john-cooper-robbie-brightwell-adrian-metcalfe-tim-graham_autobiography
John Cooper Robbie Brightwell Adrian Metcalfe Tim Graham, from the book Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl

He could sense the ghosts of Rome with him. Robbie Brightwell, just 17, crashed out of the 400 meters in the semi-finals at the 1960 Summer Olympics. He ran so hard in the first 200 meters that he didn’t have the strength to fight effortlessly through an expected crosswind around the bend.

Brightwell, returning to the 400 meters at the 1964 Tokyo Games as the captain of Great Britain’s athletics squad, was determined to do better. And this time, he made it to the final eight. But the ghosts of Rome stuck to Brightwell like the thick humidity of the Tokyo air. The ghosts whispered doubts into Brightwell’s ears, and the 21-year-old from Shropshire could not help by listen. Here’s how he describes his moment of truth in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl:

Something wasn’t right in my head. The burning flame to win was waning. Instead, a terrible foreboding gripped me, akin to the terror of being buried alive. I was suffering the onset of ‘choking’. It was like acid eating away at my resolve. It’d started during our tunnel walk. One moment I was okay, the next swamped by fear.

Brightwell was actually in third, behind eventual gold medalist Mike Larrabee and silver medalist Wendell Mottley, going into the home stretch. But when he saw Larabee blast into a five-meter lead, something broke within Brightwell. “A wave of hopelessness swept over me. My oxygen and glucose banks were empty, and I was running on despair.”

And despite being in third, he meekly allowed the Polish sprinter, Andrzej Badeński, to pass him for the bronze medal.

I felt disconsolate. What hurt most wasn’t the fact that I’d been beaten, but rather that I’d failed myself. At the critical moment, the demons in my head had taken over. That was an unforgivable sin. I hated myself. After years of training and seismic setbacks, I’d fallen into the fathomless Pit of Doubt. Idiot!

And yet, it is not how we lose or fail, it is how we react to loss or failure that shows what we are truly made of. Redemption, in the 4×400 meter relay, was only two days away for Brightwell.

While the Americans were favored to win this competition, as they featured the 400-meter gold medalist Mike Larrabee and the 200-meter gold medalist Henry Carr, Team GB was a strong medal candidate. Tim Graham, Adrian Metcalfe, 400-meter hurdler silver medalist John Cooper and Brightwell as the anchor had already run the fastest team time in the heats.

But the finals brought the best in the world together for winner take all.

Great Britain was in the outside lane, which meant that in this staggered start, leadoff runner, Graham, could not see anyone in front of him. And yet he ran well and passed the baton to Metcalfe, who was going so fast in the first 100 meters that Brightwell worried if he could last. In fact, Metcalfe drew first blood, grabbing the inside lane and the lead.

Metcalfe was up against the 400-meter champion Larabee, who powered ahead, as did Kent Barnard of Trinidad and Tobago. Metcalfe handed the baton to Cooper, who strained to keep up with American Ulis Williams and Trinidadian Edwin Roberts. Cooper’s head wagged as he dashed towards Brightwell, but was passed by the Jamaican Mal Spence.

robbie-brightwell-as-ulis-williams-falls_autobiography
From the book Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl

Just when Cooper was about to hand the baton to Brightwell, Williams of the USA slapped the baton into Carr’s hand, and then went sprawling to the cinder track. Brightwell grabbed the baton and found himself in fourth with 400 meters to go.

As he writes in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl, this time, he did not allow the moment to swallow him.

Carr, Mottley, and (George) Kerr were travelling at vertiginous speed, and I was falling further behind. I knew they were engaged in a headlong fight to reach the last turn first. That way they could dominate the inside lane, and avoid running extra distance around the turn. Fixing Kerr’s bobbing head in front, I eased fractionally. I mustn’t repeat my Perth mistake. Let him duel with Mottley.

As we scorched the final turn, Carr put in a ferocious kick, pulling away from Mottley who, in responding to his burst of speed, opened a gap between himself and Kerr. Still fourth, I kept close behind the Jamaican, awaiting any sign of weakness. Suddenly, his head began to waggle. The punishing pace was taking its toll. Determination took hold. I attacked, inching alongside him. We were so close our elbows clashed. He drifted behind.

