Adolph Kiefer center in the pool with naval personnel
Adolph Kiefer center in the pool with naval personnel

At the age of 15, Adolph Kiefer set his first world record.

At the age of 16, he was the first person in the world to swim the 100-yard backstroke in less than a minute. As this article states, Kiefer held every backstroke record there was for 15 years.

And in 1936, at the age of 18, he won the gold medal in the men’s 100-meter backstroke, setting Olympic records in the heats and the finals. He had a streak of over 200 consecutive victories in the back stroke, and in his career, lost only twice.

At the age of 98, on May 5, 2017, Kiefer passed away in his home state of Illinois.

The great swimming coach from Hawaii, Soichi Sakamoto, was inspired by Kiefer, and got tremendous insight in technique by watching film of the Chicago native. Here is how Julie Checkoway, in her wonderful book, The Three-Year Swim Club, describes Kiefer through the eyes of Sakamoto:

When he filmed backstroker Adolph Kiefer, he found in him the same relaxation – in Kiefer’s legs, his rolling arms, his outstretched but loosened palms and fingers, a catch that seemed effortless, a recovery that took no time at all. For too long Sakamoto had believed that Kiefer had merely been a talented natural whom Stan Brauninger had discovered in a concrete culvert in Chicago; Kiefer was talented, all right, but he hadn’t become the world record holder in the backstroke without a technique that was, to Sakamoto, nothing less than genius.

After the 1936 Berlin Olympics, there was anticipation of so much more Olympic glory for Kiefer – but like others of his generation, the war years intervened. That did not, however, stop Kiefer from making an even bigger impact. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Kiefer joined the Navy. As Checkoway, revealed, Kiefer was shocked to hear that 50% of the soldiers who perished at Pearl Harbor did so by drowning. And yet, when soldiers returned to his port in Norfolk Virginia, he was surprised to hear that learning how to swim was still not a priority.

Adolph Kiefer

At his insistence, Kiefer was sent to Washington DC to make a case for institutionalized swimming instruction. Kiefer made a strong case. “What good [is] a 5-man gun crew,” Kiefer asked the Navy brass, “if one of those 5 couldn’t swim and fell in? With one man drowned, what good [is] a 5-man weapon?” Kiefer got the funding and set up a training center for naval swimming instructors. As Checkoway explained, Kiefer was so well known and so well liked, he had little trouble rounding up some 1,200 swimmers to teach survival swimming, who would in turn train every naval sailor how to swim.

As the obituary in The New York Times explained, Kiefer met the Fascist leader, Adolph Hitler, after his gold medal victory.

One day, while Kiefer was training, Hitler came by with an entourage of Nazi officials, including the powerful Hermann Göring. Hitler had learned of Kiefer’s German heritage and wanted to meet him.

“I remember him being a small man with a small hand,” Kiefer told the Times columnist Ira Berkow in 2000, “and his handshake wasn’t a firm one. Then he spoke to the interpreter, and I was told he said something like, ‘This young man is the perfect example of the true Aryan.’”

Kiefer added: “At the time, I was honored to meet this important head of state. But if I knew then what I know now about Hitler, I should have thrown him into the pool and drowned him. I even can’t stand the name Adolph now. But I’m stuck with it.”

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Jigoro Kano

The Mayor of Tokyo, Hidejiro Nagata, had a dream of bringing the Olympics to Tokyo in 1940. And in order to convince the International Olympic Committee (IOC), he could think of only one Japanese who might have a chance to influence the Westerners, who may have looked on Japan with bemusement at best. His name was Jigoro Kano.

Born into a sake-brewing family in 1860, Kano had advantages over the majority of children in Japan. As a teenager, he was able to study English and German in private schools run by Europeans. And since he was physically small and weak and wanted to become stronger, he had access to the very best practitioners of jujitsu. At the age of 19, he performed his art in front of then-former American President Ulysses S. Grant, who was visiting Japan in 1879. Kano became so proficient at jujitsu that he would go on to form his own school – what the world today knows as Judo.

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Jigoro Kano at a demonstration in Vienna

Kano was considered an authority on sports and fitness in the early 20th century when the IOC was looking to include Japan and Korea in their Olympic roll call of participating nations. The Japanese government received the IOC’s invitation to the 1912 Olympics and turned to Kano to represent Japan officially on the IOC. By 1932, when the IOC was kicking about possible host cities for the 1940 Olympics, Kano was already a veteran of the 1912, 1920 and 1928 Olympics

The 1932 Los Angeles Summer Games was an Olympiad where Japanese athletes did remarkably well, not only making Japan proud and adding momentum to Mayor Nagata’s push for the 1940 Olympics, but also convincing the West that Japan was an up-and-coming power. On the last day of the Los Angeles Olympics, the IOC held a grand celebratory party, and the person selected to give the keynote was Jigoro Kano.

