Ed Caruthers at Santa Ana
Ed Caruthers at Santa Ana College

Still a freshman at Santa Ana College, high jumper Ed Caruthers was headed to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Caruthers had always been a football player, and as a pretty good wide receiver/defensive back, he hoped one day to get drafted by an NFL team. Out of football season, Caruthers dabbled in track and field. Strangely, with little effort, Caruthers would win most high jump competitions. In 1964, he told me, he “went to the AAU championships, and lo and behold, I jumped 7 ft 1 inch, and beat John Thomas, which then qualified me for the Olympic trials.”

Even more strangely, Caruthers wasn’t even aware that the Olympics were that year – 1964. He was simply more interested in preparing for the football season that Fall. But when he won the finals in the high jump at the Olympic trials in September, he realized that he wasn’t going to play football for Santa Ana in the coming months, and so did not register for school. As he told me, his track coach was “happy as a lark,” while his football coach had a hole in his team.

So Caruthers the football player, who was an accidental Olympian, took off for Japan in early October, about a week in advance of the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremonies. Caruthers was in good shape when he arrived, but with so much time before his competition, he needed to train. Unfortunately, it was hit or miss if a particular US team had dedicated coaches or not. The high jumpers, according to Caruthers, did not. And for a kid like Caruthers, who a month before wasn’t even aware the Olympics were taking place, a naïve kid who wondered why his teammates would not train with him, was suddenly thrust wide-eyed into the world of super mega-sports spectacle, complete with all the food you can eat.

The high jump competition was in the last two or three days so I was in Tokyo three weeks without competition. I didn’t have any coaching, and I didn’t go up to any coach and ask them either. I’m jumping by myself so I didn’t have that extra thing to push me higher. If John Rambo or John Thomas were out there training with me, I might have had the adrenaline going, wanting to show them. But (even though we were teammates) I was a competitor to them, so we didn’t.

Caruthers was not born of wealth, and was barely eating a bowl of cereal a day when he was a student in junior college. But when he came to Tokyo, and was privy to the bounty of the Olympic Village, he ended up eating eggs, waffles, bacon, cookies, ice cream, and lots of it. “I weighed 190 pounds when I arrived. After two weeks, I weighed 198 pounds. I thought maybe when you go to the other side of the world you gain weight, but no.” He just ate too much.

So prior to the high jump competition, Caruthers stopped eating. For three days, all he consumed was cornflakes, milk and salad. So, no, Caruthers was not feeling as strong as he wanted to at the start of the competition, nor feeling right or ready. As a consequence, Caruthers did not perform as well as he had expected, as he explained to me in detail:

I was getting up really good but I couldn’t tell what I wasn’t doing wrong. People in the stands who saw me jump said “we can’t believe you missed that… all you had to do is step one foot back”. I was about 3 – 4 inches over the bar. My plant wasn’t in the right place but I couldn’t tell. I’m 19 years old. The first jump was easy. But you have to make adjustments in your 2nd or 3rd jumps. At 7 feet everything has to be really refined and precise – there’s less room for error. I needed to make adjustments. After my second attempt I really needed someone to tell me but all I’m doing is I’m trying to run faster because I think I need more effort. I ended up jumping only 6-10 and a quarter.

Caruthers finished in eighth place. He sat on the bench and watched the others compete to the finish. Valeriy Brumel of the Soviet Union and John Thomas both jumped 2.16 meters, but could not go beyond that. Brumel took gold on fewer misses, Thomas silver and Rambo bronze. Caruthers thought, “damn, there are two guys on the medal stand I’ve beaten this year. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be on that stand.” He thought about the opening ceremonies, being together with thousands of athletes, all the flags of the world flapping around him, and “I’m right there in the middle of it. I am with the best athletes in the world.” He realized at his darkest moment that finishing eighth was not good enough, that his attitude and focus were inadequate, and that he wanted, needed to redeem himself in Mexico City four years later.