The last 60 meters loomed. Two runners remained in front: Mottley and Carr. Instinctively, I relaxed and fixed the Trinidadian in my sights. My legs, although heavy, continued driving. Then, almost as though watching a slow motion film, Wendell wavered, chopping his stride, and tensing his neck. That was enough to give me encouragement. I slowly inched up to his shoulder. Holding me steadfast was the thought that this would be the last time I’d compete. In the last few meters, I flung myself at the finishing line.

Brightwell did it. He came from way behind to not only secure a medal, but a silver medal. Brightwell had brought his team back from the dead, exorcising ghosts of his own on the way.

Watch the video below from the 1 minute, 30-second mark to see part of this race.

Advertisements
Kousei Inoue in Rio
Japan’s Men’s Judo Team coach in Rio, Kosei Inoue

At the 2012 London Olympics, the men’s judo team from Japan did not win a single gold medal. Of the seven weight classes, the Japanese took two silver and two bronze medals in arguably their worst showing since judo premiered at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the men’s judo team from Japan won two golds, and equally important, scored a medal in each of the 7 weight classes. The last time Japan medaled in all classes? 1964.

If this is the return to the glory years for Japan, just in time for the pressure to really build for Japanese athletes at the Tokyo2020 Games, then the men’s judo coach, Kosei Inoue, deserves top judo kudos. Inoue, gold medalist in 100kg weight class at the Sydney Games, was at those 2012 Games as an assistant coach, and he observed a judo team in chaos, according to this Gendai Business article (in Japanese).

Judoka were confused as the team of coaches were not specifically assigned to weight classes, so the judoka were uncertain whose coaching they should follow. Judoka were bullied excessively. Injured judoka were threatened with being dropped from the team. As a result of that and particularly the results in London, the coach was fired, and Inoue was asked to take over the team.

Japan's Judo Gold Medalists
Judo gold medalists Mashu Baker (left), Shohei Ono (center) and Haruka Tachimoto pose during a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Tuesday. | KYODO

According to various sources, Inoue brought a winning mindset to the men’s judo team, focused the coaching on technique and playing to the strengths of each judoka, improving judoka’s strength, showing them to think outside of the Japan box, and emphasizing open communication between coaches and judoka.

Inoue ensured that his training sessions were not random and chaotic, but were focused on themes, like “technique”, or “finishing strong”. He also ensured that the judoka had their own coaches, and their own development plans. As gold medalist, Mashu Baker said in this Japan Times article, “After the London Olympics, Coach Inoue took over and I have had the pleasure of training under him. I don’t know what it was like in 2012, but I can say that under Coach Inoue we have had very personalized training which really looks at making the most of the skills of each individual athlete.”

According to a story on the television news program, Bankisha! (バンキシャ!), during the Rio Olympics, Inoue realized that while technique is important, foreigners did tend to be physically stronger, particularly in the heavier weight classes. Inoue ensured that his judoka were also improving their overall strength so that they would not be wrestled out of competitions.

Inoue also thought that the way non-Japanese fought in the judo dojo was important to understand. He thought it was important that his team know that the Russians developed their techniques from Sambo, a Russian wrestling sport, and that Brazilians developed their s from jiu-jitsu.

“The world is progressing fast. You’ve got to be aware of it,” Inoue said in this Japan Times article prior to the Rio Games. “Japan’s judo has been trying to do things its own way, as if Japan was the be-all and end-all of everything.”

Inoue may have gained this insight thanks to the Japan Olympic Committee, which selected Inoue to live in the UK, learn English, see how Europeans train in judo. Perhaps the JOC saw the coaching potential in Inoue, and believed the international experience would be of benefit. Inoue spent two years in the UK, including time in Edinburgh, Scotland with George Kerr, the president of the British Judo Association, and London, teaching at the famed Budokwai.

