Japanese gymnast, Yukio Endo celebrates his gold medal victory in the parallel bars in 1964, with teammate Shuji Tsurumi, who won silver, in an era when the Japanese ruled in men’s gymnastics.


Officials in Japan are aiming for 16 gold medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

“Medals will encourage athletes,” Olympics minister Toshiaki Endo was quoted as saying in this November 27 Japan Times article. “It will be better to have a goal, so that the state can support (those who would be able to) offer hopes and dreams to children.”

Fifty-six years ago, on the eve of the start of the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo, Kenkichi Oshima, head of the Japanese Olympic delegation, said basically the same thing, stating that Japan must win at least 15 gold medals as “an encouragement to this country’s upcoming generation.”

The Japanese team pulled in 16 gold medals in 1964, with the third highest medal haul in those games. It is common for the host country to do well in the medals race, but the Japanese team continued its success vis-a-vis other countries through the early 1980s, as you can see in this table.

Japan Medal Table.PNG

But as the number of countries rose, as did the level of competitiveness, Japan began to slip in the medal rankings between 1988 and 2000. With a renewed effort, Japan matched its 16 gold medals in Athens, and more recently in London grabbed 38 overall medals, more than it had ever done before.

Over the years, judo, gymnastics and wrestling have been Japan’s strongest competitive advantages, with assists from weightlifting and archery, but in recent years, Japan has become a power in swimming.

Is a target of 16 gold medals in 2020 reasonable for the third largest economy in the world? Rio in 2016 will give us a clue.

Team USA getting read to compete at the 1964 Olympics, from Dale McClements Kephart's personal collection
Team USA getting read to compete at the 1964 Olympics, from Dale McClements Kephart’s personal collection

She was 19, and at 5 feet (1.5 meters) and only 98 pounds (44 kgs), said to be the smallest Olympian at the 1964 Olympics. Gymnast, Dale McClements, competed in a tough competition with much stronger teams from the USSR, Czechoslovakia, ending up the highest ranked American at the Tokyo Games.

And she kept a journal of her time.

She told me that she was very excited to go to Japan, and experience a different way of life. Below are excerpts from her diary, and how her teenage eyes saw the world, one particularly different from her life in Seattle.

Oct. 4th:  Food here is very good although for some reason I haven’t been eating that much for lack of hunger and quest for drinks.  They have all kinds of food which could suit all nations.  Oh-yoyo and Sayonara!  Good morning and goodbye.

Oct. 5th:  We had a flag raising ceremony today.  When all the members of a country are all in the village, we have to march as a team to the Olympic circle of flags with other countries doing the same thing.  So we marched, if you want to call it that.  After seeing how well and in step all the other teams are, it is kind of embarrassing to march with our team.  We have bikes we can ride all over the village. We spend most of our time training or in the village. You just pick one bike up and leave it when you get off of it.  Sometimes we end up racing for bikes though.  We also get free ice cream here. It’s fun.  

Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan and Linda Matheny in the Olympic Village, Olympics, from Dale McClemments Kephart's personal collection
Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan and Linda Matheny in the Olympic Village, Olympics, from Dale McClemments Kephart’s personal collection

Oct. 8th:  We went into town yesterday.  This is where I noticed that there are so many people here.  The streets are loaded with people.  I love the Japanese people and thought – they are so quiet, yet so friendly and humble.  I think they are great and this has been the best country I’ve been to so far.  Traffic drives me crazy here so I just don’t look at where we’re going anymore.  It’s a miracle that we haven’t had a wreck yet.

Oct. 10th:

Today was opening ceremonies. It was a great one too. The standing around for 3 hours was worth the one hour ceremony. First we marched halfway around the stadium and onto the field. Some speeches were made, then the Olympic flag was raised. Next, balloons were let loose, the torch bearer ran the track, climbed the carpeted steps to light the torch at the top of the stadium, the pigeons were let loose, then – most impressive of all – 5 planes described a circle in the air which formed the linking Olympic circles in their correct colors. Then we marched off.

But as time approached the beginning of the Tokyo Olympics, there was considerable uncertainty around the make-up of the US women’s gymnastics team. Surprisingly, the team had not been finalized. Who would round out the six members of the team? Who would end up being the alternate? McClements expressed the frustration she and likely other members of her team had during the Games.

Oct. 13th:

Things are a very big mess right now. Everything has been leading up to this, but today everything blew sky high and we haven’t even reached the worst part of it yet. It’s nice to be on the team, etc, but they sure shouldn’t put us through the mental strain they are when it is so close to the meet. Actually, I have nothing to be upset about because I’m in a good position. The number 1 problem is who is going to be the alternate? That’s a good question – no one of us can even take a wild guess. The past few days our routines have been judged by our own staff. I have ignored this and concentrated completely on my training. It is bothering a lot of the team however. What bothers me is that we are not getting enough training in because of so much formal preparations to be judged. 3 people on the team do not have a secure position.