When Caruthers returned home to California, he was determined to focus more on track than on football. He was offered scholarships to play at USC or UCLA, but he picked the University of Arizona because it was 500 miles away from home, and from all the distractions of his friends and neighborhood. And he also wanted to make sure that he got his degree, and sought help from the university to ensure that he did well with his grades and graduated.

That’s what Tokyo did for me. Prior to that I only cared about two weeks from now. After Tokyo, my attitude was the difference between night and day. Training. Confidence. Everything. I knew what I was in school for. I had a schedule. I built up my strength. I refined my technique. I worked it so that I knew exactly what I should be doing to jump my best height.

In 1967, there was no better high jumper in the world than Ed Caruthers. He was primed for gold in Mexico City. He was determined. Nothing was to get in the way of his goal – to erase the memory of his poor performance in Tokyo. Nothing.

Nothing….except the Flop.

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participation-medal-1

She was a teenager marching into the National Olympic Stadium during the pomp and circumstance of the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And she was in awe. This athlete, who wishes to stay anonymous, was from a country that was participating in the Olympics for the first time. She held no aspirations of taking home a medal, and at times, she felt overwhelmed.

But when she saw the following words on the stadium screen, she felt they were meant for her.

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part. Just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.

The founder of the modern Olympic movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, had an idealistic view of the Games, that people and nations were not gathering to win, but to do their best. In fact, from the very first Modern Games in Athens in 1896, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) requires that each hosting organizing committee provide Participation Medals to all athletes attending the Olympics.

I have one, the participation medal from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Designed by Taro Okamoto and Kazumitsu Tanaka, the medal was manufactured from copper, with an image of three runners and a swimmer on one side, with the five Olympic rings and the words “XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964” in both English and Japanese on the flip side. Only about 5,600 of these medals were created, and as mandated by the IOC, the medal’s dies and molds are returned to the IOC. So in theory, I have one of a limited collection.

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To be honest, most Olympians are likely not satisfied with going home with just a participation medal. But high jumper, John Thomas, would have been. At both the 1960 Rome Olympics and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he was expected by the press and perhaps the USOC to win gold. But he won bronze in Rome and silver in Tokyo, results that should be a matter of pride and joy for Thomas. But as he explained to the AP in 1964, “they have no use for losers. They don’t give credit to a man for trying.”

Over 5,100 athletes attended the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and over 500 medals were distributed to people who were in first, second or third. In other words, some 90% of all athletes, or about 4,500 Olympians went home without a gold, silver or bronze medal. But they did take home a Participation Medal. And because of that, someone in Bulgaria thought it was OK to sell it to some guy in Tokyo.

High Jump, John Thomas, Lands in Sawdust after Successful 2-Meter Bar Jump, at Olympics - Allposters.com 
High Jump, John Thomas, Lands in Sawdust after Successful 2-Meter Bar Jump, at Olympics – Allposters.com

He lost to two Russians in 1960. And then he fell to a Russian again in 1964.

John Thomas from Boston was a favorite to win the high jump in Tokyo, but could not meet the heightened expectations of a country. Thomas and the gold medalist, Valery Brumel, both cleared a height of 2.18 meters, but neither could clear 2.20 meters. Due to the way high jumping is scored, Brumel had fewer attempts than Thomas on an earlier jump, so won the gold on a tie-breaker.

As he told Stars and Stripes, “I think I did a good job. I wasn’t outjumped. I don’t know how close I came to clearing the bar on that last try. Everyone said I was close, but I don’t know. I felt something hit…it just wasn’t good enough this time.”

Thomas also revealed that he would return home and have an operation on a hernia, a condition that had been identified earlier in the year. But nothing hurt him more than what he perceived as a bitter public and press. In a press conference the day prior to the finals,

“I don’t care what the people think,” the AP quoted him as saying “I am on my own. I can’t trust fans and supposed well-wishers any more. They are fickle and vacillating. If I win, they’re with me. If I lose, they’re the first to desert me and call me a bum. They have no use for losers. They don’t give credit to a man for trying. They have appreciation only for the champion the man who finishes first. I felt proud at getting a bronze medal. But everybody else thought I was a goat. People who had been slapping me on the back ignored me as if I had the plague. I was called a quitter, a man with no heart. It left me sick.”

