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It was Friday, October 23, 1964.
The Nippon Budokan was packed. But perhaps there was a sense of resignation at this, the penultimate day of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Despite the fact that three Japanese judoka, Takehide Nakatani, Isao Okano and Isao Inokuma had already taken gold in the first three weightclasses over the previous three days, there was considerable doubt that Akio Kaminaga could defeat Dutchman, Anton Geesink, in the open category.
After all, Geesink shocked the judo world by becoming the first non-Japanese to win the World Championships in 1961. More relevantly, Geesink had already defeated Kaminaga in a preliminary bout. So while the Japanese, including Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko who were in the Budokan, were hoping Kaminaga would exceed expectations, all they had to do was see the two judoka stand next to each other to be concerned – the 2-meter tall, 120 kg foreign giant vs the 1.8-meter tall, 102 kg Japanese.
Even though judo purists know that skill, balance and coordination are more important to winning than size, deep down many likely felt that the bigger, stronger foreigner was going to win. After all, the bigger, stronger US soldiers and their allies had defeated the Imperial forces of Japan in the Pacific War.
That was late in the afternoon on October 23. About 13 kilometers southwest of the Nippon Budokan and the site of Kaminaga’s defeat, the Japanese women’s volleyball team was preparing for their finals at the Komazawa Indoor Stadium. They too were going up against bigger, stronger adversaries, from the USSR.
In this case, however, there was a lingering sense that their magical women of volleyball would defeat the Soviets. They had in fact already done so at the World Championships in 1962, walking into the lioness’ den in Moscow and winning the finals. So when nearly every citizen in Japan had settled in front of their televisions that Friday evening, having the choice of four channels to choose from to watch the match, they were gearing up to explode in celebration.
And yet, Geesink had just sunk Kaminaga, as well as Japan’s hopes of sweeping gold in the only sport at the Olympics native to Japan. Maybe we just aren’t big enough, or strong enough, some may have thought.
Hirobumi Daimatsu, coach of the women’s volleyball team, accepted the challenge and worked over the years to train his players to compensate for relative weaknesses in size and strength, with speed, technique and guts. And much to the relief and joy of the nation, the Japanese defeated the Soviet Union in straight sets: 15-11, 15-8 and a tantalizingly close final set, 15-13.
And on that Friday evening, the day before the final day of Japan’s two-week Olympic journey to show the world that they were a nation to be recognized and respected, a team of diminutive Japanese women took down the larger Soviet women.
Whatever lingering sting from Kaminaga’s loss remained, whatever bad feelings of boycotts by the Indonesians or the North Koreans may have left, even perhaps, whatever shame that came from “enduring the unendurable” after the nation’s defeat in the Second World War, may have washed away in that moment the ball fell to the ground for the final point of the match.
On that day, Japan was a nation re-born – young, confident, world-beaters.
Syd Hoare, a member of Team Great Britain’s judo team in 1964, the year judo debuted as an Olympic sport in Tokyo, died on September 12, 2017. While I never had the honor to interview him, I did read his wonderful book, “A Slow Boat to Yokohama – A Judo Odyssey.”
Based on his life story as a young judoka, “A Slow Boat to Yokohama” tells well his journey to Japan to learn at the mecca of Judo in the early 1960s, and then competing at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. I have borrowed those stories for a few of my blog posts:
For a wonderful look at Hoare’s past, here is an obituary penned by his daughter, Sasha Hoare, in The Guardian.
My father, Syd Hoare, who has died aged 78, was an Olympic judo competitor, author and commentator.
The son of Alfred Hoare, an executive officer at the Ministry of Defence, and Petrone (nee Gerveliute), a waitress, Syd enjoyed a wild childhood in postwar London: scrumping, climbing trees, jumping out of bombed-out houses on to piles of sand and being chased by park keepers. At 14, while a pupil at Alperton secondary modern school, Wembley, he wandered into WH Smith and found a book on jujitsu, which led to judo lessons at the Budokwai club in Kensington and sparked a lifelong passion for the sport.
Syd quickly became obsessed with judo and underwent intense training, often running the seven miles back to his home in Wembley to lift weights after a two-hour session at the Budokwai. In 1955, at 16 he was the youngest Briton to obtain a black belt and two years later won a place in the British judo team. He respected not only judo’s physical and mental aspects but its link to eastern philosophy.