Kano was 72, but full of energy and charm. As Julie Checkoway writes in her terrific book, The Three Year Swim Club, the press in America found him “playful” and “charming”. As Checkoway noted, it was not uncommon for him to lift the hem of his Japanese robes to reveal his legs with a sly smile. But more importantly, Kano was an internationalist. And the world was in need of internationalists.

The League of Nations was formed in 1920 in the wake of World War I, which turned Europe into a bloody war zone for over 4 years, resulting in the deaths of 9 million military personnel and 7 million civilians. The spirit of the formation of the League of Nations was to promote peace and prevent the ugly history of world war from repeating itself. The Olympic Movement, established by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was a precursor of the League of Nations – a philosophy of peace and friendship through the competition of sport. Kano understood the Olympic Movement and the heart of the IOC, particularly the IOC leader, Henri de Baillet-Latour of Belgium. Here is how Checkoway described Kano’s address to the IOC.

Jigoro Kano’s remarks at the Biltmore were directed as much at the Belgian baron as at anyone; Kano spoke of the fear that it was too easy for the world to have of other countries. ‘People,’ he intoned, ‘are prone to think that what they are accustomed to is good and right,’ and that ‘whatever is foreign to them is mistaken and harmful,’ and he pointed out that the Olympics, if held in Tokyo in 1940, would serve to echo and reinforce the beliefs and values that served as the foundation set down by the movement’s founder. To hold the games in Japan was to extend Coubertin’s vision and to bridge the global gap that existed between West and East and bring together all nations in pursuit, Kano said, of ‘a common purpose.’ And while Kano hadn’t returned home in 1932 with the candidature yet in hand, he had succeeded in appealing to Baillet-Latour and others like him, who were open to a wider vision of the world.

 

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Jigoro Kano at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

And yet, it took another four years before the final decision was made. Kano was now 78 years old. And while he was the face and authority of Japan in the eyes of the IOC, bureaucrats in the Japanese government thought that they could seal the deal by greasing the wheel, which according to Checkoway, created misunderstandings between the IOC and Japan. For example, a Japanese delegate at the 1936 IOC meeting in Berlin apparently tried to convince Mussolini to withdraw Rome’s bid to host in 1940 in exchange for cessation of arms sales to Ethiopia, which Italy was looking to colonize. Baillet-Latour frowned on this blatant attempt to mix backroom political deals with his Olympic Movement.

And yet, Jigoro Kano prevailed. As Checkoway wrote, Kano convinced many in the IOC that “Tokyo was no different from London, Paris, Los Angeles, or any other city, and he had won hearts when he asked that ‘the Olympic torch light the way to the Orient.'”

The great founder of Judo, and the visionary Mayor of Tokyo got their wish – an Olympics in Tokyo!

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Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake
These black and white photos seem eerily similar. They are both of Tokyo, but the first picture is the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in 1923. The second picture is the result of firebombing that took place by the US Air Force on March 9-10, 1945.

In other words, Tokyo climbed out of the fiery ashes of destruction, not once, but twice in the first half of the 20th century. People outside marveled at the patience and resiliency of the Japanese after the triple shock of earthquake, tsunami and radiation terror that stunned Japan on March 11, 2011. But the world has seen these qualities before.

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Tokyo after the firebombing in 1945
And both times, out of the ashes of 1923’s Great Kanto Earthquake and the horrifying and sustained firebombing of Japan’s capitol in 1945, Tokyo rose to the pinnacle of international recognition in sports by being selected as the host country for an Olympiad. Many know of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, how a defeated nation, subservient to foreign governance for 7 years after World War Two, rose to economic prominence to host the first Olympics in Asia, and arguably, at the time, one of the best run Games ever.

But many are unfamiliar with Tokyo’s selection to host the 1940 Olympic Games.

The idea to nominate Tokyo to be a host was the brainchild of Hidejiro Nagata. He was the mayor when the earthquake struck Tokyo on September 1, 1923.

In all, though, 140,000 people died, the first in buildings that pancaked immediately on top of them; the second swept away by a tsunami that had followed hard upon the great tremor, and the third in a pillar of fire that consumed everything it found in its freakish path. Tokyo was gone. A pile of rubbish, ash, the smoke of fires, even after months, still rising from the ruins. Mobs had taken over the city, gangs in the streets torched what little there was left of shops and homes, sowing even more fear among the people, who worried that the government, too, might fall.

The above is how Julie Checkoway, author of the book, The Three-Year Swim Club, described Tokyo after the tragedy. But she continue to write how, a decade later, the city recovered and celebrated its rebirth. Checkoway writes about Mayor Nagata and his pride in Tokyo’s phoenix-like re-emergence. The mayor was proud of the shiny, modern metropolis Tokyo had become, and he wanted the world to know. “He had come to make it a habit to personally greet every delegation of foreigners arriving in his city, and in so doing to show them both the warmth of his and others’ welcome and the grandeur of which the new Tokyo was capable.”