John Thomas_podium_Tokyo

His rival, Brumel, felt that Thomas was treated unfairly, telling Sports Illustrated that the jumper from Boston faced a “torrent of abuse”.

Valery Brumel at the Tokyo Games in 1964, from the book
Valery Brumel at the Tokyo Games in 1964, from the book “The Olympic Century: XVIIIOlympiad”

They say confidence is key to victory. Competitors smell fear like sharks sense blood. When the Soviet high jumper, Valery Brumel, arrived in Tokyo for the Summer Games, his minders made sure no one would see him.

Since winning silver in Rome in 1960, Brumel drove himself with a ferociousness in numerous competitions leading up to Tokyo, and according to the book, “The Olympic Century Volume 16 – The XVIII Olympiad” by Carl A. Posey, Brumel was feeling “that deepening fatigue that comes from driving the machine too hard, too long.” Additionally, he had just lost the Soviet championship to Robert Shavlakadze, who also beat Brumel for gold in Rome. So he trained in a secluded area in Meiji Park, or stayed hidden in a room with his masseur playing chess.

At this stage, Brumel was beaten and haggard, and his 2.01 meter jumps in practice were far from championship level, They were, however, the best he could do.

When Brumel was at his best, people marveled at his form, what the Russians called “pouring the body over the bar like a cascade of clear water.” This was 1964, four years before Dick Fosbury revolutionized high jumping with his “Fosbury Flop”. In the first half of the Sixties, jumpers were still doing the spin roll, and Brumel’s technique was considered one of the best.

“At the heart of Brumel’s special brand of high jumping was a sequence of carefully orchestrated moves that Nijinsky might have envied. A big, powerfully assembled man, Brumel made his run-up with an awkward-looking sprint as he shifted his elbows forward to compensate for his upper body’s gradual backward lean as he approached the bar. He had trained with weights, so that his takeoff was like the explosive uncoiling of a spring. Then, for a moment, he was flying. To clear the bar, every extremity had to be under the fine, split-second control of a bird’s primary feathers. First the folded right leg went over, then the head, the big, friendly mouth extended in a white grimace of maximum effort. The right arm flipped back, adding thrust to bring the rest of his large body over the bar. Once the left arm cleared, the left leg kicked upward, adding dynamic balance. ”

And yet, as the competition in Tokyo began on October 20, Brumel could barely find his form, or generate the energy and enthusiasm necessary to compete for gold. Needing all three attempts, Brumel barely qualified by clearing a height almost every other competitor cleared (2.03 meters). “I appealed to God,” Brumel said later. “Jesus, why are you doing this to me? I’ve never done anyone any harm.”

So on a damp and chilly day on October 21, Brumel started the long slog of the finals, a journey of despair and exhaustion, in which the last man standing would be doing so, barely. As did most of the 20 competitors in the finals, initial jumps of 1.9, 1.95, 2.00, 2.03 and 2.06 meters were easily exceeded. But at 2.09 the competition went from 17 to 10, and then at 2.12, only 5 were left, including Brumel, American’s John Thomas and John Rambo, Swede Stig Pettersson, and Brumel’s Russian rival, Shavlakadze.

Rambo cleared 2.14 meters in one try, but it took Brumel, Thomas and Shavlakadze three attempts, Brumel missing badly in his first two. But something happened when the bar was raised to 2.16. It all came together and the tired Brumel flew over the bar in his first attempt. Thomas made it over in two, while his teammate made it in three, but Pettersen and Shavladkadze crashed out of the competition. And at 2.18 meters, as day ceded to night, Rambo fell by the wayside. At this point, the competition was essentially over.

As Brumel recalls,