For more, click here.
Anton Geesink set the judo world on fire by defeating Koji Sone in the 1961 World Championships. The tall and imposing Dutchman was the first non-Japanese judoka to win in any weight-class in a world championship.
However, Geesink wasn’t satisfied with the way he won. He wrote in his book, My Championship Judo, that he used a “halfway trick” to put Sone to the ground before immobolising him for victory. He felt that despite being the world champion, he needed to continue to improve.
When Geesink visited Japan in 1963 at the invitation of Tenri University, which had some of the best judoka in the world, he learned that Ne-Waza, or ground technique, was the Judo of the future. “In fact, it was the finals of the open weight class competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when Geesink took advantage of a failed Tai-Otoshi attempt by his opponent, Akio Kaminaga. Geesink instead ended up pushing the Japanese to the mat, immediately maneuvering for a Ne-Waza technique Geesink no doubt sharpened at Tenri University.
Geesink wrote in his book that in his time (the 1960s), Ne-Waza, or ground technique, was considered minor by many Japanese judoka purists. “They are – in my opinion – too romantic with their insistence on deciding the contest by a spectacular throw.” But he learned in Japan that for training to be successful, 60% of the time needed to be spent on Ne-Waza, and the remaining 40% on Tachi-Waza.
Here is how Geesink explains a particular Ne-Waza technique – the Kesa-Gatame:
My opponent is recumbent on his back. I am at his right side, my right leg stretched forward, resting on the outside of the foot. My left leg is bent, so that I sit in what one might call a hurdling posture (think of hurdle-racing). My right arm passes around his head, so that I can hold his upper-arm with my right hand. With my left arm I lock in his right arm, which is gripped around my body. My armpit presses against his wrist and with my left hand I grip him precisely under his elbow. Consequently my opponent’s right arm forms a right angle; his elbow sticks out.
By concentrating my full weight on his trunk, resting only on the outside of my right foot and on the sole of my left foot, so that my buttocks have no contact with the ground, it has become impossible for him to move. If my opponent should succeed in resting the back of his head on the ground, he might be able to develop enough strength to free himself from my immobolising hold. To prevent this, I draw my right arm so tight that his head is moved forward, away from the ground. He has now become quite helpless, immobolised.
And when that actually happened in the finals of the open weight class at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when Geesink immobolised Kaminaga in this Kesa-Gatame hold, an entire country fell into collective shock.
In 1964, when judo debuted at the Tokyo Olympics, it had already built up a strong international following. Still, the Japanese were the dominant competitors by far, and Japan was the mecca for judoka around the world.
The Judo community at the time was aware of the rise of Dutch judo giant, Anton Geesink, because of his surprise victory at the 1961 Judo World Championships in the open weight class, the only non-Japanese to ever win an international title at the time. But Geesink’s victory at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics let the entire world know that judo was very much an international sport.
After winning the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, Geesink put his energies into coaching others in judo. He wrote a book in Dutch called “Mijn Judo,” in 1966, which was translated into English the same year. I recently got a hold of that book, My Championship Judo, and saw that Geesink’s development as a judoka was a series of building blocks of techniques he learned throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
“My Championship Judo” is predominantly a training manual, explaining and showing in detail the key judo techniques. But at the end of the book, Geesink talks about how his development went through different phases of focus: Ashi-Waza (leg work) to Uchi-Mata (over-the-thigh throw) to Sasae-Tsuri-Komi-Ashi (which Geesink called “Lifting Leg Block”), and Ne-Waza (ground work). This four-part series will share Geesink’s insight into each of those techniques.
When Geesink was a teenage judo sensation in the Netherlands, he loved his leg work. He said that he played a lot of football where legwork was important, where speed and mobility were vital to success. Thus Geesink believed, is why he developed his Okuri-Ashi-Harai technique, a throw under the category of Ashi-Waza (leg technique), so early in his career.
