You’re at the White House, enjoying Breast of Chicken Georgina, Rice Pilaf and Eggplant Provençale. You’re seated at the table with Lynda Johnson, the daughter of the most powerful man in America at the time. But you’re also chatting at your table with some of the greatest athletes of 1964.
This is where Dick Lyon, bronze medalist in the coxless fours, found himself on Tuesday, December 1, 1964, at a fete for the US Olympic Team medalists who competed at the Tokyo Olympiad several weeks earlier, hosted by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“We didn’t shake hands with President Johnson,” Lyon, a rower from California, told me. “He was probably meeting with General Westmoreland, or someone. It was a busy time for them. But we got to shake hands with the vice president, Hubert Humphrey.”
In addition to the president’s daughter and a staff member of the White House, those seated at Lyon’s table were some of the most celebrated athletes of the Olympics: 10,000 meters gold medalist Billy Mills, fastest man-in-the-world gold medalist Bob Hayes, 110-meter hurdles champion Hayes Jones, double-gold medalist swimmer Donna deVarona, as well silver and bronze medalists in the modern pentathlon, yachting, and shooting.
Lyon shared with me a picture of the actual menu, which he passed around the table for their signatures. Here are the names of those at Lyon’s table, just in case you aren’t experts in graphology.
The coxless fours from Denmark were champions. While they won their heat quite handily, finishing more than five seconds ahead of their closest competition, the championship race was decided by slightly more than a second.
And yet when Bjørn Borgen Hasløv recalls that time in Tokyo in 1964, he doesn’t remember the pain or the tension. The stroke on the Danish team that pipped the Great Britain team for gold remembers that they were a young group of men who came together as a team.
“We were young,” recalled Hasløv to me. “I was 23, still not having completed my studies because I spent my free time rowing and had no time for other things. The youngest was 20, Kurt Helmudt, who was in shipbuilding. Erik Petersen, 25, was a plumber, and John Ørsted Hansen, 26, was a fitter, charged with steering the boat. It was important that we could tell if we were rowing together, not as separate people. You have to feel your team around you. If you don’t work together, 100%, you will never be fast.”
Hasløv said that his coach, Poul Danning, taught him (among many other things) that the sport of rowing requires individuals to find their role and rhythm within a boat so that all are in synch – for example if the strongest person in the boat pulls as hard and as fast as he can, the differences in power and speed with the others will actually slow the boat down as water resistance increases due to the differential. Legendary boat maker George Yeoman Pocock expressed this insight in this way – “It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water, as you have to displace the amount of water equal to the weight of men and equipment, but that very water is what supports you and that very enemy is your friend.”
Hasløv believes that his team worked so well together that the water was indeed their friend that day. “Everything was going to plan. We were concentrating hard on rowing together, supporting each other, finding rhythm in the boat. I didn’t feel the pain. I could feel the water under the boat, and it sounded like music as our boat was going perfectly. It’s a strong feeling. It’s a feeling that you control your body and you are a part of a team.”
My guess is that Hasløv was feeling what Pocock and other rowers call “swing”. Daniel Brown, in his wonderful book, The Boys in the Boat, about the American Eights Rowing Team that competed in the 1936 Olympics, described “swing” for an eight-man crew this way:
There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define. Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it. Others find it but can’t sustain it. it’s called “swing.” it only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others. It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten at once. Each minute action – each subtle
Bjorn Haslov had never been to Japan. His country Denmark (43,000 sq kilometers) is about a ninth the size of Japan in terms of area. But nothing prepared him for the difference in population size.
“I was surprised,” Haslov told me. “My country had around 4 to 5 million people at that time.
When you are coming from a small country like Denmark you have no idea what it is like to live in a country of 100 million. The train system was fantastic, and worked perfectly all the time. But it took me 15 minutes just to change platforms because there were so many people.”
Fortunately, Haslov competed on the water where he won gold as a member of the Danish coxless four rowing team.
On land, nobody was spared the mass of humanity in Tokyo. My father was a journalist in Tokyo in the late 1950s. In June of 1957, he wrote this dispatch for the Louisville Times about the consequences of jamming too many people in one place.
Tokyo, Japan — Jiro Matsushima, a skinny accountant, stood 25 minutes without once shifting his feet while waiting for a bus that would take him home. When the bus came, he sprang into action, ramming his way past other homeward -bound Japanese. Matsushima and his brief-case barely made it inside the bus before the door closed in front of a frail old kimono-clad woman. In this jampacked city, two of your most valuable assets are patience and sharp elbows. Matsushima has both.
The whole metropolis, on a giant scale, sometimes resembles the crushing scene of a department store bargain-basement during an annual sale. Waiting in lines and bulling through throngs have become a way of life. If you think Louisville is suffering from growing pains, take a look at Japan’s capital city:
In recent years, Tokyo has grown at the rate of 250,000 to 300,000 a year. Because of high birth rates and migrations into the city from other prefectures, there are now about 8,350,000 persons in Tokyo.
Babies are born into crowded hospitals, children attend overflowing classes, breadwinners work in cramped offices, and the oldsters have hardly enough room to die. The last statement is no exaggeration. Most of the public cemeteries are filled up. One city-operated cemetery had a little space a few weeks ago, but there so many applicants that a drawing had to be held.
That is only one of the things which caused Tokyo Governor Seiichiro Yasui, in commenting on the state of the city to say, “Overpopulation is an evil. Tokyo is overpopulated.”