exactly one size fit all, which could be dangerous to the big athletes.

The bikes didn’t last long, however, as the rate of breakdowns was very high. On one occasion we witnessed a comical sight involving just such a “breakdown!” A Russian weight lifter, who weighed close to 300 pounds, attempted to ride a bike. To top it off he placed his friend on this shoulders. Almost immediately the bike broke in two pieces with this huge man and his friend tangled among the works. Fortunately no one was hurt, but this was one bicycle that would not be ridden again during the Olympiad.

Dawn Fraser on a bicycle_The Olympic CEntury XVIII Olympiad
Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser on a bicycle, from the book The Olympic Century XVIII Olympiad

According to an October 19, 1964 UPI report, US swimmers were banned from using the bicycles for fear of injury.

None of the athletes cycling about the Olympic Village – on the more than 700 available bicycles – are U.S. swimmers. Bicycle riding, the most popular form of transportation among Olympic sportsmen and women, is strictly forbidden to American swimmers – at least until after they have competed in the games. The no bicycling edict came from the team’s swimming coaches, who claim that bicycling tightens up a swimmer’s muscles instead of relaxing them for competition.

I doubt the US swimmers heeded that ban. But marathon legend, Abebe Akila, may have wished his coach banned him from bicycles. In a biography about Bikila, the barefoot champion of the 1960 Rome Olympics, who went on to repeat his golden performance at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, would get around on the bicycles like everyone else. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a very experienced cyclist. Here’s how Tim Judah explained, in his book, Bikila – Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian, how a bicycle caused the marathoner more grief than he needed.

Abebe Bikila on a bicycle_Bi to Chikara
Marathoner Abebe Bikila on a bicycle, from the book Bi to Chikara

Bikila, not used to riding one, tried one out and the experience almost ended in disaster. On the second day Bikila came in with a bandaged hand. He had fallen while bicycling. He had gone to the hospital where he had been spotted by some journalists. Terrified, Bikila had not dared ask the hospital to take care of his knee, which was more seriously hurt, and so he had hidden the injury until he could get Niskanen (his coach) to look at it.

In the meantime, vastly exaggerated reports of Bikila’s condition were flashed around the world, prompting a telegram from Addis Ababa, expressing concern, Niskanen wrote. “They had made a mountain out of a molehill. There was no more cycling for Abebe. It was bad enough getting over his appendix operation.” In the days that followed there was no let up in the pressure. Bikila was a world sporting celebrity and Niskanen had to fight hard to give him space.

Olympic Village Theater and Bicycles_Asahi Graf_23Oct
Olympic Village Theater and Bicycles, from the October 23, 1964 edition of the magazine Asahi Graf

The Olympic Village of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics really felt like a community. After all, it was, up to 1964, the gated neighborhood for US military families, a symbol of the continued American military presence in Japan.

Without a doubt, one of the lasting memories of the Olympians’ positive experience of the 1964 Summer Games was the availability of bicycles throughout the Olympic Village. The Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee had bicycles donated by Marukin Bicycle Manufacturing and Matsushita Electric Industrial and had them placed in all parts of the Village. The concept was if you saw an unattended bicycle, you could get on it and ride it anywhere in the Village. When you got off it and parked it, the bicycle was then available to any other person in the Village.

Members of the French Olympic Team on bicycles_Bi to Chikara
Members of the French Olympic Team on bicycles, from the book, Bi to Chikara

Olympian rower, Ted Nash, expressed his appreciation of the bicycles and Japanese hospitality in this post.

The reception was spectacular, the cleanliness and orderly fashion amazed us, the thoughtfulness of our hosts – the Japanese – was a constant surprise – They provided 750 new bicycles within the Olympic Village grounds on a “no-owner” basis. We simply found a vacant bike, rode it anywhere, left it there, and it was fair-game for anyone else – the seats never had a chance to cool off. Bus schedules, tours, eating and training facilities, were excellent with no measure spared to make the athletes feel at home.

Olympians rode the bicycles to the bus stops, to the dining areas, to the movie theaters and to their dorms. The books and magazines of the time were filled with pictures of Olympians smiling and socializing in the Village on those bicycles. One Olympian, who will remain anonymous, told me that it was their escape vehicles when they pinched the Turkish flag from that country’s living quarters.

Soren Svejstrup_bicycles
Members of the Danish team, from the collection of diver Søren Svejstrup.

The report by the Olympic Committee stated that there were actually over 1,000 bicycles allocated to the Olympic Village, but whether there were 750 or 1,000, there were simply not enough. An American gymnast told me that he often ran to open bicycles to make sure no one beat him to them. 5,000 meter Olympic champion, Bob Schul, wrote in his autobiography, In the Long Run, that the bicycles were so valuable that “they’d be hidden in bushes and other secret places, waiting on the athlete who had placed them in hiding the night before. We were among the few who arose so early that there were always a few within reach.”

Canadian field hockey player, Victor Warren validated that by telling me that “when our goalkeeper had to pack up our stuff we made it a point to take a bicycle and hide it in our dorm room so we could transport our stuff to the bus easily.”

The master of the psych out, four-time gold medalist Don Schollander, explained that one could get so worked up about whether a bicycle would be available, that he had to very consciously tell himself not to be bothered if he could not find a bicycle, as he explained in his autobiography, Deep Water.

I made up my mind not to let anything upset me. the Japanese had provided bicycles to help us get around the Village, but there were never enough. If I couldn’t find a bicycle, I would wait or walk. I was careful to take the right bus to training, so that I wouldn’t be too late and have to hurry, or too early and have to hang around. If I couldn’t get into the pool exactly when I wanted to, I told myself it didn’t matter. Whatever happened – that was fine with me. it rained a lot that week; if I got caught in a rainstorm, it was no big thing.

In the end, in so many of my interviews with 1964 Olympians, one of the most enduring memories of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were the Village bicycles.

Ada Kok on bicycle in Tokyo Olympic Village
Members of the Dutch team.