Here’s how he explains the Okuri-Ashi-Harai technique in his book, My Championship Judo:
To perform Okuri-Ashi-Harai I have put my left leg closely round my opponent’s right leg in order to get my foot against the outside of his ankle. As he has not drawn his legs together, he can turn his right foot so far that my foot gets only as far as his instep. Now Okuri-Ashi-Harai has become impossible and I again product a combination. I quickly take my foot off his instep, place it about 2 inches in front of his toes and keep tugging at him, so that his full weight is transferred to his right leg. (See picture 1.) I have acquired a splendid position for O-Soto-Gari. I raise my right foot high to the front (picture 2) and with a terrific sweep of that leg I shear my opponent backwards of his feet (picture 3).
Imagine you have a sport growing in popularity, growing so quickly that it takes roots in countries all over the world, developing at different speeds, with slightly different rules depending on where it was played. When judo first began holding international competitions, a rift occurred between the rules that dictate judo in its birthplace, Japan, and the rest of the world.
Judo-ka in Japan were traditionally not classified by weight classes, so you would have a 90 kg judoka face off against a 60 kg judoka. International bodies believed that fairness could be better achieved by having people of similar weight compete, as has been done with success in boxing.
Who makes the rules? Who decides who goes to a national or an international competition? In the case of the Olympics in the post-war years in America, when money began to be invested in the development of sportsmen and women, it was the Amateur Athletic Union, otherwise known as the AAU, which emerged as the national governing body for many sports disciplines, including track and field, gymnastics, wrestling, basketball and many others.
According to the book, “History of the United States Wrestling Federation / USA Wrestling” by Werner Holzer, the AAU had become a very powerful entity, frustrating coaches and athletes alike due to perceived lack of funding and support. This frustration was particular true in the “smaller” disciplines of wrestling and gymnastics where AAU mindshare appeared much greater in track and field.
Top of the list of complaints was the perceived AAU disregard for the views and expertise of the coaches to identify and select athletes for major competitions. Holzer explained that “the 1964 Olympic Games selection process personified the problem of the AAU being the ruling body for the sports of gymnastics. The AAU gymnastics chairman, George Gulack, selected the internationally inexperienced Vannie Edwards as the women’s 1964 Olympic Team coach. He appointed his wife, Fay Gulack, who was incapable and unknowledgeable about gymnastics, as the team manager. It was an arrangement destined for disaster!”
Ron Barak, a member of the 1964 men’s Olympic Gymnastics team, and today a practicing lawyer and novelist, first met George Gulack in 1962, when Barak was a sophomore at USC. Barak competed in that year’s National AAU Championships which served as the trials to select the U.S. men’s team that would represent the U.S. in the 1962 World Gymnastics Championships. Natural grade inflation in subjectively graded sports such as gymnastics, diving and figure skating favored the more established veterans in those sports. It’s just the way it was, according to Barak. This was Barak’s first appearance on the national scene, he told me, and he personally had no expectations of making the 1962 World Gymnastics Team and so he felt he was there to pay his dues and gain experience for what he was really after, a chance to make the 1964 Olympic Team.
But something strange happened over the three-day trials. For the first two days, Barak said he flew under the radar, largely unnoticed. He recalled that he was performing well and scoring well, and yet still felt more like a spectator than a competitor. However, after two days, he found himself in serious contention to make the 1962 World Games Team. He began to believe that all he had to do was perform at the same level on the last day and score at the same level, and he would make the World Games Team. Barak said he performed even better on the third day than on the first two days, but strangely, he told me, his scores plummeted, and he missed the team by a slim margin.
Barak said that Gulack came up to him after the competition was over and said “Don’t worry about it, Ron, your time will come. Just be patient.” Barak wasn’t sure what to make of Gulack’s words. Literally, they were nothing more than innocent words of encouragement. But Gulack, Barak said, presided over that three-day competition like it was his personal fiefdom and he was calling all the shots. Gulack was used to having his own way. He could occasionally be pleasant, Barak recalled, but more often he was a bully, if not an outright tyrant. Did Gulack’s words to Barak signify something more than their plain meaning? Lots of innuendo but no way to know.
Come 1964, Barak won the NCAA All Around Championships and finished high enough in the 1964 Olympic Trials to make the team . “Gulack continued to act as if he were making all the decisions, but the fact was that the seven U.S. gymnasts who made the U.S. men’s Olympic team in 1964 were the seven best male gymnasts in the country that year. No one made that team who didn’t earn it and no one not on that team deserved to be there.”