Team USA: Janie Speaks, Marie Walther, Muriel Grossfeld, Linda Metheny, Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan, Doris Fuchs, from the personal collection of Dale McClements Kephart
Team USA: Janie Speaks, Marie Walther, Muriel Grossfeld, Linda Metheny, Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan, Doris Fuchs, from the personal collection of Dale McClements Kephart

When McClements returned home to Seattle after competing in the Summer Games, and then exhibitions in other parts of Japan, she met with the press. She said that US Women’s Gymnastics will never improve until the politics are removed from the selection process. For a long time, there had been complaints by gymnasts regarding the head of the AAU gymnastics body who, apparently, made all decisions regarding selection at that time.

“The problem could be called one of personalities,” McClements was quoted as saying in The Seattle Times. “A few persons control the sport nationally. These few insist upon using the same small number of judges and refuse to allow new blood in. there are several other qualified to judge, one of them a former Olympics competitor, but these are ignored. One result of this ‘control’ has been poor planning, to the detriment of those competing and to the standing of United States teams internationally.”

For example, she cited that the team was together only for two weeks to train and that the

Nikolai Prodanov and Diana Yorgova from the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency
Nikolai Prodanov and Diana Yorgova from the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency

As UPI put it, Japan was “in the midst of a wedding boom” in 1964, where the Meiji Memorial Hall, very near the Olympic Village, was marrying 35 to 40 couples a day.

But the biggest wedding during the Olympics was between two Bulgarians, Nikolai Prodanov and Diana Yorgova. Held at the International Club in the Olympic Village, the wedding was attended by the Bulgarian Ambassador, Christo Zdravchev, as well as the President of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage. Superstar gymnast, Takashi Ono and his wife joined the festivities, as Prodanov was a fellow gymnast.

From the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency
From the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency

As this was the first wedding ever at an Olympic Games, everybody likely wanted to be a part of the ceremony. A director of Nippon Rayon played the traditional role as the “go-between” and financed the couple’s 24-hour honeymoon to Kyoto, back in time to attend the closing ceremony.

If you’re curious, here’s film of the wedding!

Larisa Latynina in Tokyo on the balance beam.
Larisa Latynina in Tokyo on the balance beam, from the book “Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency”

Larisa Latynina has won 18 Olympic Medals – that’s a career haul of over 2 kilograms, an Olympian achievement that only Michael Phelps has been able to eclipse. When Phelps passed Latynina in 2012, she famously quipped that it was about time a man was able to do what a woman had done a long time ago.

Latynina was gracious in the passing of the torch to Phelps, enjoying the internet limelight despite missing the fame that television brought to gymnasts Olga Korbut or Nadia Comăneci. In the 1950s and 1960s, Latynina, a Ukrainian who competed under the flag of the Soviet Union, was the undisputed queen of gymnastics, on a women’s team with a proud tradition of Olympic glory.

At the Tokyo Games in 1964, Latynina won six more medals, including two golds, bringing her Olympic total of medals to eighteen. Her total 14 individual medals is still a record for female athletes. Despite helping her team to a third consecutive Olympic team gold medal, Latynina gave way in Tokyo to an up-and-coming star from Czechoslovakia, Věra Čáslavská, on the overall individual championship, who would go on to win more individual gold medals in the Olympics – seven – than any other female gymnast.

Amazingly, Latynina continued her run of championships as a coach of the Soviet Union women’s gymnastics team from 1965 to 1977, where her team took gold again and again and again.

In the 1950s and 1960s, so many athletes who competed in the Olympic Games emerged from war-torn environments, overcoming poor conditions to become the very best in the world. As explained in this link, Latynina was no exception, growing up at a time when Ukrainians either resisted or gave in to Soviet collectivization of farms, and the policy ultimately contributing to famines.

And then there were the war years, when both of Latynina’s parents died. According to this ESPN article, her father was killed in battle in 1943, and her mother had to raise her sweeping floors, washing dishes and being a night guard in order to support her daughter’s training, until she too passed away.

Larisa Latynina in MelbourneAt that end of the war, she was 11 and started ballet, her training leading to gymnastic exercises, and eventually to gymnastics full time. At the age of 22, she led the women’s Soviet team to gold in addition to earning three individual golds, continuing a long run of glory for Soviet women’s gymnastics.

Gymnastics would evolve, points more and more earned for athletic difficulty in addition to grace and beauty, in good part due to the impact of technology on sports equipment. “More sophisticated equipment has raised the bar of what the human body can achieve, and, in turn, made the sport more complex. For example, the floor exercise was originally performed on a wooden surface. Later a thin mat was added, and today there is a springy layer that allows for higher jumping without injury.” (See this link.)

Nadia Comaneci of Romania, who along with Olga Korbut were beneficiaries of more advanced technology that

Takuji Hayata in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics
Takuji Hayata in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

He grew up in Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, dreaming of becoming a tuna fisherman like so many of the adults in his town.