“I felt strong pride at what I’d done,” Inoue recalled in the Japan Times article. “But once I stepped out of my country, I didn’t understand the language and the environment. Their coaching style was totally different (in Europe). I felt like I had been taken down a peg. It was tough for me, but eventually, I began to think I was immature, that I didn’t know anything. The world is so big. So when people ask me what the best experience from being abroad was, I always tell them that I realized how ignorant I was.”

Inoue even sent his judoka, Ryunosuke Haga and Masashi Ebinuma, to train overseas on their own, to build their self-reliance and mental toughness, and they both secured bronze medals for Japan.

Inoue was shaping into the ideal coach for Japan’s national team. He knew what it was to be a champion in Sydney. He knew what it was like to be humbled in Athens, when he didn’t medal. He realized that the world offered a treasure trove of lessons that would

Reay Miura Hoare Bregman at Kodokan
Tony Reay, Sensei Miura, Syd Hoare, Jim Bregman in the Kodokan; from A Slow Boat to Yokohama
Since that time in December, 1954, when Syd Hoare came to a judo dojo in London, he understood that the very best judoka trained in Japan. Seven years later, Hoare got a ticket on a steamer that took seven weeks before it pulled into Yokohama. He made it to the Mecca of Judo.

A friend from England met him at the port, and drove him into Tokyo. That evening he had soba for dinner, and fell into a sleep so deep he didn’t feel an earthquake that rumbled in the middle of the night. In his first full day in Japan, he opened up a bank account, visited the legendary home of judo, the Kodokan, and then bought his judo wear, called judo-gi.

Hoare-Syd-A-slow-boat-to-Yokohama-a-Judo-odyssey1On Day two in Japan, Hoare had his initiation to Japanese judo. He picked up his brand-new judo-gi and made his way back to the Kodokan. He bumped into fellow Brit and judoka, George Kerr, who helped Hoare navigate in his new judo world. Hoare watched George and another friend John, walking where they walked, bowing when they bowed. And when he entered the main dojo, as he explains in his wonderful autobiography, A Slow Boat to Yokohama, Hoare was impressed.

I had never seen so many black belts in one place before. All were standing to one side, waiting for the mass bow to the teachers. In one corner on a wooden stand stood a massive barrel-shaped drum. An old grey- headed sensei approached it and hammered out a tattoo of about fifteen beats which quickly got faster, followed by two slow bangs at the end. Then on the command “seiza!”we all moved forward and knelt down in orderly ranks. Next followed “Ki o tsuke! Sensei ni rei!” and we all lowered our hands and head to the mat.

Hoare of course trusted Kerr to guide him in the right way in his first few days in Japan. After all, he was literally fresh off the boat. Kerr said that Hoare could go up to anyone on the floor and ask for a tussle, called a “randori”. Kerr pointed out a “fairly chunky Japanese” standing near them, and suggested that Hoare ask for a randori. Hoare didn’t think too much about it and did as was suggested.

Isao Inokuma in action
Isao Inokuma
I went up to him and in halting Japanese said “Onegai-shimasu”. He looked surprised, paused a moment, then walked out on to the mat where we bowed to each other. I soon found myself in a very vigorous randori.

At that time I had done virtually nothing in the way of judo or any other kind of training for nearly two months, and it felt a bit weird to be back on the mat. After about three minutes when nothing much had happened, we stumbled to the ground and I got him in an immobilization hold called kuzure-kesagatame. I think, he wasn’t trying too hard and let it happen. I kept him under control for about twenty seconds (a thirty second hold-down would have been a loss) during which time his struggles got rougher and rougher.

The hold-down was one I had worked on quite a lot in the UK and was deceptively strong. He broke out of the hold just before time, and when we stood up again he began pasting me from one end of the hall to the other. I took a hammering and endured it for about ten minutes, then said “mairimashita” and bowed off. I staggered back to George and asked him who he was. “Oh”, he said most innocently, “that was Inokuma, the current All-Japan champion.”

Isao Inokuma, who took gold as a heavyweight at the 1964 Olympics, was at that time actually the runner up in the 1960 and 1961 All-Japan Championships, but became All-Japan champion in 1963. At any rate, Inokuma was a judo legend, and Hoare’s painful introduction to judo in Japan.