Barak suspected that because the male gymnasts on the whole were a veteran team, most of whom would not continue to compete much after 1964, Gulack had little to threaten them with even if he could.
According to others, Gulack appeared to exercise significant influence in the selection of the women’s gymnastics team. During the Olympic Games, several weeks after the official trials had ended in the United States and the women’s gymnastics team roster had been set, Gulack re-set the team roster in an unscheduled competition.
Members of the women’s team were rankled, and itching to push back. A rebellion was brewing and would come to a head in Tokyo in October of 1964.
He was 7 years old when he watched the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on television, where the Japanese won three of four gold medals in judo, at the sports Olympic debut. At the age of 10, he started training in judo at his elementary school. A few years later, as a second year junior high school student, Yasuhiro Yamashita wrote a report entitled “My Dream”. He wrote that he could see himself in the future, in the Olympics, watching the Japanese flag raised on the center pole, listening to Japan’s national anthem.
It took another 14 years, but on August 11, 1984, Yamashita had a chance to realize his dream. Up to the Olympics, Yamashita had won 194 straight matches, 189 by ippon, and so was expected to dominate at the Los Angeles Olympics and win gold easily. But his golden victory was far from easy.
First up for Yamashita was Lansana Coly of Senagal. Japan had already won gold in three other weightclasses, which might have put pressure on a less experienced first-time Olympian. But Yamashita made quick work of Coly, winning by ippon in 28 seconds.
Next up was Arthur Schnabel of West Germany. Yamashita needed nearly 3 minutes, but he was able to wrestle Schnabel to the mat and win by ippon. However, when Yamashita stood up to leave the mat, he was limping, favoring his right leg. With two more matches to go, he had torn his right calf muscle during the match.
“To tell you the truth,” Yamashita revealed in this video interview, “when I tore the muscle during the move, I thought ‘damn it!’ It’s a world where the winner rules, and where you can’t afford to show any weakness. I somehow managed to get through that match without letting my opponent know that I was injured. But I was a little depressed after that.”
After his defeat of Schnabel, Yamashita had only 45 minutes to ready himself for the semi-final match against Frenchman, Laurent del Colombo. In the documentary about the Los Angeles Olympics, 16 Days of Glory, Yamashita admitted that he was concerned, saying “in my semi final it was the first time I ever thought I might lose.” While Yamashita said that he would not exploit an injury to an opponent, and would keep to his original strategy, he didn’t know whether del Colombo would honor that unwritten rule.
Del Colombo went right after Yamashita’s right leg, kicking the inside of the leg and sent Yamashita to the mat – a very uncommon occurrence. It was not an ippon, and very quickly, Yamashita turned the tables, threw the Frenchman down and pinned him for victory and a chance for gold in the finals.
There was only one man in the way of Yamashita achieving his dream. This should have been Yamashita’s second attempt at gold, but when Japan joined America’s boycott of the Moscow Olympics, Yamashita had to wait another four years. So here he was, a four-time World Champion, the greatest judoka of his generation, on the verge of winning gold in the Olympics.
Resolution came quickly.
Egyptian, Mohamed Ali Rashwan, had made his ways to the finals fairly efficiently. The Japanese and the Egyptian had never faced off against each other. And with the injury to his leg, Yamashita admitted that he had no strategy for the gold medal match. Rashwan went after Yamashita’s right leg, but Yamashita had shifted slightly and found air. Off balance, Yamashita wrapped his mighty right arm around the Egyptian’s waist and back and threw him down. With the full weight of Yamashita’s 128 kilograms, Rashwan flailed around on the mat like a fish flopping around for air. After holding Rashwan on the mat for 30 seconds, the referee declared the Japanese the victor.
Paul Maruyama, a member of the US Olympic judo team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was the color commentator on the American broadcast of the open category finals, and understood the significance of this victory. “Yamashita has won every title there is available to a judo man,” said Maruyama. “But this was the one that eluded him. He made the Olympic team in 1980 but because of the boycott, this was the one title he wanted more than anything else in the world, and he’s got it.”
And so when Yamashita got to the medal podium, Rashwan helping the limping Yamashita up to the highest stand, the Japanese remembered his dream as a 7 year old – to watch the Japanese flag climb the pole while he listened to the Japanese national anthem.
The gold medal around his neck, Yamashita realized that dreams do indeed come true.