Hideko Maehata after winning gold in Berlin
Hideko Maehata waving to the crowd after winning gold in Berlin

It was a slight, perhaps. The first and most famous of films about the Olympics – Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, entitled Olympia, did not include the winner of the women’s 200-meter breast stroke. That’s because the winner was a Japanese, Hideko Maehata, who beat out a German named Martha Genenger.

But that’s OK. When Maehata returned to Japan after her gold-medal winning performance in Berlin, she was a national celebrity. Eight other Japanese won gold medals at the Berlin Games, but they may not have gotten the media attention that Maehata did. As Robin Kietlinski explains in her seminal book, Japanese Women and Sport, national radio was bringing the world to all of Japan, led by Nihon Hoso Kyokai, or NHK. Established in 1924, Maehata’s race was one of the first events to be covered live, broadcasted to Japan via satellite.

And according to Kietlinski, they had the man who brought the excitement of the moment alive for Japanese listeners – Kasai Sansei – whose shrieks of excitement and shouts of “Maehata ganbare” brought the swimming stadium of the Imperial Sports Field in Berlin to the homes of people all across Japan. In this NHK documentary, Maehata’s cousin, Tomizo Hase, was asked about his recollections of listening to that famous radio broadcast:

We were all nervous, out palms sweating. We said to each other, we really hope she wins. There were about 10 people inside and many more outside. What a heavenly feeling it was. Some of us cried in joy, saying she’s done great.

In her book, Kietlinski provides a transcript in English of that broadcast. To listen in Japanese and get the sense of excitement Japanese felt in 1936, go to the 25 second mark of the video below.

Maehata and Genenger are side by side. Ah, Maehata pulls ahead! She’s in the lead! She’s a little bit ahead. Fifty meters down. 100 meters down. Fifty meters left to go. Maehata is a little bit ahead! Ah, Genenger is coming. Come on, come on! Maehata is in danger, she’s in danger! Go for it! Maehata go for it!

They turned, the swimmers just now turned and Maehata holds onto a slight lead. C’mon Maehata. Go for it! (Repeated four more times) Forty meters left to go. (Repeated four times) Maehata is ahead! Maehata is ahead! Genenger is coming. It’s just a very small lead by Maehata. Go for it Maehata! (Repeated four times) Twenty-five meters left to go! Maehata’s lead is small, it’s very small! Maehata! Go for it Maehata! (Repeated eleven times)

Maehata is in the lead! (Repeated six times) Five meters left to go! Four meters left! Three meters, two meters. Maehata is ahead! Maehata has won! (Repeated eighteen times) By a small margin Maehata is the champion! Thank you Ms Maehata, the Japanese flag will fly today. Thank you! For the first time in the history of women’s swimming the Japanese flag will fly.

Hideko Maehata on the Podium with Martha Genenger
Hideko Maehata (center) on the Podium with Martha Genenger (right) and Inge Sorensen of Denmark (left)

Hideko Maehata swam 10,000 meters a day. So taking the two-week boat trip from Japan to the West Coast of the United States was a piece of cake for the native of Wakayama, Japan. It was the last 200 meters, in the pool, that were going to be painful.

After winning her heat in the 200-meter breaststroke by nearly 3 seconds, she lined up for the finals. And in a tough-fought nail biter, a 16-year old Australian named Clare Dennis set an Olympic record and edged out Maehata by a tenth of a second.

According to Robin Japanese Women and Sport, in her book Japanese Women and Sport, Maehata was welcomed back home in Japan as a hero, but the 18-year-old, while proud was disappointed. Was it worth training so hard again, and trying again for gold in 1936, or should she put an end to the long hours in the water and get married as society at the time required. Kietlinski explained that Maehata received letters from her fans making both sides of the argument.

According to this NHK mini-documentary of Maehata’s life, it was the Mayor of Tokyo at that time, Hidejiro Nagata. Nagata, proud of Japan’s incredible accomplishments at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, was putting together his plan for Tokyo to host the 1940 Olympics, met the returning Maehata and insisted that she go for it again in Berlin.

If only you had won that gold medal. It’s so frustrating. Don’t forget the bitter taste of defeat. Let it drive you to do better four years from now at the Berlin Olympics.

And so, Maehata decided to aim for gold and glory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She doubled her regimen, swimming 20 kilometers a day, the water hiding the tears of pain. She noted that her victory in LA was denied by such a tiny margin that perfecting her start was essential. She worked on her launch from the starting block by practicing 100 starts a day, her toes bleeding from the wear and tear.

The training was so grueling I cried as I swam. But at those times, I reminded myself that if I failed to overcome the pain, and fall short in Berlin, I would be the laughing stock of Japan.

And so, despite being cheered on by thousands as she boarded the ship for Europe and ultimately Berlin in 1936, she did so with considerable anxiety. In fact, as the NHK video explains, based I believe on what she described in her own autobiography, she found herself alone on the deck of the ship, looking over the waves, thinking that if she did not win, she would jump into the ocean on the return trip and kill herself.

This was the first Olympics in Berlin, otherwise known as the Nazi Olympics as it was presided over by der Führer, Adolph Hitler. The home field advantage for the German athletes was significant, and Maehata’s biggest competitor in the 200-meter breast stroke was a 20-year-old from Krefeld, Germany, Martha Genenger.

Genenger sent the first warning shot, winning her first round heat in 3:02.9 seconds, setting an Olympic record. Maehata fired back in her first round heat with a time one second better, re-setting the Olympic record. In the semi-finals, no records were set, but no other competitor came anywhere close to Genenger’s or Maehata’s times. The finals were to be a showdown between the German and the Japanese.