But at the age of ten, he would walk around on his hands, and everybody began calling him “Handstand Boy”. His natural physical gifts eventually led to attendance at the best university for gymnastics in the strongest country for gymnastics – Nippon University in Japan. And he would go on to Olympic glory in Tokyo and Montreal.

In 1960 at Rome, Japan won its first of five straight Olympic team championships. So for Takuji Hayata (早田卓次), the youngest member of the 1964 team, it was initially intimidating to join the Japan gymnastics team. “Four of the six team members competed in Rome, including Yamashita Haruhiro who had a technique named after him. I was happy, but I was an unknown, so could I really make a contribution,” he wondered in an interview.

Paraguayan stamp of Takuji Hayata

As it turned out, Japan won gold in the men’s team gymnastics in 1964, with Hayata taking gold in the individual rings competition. But Hayata explains that becoming a champion was not easy. He said the gymnastics coach was a perfectionist and a taskmaster.

Upon waking every day, his coach insisted that he do one hour of electromyostimulation, then three hours on core gymnastics, followed by resistance training to build up muscle. Hayata had to keep his weight down, as he had to work hard to drop about 2.5 kgs a day, which he did by running or sweating off the weight in a sauna. On top of that, his coach filmed everything, pointing out every mistake.

As a result, Hayata was in top shape. But two-and-a-half months before the opening of the Tokyo Games, his father went to the hospital and passed away. “A year before the Olympics I was in excellent condition and I enjoyed working out daily,” he said in this speech at his induction into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2004. “I was selected and attended the training camp with great joy. I didn’t want to sleep. However, my healthy father suddenly became ill and passed away. People worried about me. All my friends came to comfort me. So at the age of 24 on my birthday (which happened to be the day of the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Games), I wanted to do my best for my father.”

Hayata of course did do his best, not only for his father but for his home town. He said that during the Olympic Games, prior to his competition, he got a letter from his junior high school in Tanabe. A student had drawn a picture of him on

New York Times, October 16, 1964
New York Times, October 16, 1964

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was at the height of his influence and powers in 1960. At the kickoff of the Olympic Summer Games in Rome, he released a letter to all Olympians that grew feelings of good will towards the Soviet Union.

Rome 1960_MaranissAs David Maraniss wrote in his brilliant book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, “Khrushchev’s message was meant not just for the Soviets but for all athletes gathered in Rome, even if it was boilerplate Soviet rhetoric… ‘The Olympic Games were worthy because they improved brotherly contact among sportsmen of different countries,’ he noted, concluding: ‘I wish all sportsmen taking part the best success in sports as well as in work, studies, and their private lives.’”

Maraniss emphasized that “American diplomats had been frustrated for days by the seeming propaganda coup the Soviets gained when newspapers around the world reported on the message of peace and friendship that Premier Khrushchev sent to the Olympians in Rome.”

Khruschev, in the summer of 1960, was heading to New York City to address the United Nations, and he was at the top of his game.

But four years later, at the end of the first week of the Tokyo Summer Games, the world learned that one of the most powerful men in the world was deposed. As Ron Barak, US gymnast at the 1964 Games related to me, it was all a bit of a mystery.

“The day in the Village began like any other day during that two-week period. Then people began noticing the Soviets were gone. No one had witnessed their departure and until they returned late in the day, no one knew what was behind it. But there

tamara press_tokyo 1964 Tamara Press – The Olympic Century XVIII Olympiad

Tamara Press was a phenomenon, winning gold in the shot put and discus in Rome, as well as gold in the shot put in Tokyo. She was a large woman, and as American gymnast, Ron Barak, told me in an interview, a hulking woman, fortunately with an equally hulking sense of humor.

“I was in line one day in the Olympic Village cafeteria, and right behind me, Tamara Press was waiting in line with a couple of Soviet teammates. My wife, who was fairly tiny, came rushing in. US officials had given wives of the gymnastic teams sweat suits so they could get in and out of the village. Barbie was coming to meet me for lunch, and was a bit late. She spotted me and hurried over. Focused on me, she somehow didn’t see Tamara, and butted right in front of her.”

Ron Barak 1
USA gymnast, Ron Barak

“Well, Tamara Press is a very nice person. She comes up to her from behind, grabs her elbows gently and firmly and bench presses my wife above her 6 foot frame, holding her high up like a piece of lumber. Her head was pointed to the ceiling and her back was pointed to the ground. Tamara proceeded to spin her in a revolution above her head, before finally putting her down behind Tamara in line. Barbie’s eyes were wide open in shock.”

“Because I saw Tamara smiling, I was relieved to know that we were not headed for an international incident. Everybody was watching, rather quiet at first. When Tamara quickly repeated the maneuver and this time set Barbie down in front of her and waved her finger not to cut in again, the whole place exploded in laughter. I was happy to know that I would not have to rescue my wife from someone who towered over me by at least half a foot, and easily outweighed me by more than a hundred pounds.”