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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.

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Thomas Bach and Yuriko Koike

There has been a backlash against the Olympics. Public support of hosting an Olympic Games has dropped as cities like Rome, Hamburg and Boston ceased their bids for the 2024 Games.

Sochi cost USD50 billion, Beijing USD40 billion. At USD15 billion, the cost of the Athens Olympics put significant pressure on the Greek economy, and likely contributed to that country’s government debt crisis. This is a public burden a lot of cities and countries are no longer willing to accept.

In late September, an expert panel established by the Tokyo Metropolitan government released their report re-examining the costs of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. Their estimate – the total cost of Tokyo 2020 could balloon to JPY3 trillion, or about USD30 billion. The original budget set at bid submission: about one fourth of that.

The new governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, campaigned on the premise that she would rein in the costs of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. A few weeks after becoming governor, she vowed to do what it took to bring down costs.

Before I became governor, there must have been certain procedures that went into the cost calculations and I would like to speak to 2020 organizers and the national government about that. I will not leave white elephants to the taxpayers. I will leave a good legacy. That is the direction I want to see the games take.

And already, Koike is looking at changes of venues of certain sports in order to whittle away at costs.

The first suggestion from Governor Koike is to use a different venue for canoeing and rowing. The current plan approved by the IOC is to develop the Sea Forest Water Sports Center, two land-fill islands located in Tokyo Bay, right next to the Tokyo Gate Bridge. One of the islands would be developed to host equestrian events. The other island would be used for the mountain bike course. The water way in between the two islands would be the raceways for rowing and canoeing.

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Illustration of what the Sea Forest Sports Center would look like in 2020.

But because cost estimates for the Sea Forest venues reported to have climbed significantly, Koike has been looking into moving the rowing and canoeing events to the Naganuma Boat Park in Tome, which is in Miyagi Prefecture. This move is being considered not only to decrease costs, but also highlight the reconstruction efforts in the area since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.

To the chagrin of Tokyo2020, the IOC, and the various rowing and canoeing federations, Tome is 400 kilometers from Tokyo.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, Thomas Bach, has been working with all parties to get to a mutually agreed state. According to this article, he is reluctant to agree to plans where athletes do not come first in the decision making process, which could mean he prefers not to move the canoeing and rowing events to the Northern part of Japan.

Bach instead recommended that a four-party panel, which includes the IOC, The Tokyo Games Organizing committee, Tokyo and Japanese government representatives. It is the IOC’s leaders hope that the four parties together can work to decrease costs to the satisfaction of all. The article explained that it is in the IOC’s best interests to defuse this internal conflict as soon as possible.

“The IOC is worried that news of this wrangling over the 2020 Olympics will spread through the world,” a Japanese government source said. “It probably decided it can no longer leave the issue in the hands of the Tokyo metropolitan government or the organizing committee alone.”

Rowing and canoeing are just the beginning. Next up for discussion? The venues for gymnastics and volleyball.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

The canoeists were most outspoken about plants that tangled with their oars and rudders

Source: Canoeists at Olympic test event complain about ‘red and brown’ polluted water, weeds at Rio 2016 venue