Hideko Maehata in high schoolIt was 4pm on August 11, 1936. Maehata was in lane 6. Genenger was in lane 7. Even in the early part of the race, Maehata pulled ahead. And for the remainder of the 150 meters, Maehata clung to the lead. When her hand touched the wall, she was not sure who had won.

When I reached the finish line I l gasped for breath and looked across at the next lane and saw that Genenger was already there. And I thought I had lost.

In fact, Maehata had persevered by a mere sixth tenths of a second. She had fulfilled the command of the Mayor of Tokyo. She had realized the dreams of an entire nation.

And she could get on with her life. In 1937, Maehata married a doctor, retiring from swimming. She raised two children, and when she greater flexibility after her children grew up, she started a swimming school in 1967. She saw that after the war, the Japanese were weak in swimming. She felt that she could contribute by focusing on mothers, teaching them the joys of swimming. If mothers understand and enjoy swimming, she believed, so will their children.

Maehata suffered a stroke while teaching, at 68. She was told she would never walk again, which was fuel for her competitive fire. So she pushed herself. “I still have the drive inside,” she said in the NHK documentary. “When I have a tough day, I recall my days as a competitive swimmer, and it’s like someone is yelling at me that I have to be stronger. The fact that I am still alive and active today is thanks to that inner strength.” Amazingly, a year later, Maehata returned to the pool and resumed her coaching duties.

In 1995, at the age of 80, Maehata, one of the most famous sports figures of the early 20th century in Japan, passed away.

Hideko Maehata getting married
Hideko Maehata getting married
Hitomi Kinue finishing second in 800 meters in Amsterdam in 1928
Kinue Hitomi (2nd L) of Japan competes in the Women’s 800m during the Amsterdam Olympic in August 1928 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. August 01, 1928| Bildnachweis: The Asahi Shimbun

In the 1920s, they were called the Women’s Olympic Games, a sporting event organized because Baron Pierre de Coubertin fiercely resisted the wholesale addition of women in his Olympic Games. The Second Women’s Olympic Games were held in Gotherberg, Sweden in 1926, in which there was one Japanese representative – Kinue Hitomi .

Hitomi was entered in several athletic events: the running long jump, the standing broad jump, the discus throw, the 100-yard dash, as well as the 60- and 250-meter dashes. And not only did Hitomi break the world record in the long jump, as is explained in the book, Japanese Women and Sport: Beyond Baseball and Sumo, by Robin Kietlinski, “she stunned people the entire world over as she was awarded the prize for outstanding overall athlete of the Women’s Olympic Games.”

Overnight (figuratively in that age of snail mail and print journalism), Hitomi became a star in Japan. Japan’s flag flew proudly in Sweden thanks to the athletic prowess of the 19-year-old from Okayama Prefecture in Western Japan.

Hitomi Kinue stampAt the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, Japan had high hopes for Hitomi . Unfortunately, the organizers did not include the 200 meter race in its schedule, a sprint that Hitomi believed she had the best chance to win. But due to schedules and other factors, she entered herself in the 100-meter race. And in the semi-finals, Hitomi was eliminated. She missed entering the finals by a fraction of a second and was in serious trouble of returning to Japan with nothing to show for it. As Kietlinski explained, the discus throw had already ended, the high jump was simply too competitive, and the 4X100 relay required three more teammates.

There was one possibility left – the 800-meter footrace. It was a new distance, so Hitomi and probably everyone else thought anyone had a chance. So Hitomi pleaded with her coach to run in this race. Kietlinski explains that the coach told her not to sprint at the beginning, that she needed to better pace herself in this longer distance. But Hitomi’s instincts took over, and she sprinted to first at the half-way mark. Then she faded as runner after runner passed her, falling to seventh. Kietlinski describes the amazing comeback:

As Hitomi began to feel her dreams of becoming Japan’s first female Olympic medalists slip away, she remembered something her coach had told her again and again – to use her arms when her legs were tired. In the grainy video footage of the race, one can actually see the moment at which Hitomi remembers this advice, as her arms suddenly gain power and she begins pumping them higher than eye level. Through her mental and physical exhaustion, Hitomi managed to regain the ground she had lost after the first lap, and in the final straightaway (the last 50-meters of the race) she pulled ahead of several runners to finish second overall in a time of 2 minutes, 17 seconds. This time broke the standing world record for that distance by nearly five seconds.

With her silver medal in the 800-meters, Hitomi became Japan’s first female Olympic medalist. And she returned to Japan as a hero. But Hitomi could not escape one perception – she was a women who was unlike other women in her home country. She was taller (169 cm) and heavier (54 kilos) than most women in Japan, and despite how proud the average Japanese was about Hitomi’s accomplishments, they also didn’t mind chuckling about whether she was a man or woman.

Hitomi Kinue taller than average
Kinue Hitomi – as you can see, taller than average.

Kietlinski uncovered this interview of Hitomi in a popular women’s magazine, Fujin Sekai. In the excerpt of this July, 1929 article, “Miss Hitomi Kinue and the Question of Womanhood”, Kietlinski highlights what society’s expectations were for women in the 1920s. You must be warned. Even men who give little regard to diversity issues today may find this interview cringe-worthy.

Fujin Sekai (FS): Since women’s sports have become popular I have noticed the average height of women has grown somewhat…And may I ask your weight?

Hitomi Kinue (HK): Fourteen kan, four hundred momme (about 53 or 54 kilograms).

FS: Well, that is a bit surprising! So, since that is about the same weight as most men, haven’t people said that they are doubtful that you are really a woman?

HK: Well, when I was overseas nobody had such suspicions, but I heard this rumor upon my return to Japan.

FS: Ha ha ha! Well wouldn’t that be funny if you were really a man! It has a smack of mystery – this could be the main plot twist if I were to write a mystery novel. It might really baffle people, ha ha ha!

HK: I’m embarrassed.