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Checkoway’s book is about the legendary American swim coach, Soichi Sakamoto, who was part of a Boy Scouts delegation visiting Japan. Sakamoto, who was a Nisei American who had never been to Japan, was eager to see the Japan of his past. As Checkoway explains, “what he found and enjoyed most on the trip was not the Japan of the past but a country in the midst of embracing its modernity. Like everyone, he heard about the destruction of Yokohama and Tokyo – the quake had occurred during the year in high school he’d been ill – and so when he found that both cities had risen from the rubble and the conflagration, it was among the sights that stunned him.”

Mayor Nagata knew this was the way to change the world’s neutral to negative perceptions of Japan – get them to visit. And what better way to bring the world to Tokyo was to host the two biggest socio-economic events in the world: The World Exposition and the Olympics.

But Nagata needed supporters in high places. He began to put ideas together and lobbied influential people with a plea to nationalism by citing what he said was historical fact – that 1940 happened to be the 2600th anniversary of the year that Japan’s first emperor founded the country. And what better way to honor the creation of the nation, and to reveal to the world Japan’s inherent greatness than to hold the Olympics.

“[1940] would be an occasion,” wrote Checkaway, “to celebrate the glorious past and speak loudly of the Empire’s strength, but Hidejiro Nagata-san idea was to take the 1940 celebration even further: simultaneous with the anniversary, Tokyo could host the Twelfth Olympiad, and demonstrate not just to itself but to the world the millions of miles it had traveled into modernity.”

But the 1940 Olympics never were. Tokyo did indeed win the bid. But as international conflict deepened in the late 1930s, and with Japan’s increasing pre-occupation with its colonies and conflicts in Asia, the Japanese government decided to decline its hosting responsibilities. The IOC made a quick switch to Helsinki, Finland, but the war came to the world, and the Olympics would be cancelled, not returning until 1948.

The flag of the rising sun
Went up the main mast.
It is no longer a dream.
On the scoreboards for each nation
Japan’s points are rising fast.
Gloriously, truly gloriously
Several Japanese flags are fluttering
Against Los Angeles’ blue sky.
My body shakes with emotion.
Tears of joy well up in my eyes.
Victories extol victories.

Sayoko Ishikawa, “Hirugaeru Nisshoki,” Rafu Shimpo, August 11, 1932 (a newspaper in America for Japanese)

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My grandfather and grandmother, Kiyoshi and Fumi Tomizawa
My grandfather was 53 when the Olympic Games came to Los Angeles in 1932. He was an Issei, a Japanese who emigrated to the United States in 1903. After graduating from Miami University of Ohio in 1908, he went on to become the director of the Japanese YMCA in San Francisco.

He was proud of living in America and contributing to his community through his service in the YMCA, but it was not easy for Japanese at that time. The passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 put a ban on immigration to America for essentially one race – the Japanese. This dispelled hope for many Japanese issei, like my grandfather, of ever becoming accepted by the rest of American society, let alone gaining citizenship. But my grandfather never gave up hope, and during the Great Depression, he helped raise funds to establish a building that would become the home of the Japanese YMCA in 1936. (The Buchanan YMCA still stands today.)

During the difficult times in his quest to develop the YMCA building, I am sure he was lifted by the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. After all, the Japanese team exploded for 18 medals, including 7 gold. The Japanese were particularly strong in swimming events, as swimmers took two thirds of all medals for Japan. In one instance, Japan swept the podium, going 1,2,3 in the men’s 100-meter backstroke.

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An AP article from August 13, 1932 proclaimed the following: “With the swimming championship beckoning to the sturdy sons of Nippon, Japan stood on the brink of its first Olympic team title today in the finals of the international aquatic carnival.”

No doubt Japanese communities all across America were following the exploits of the Japanese team in Los Angeles with tremendous pride. Julie Checkoway, author of the brilliant book, The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory, stated that the achievements of the Japanese at the 1932 Olympics not only transfixed the Japanese in America, they transformed them.

Both Issei and Nisei in California had spent more than $100,000 on tickets to watch events, and again and again they saw the Japanese flag rise over the stadium, an image filled with symbolism. The Japanese sports commentators had even ventured to say that the sporting world of the West was now firmly at the feet of the Empire. After years of being second-class citizens, experiencing prejudice, alienation and racism, those of Japanese ancestry in California and across the US were buoyed with pride. Suddenly, too, other Americans had a new vision of Japan as both friendly and competent, and it seemed as though the tide might turn on the Mainland and a wave of acceptance might come. Famously, one Nisei in Los Angeles told the story that since the Games, white men no longer literally stoned him in the street, and he could look, he said, into his reflection in a shop window and feel, for the first time, respect even for himself.

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Checkoway’s book was a biography of swim coach Soichi Sakamoto, who would go on to become one of America’s most successful and revolutionary swim coaches. Sakamato was an elementary school teacher in Hawaii, who in 1932 did not know how to swim. In his time away from teaching he oversaw the safety of children playing in plantation irrigation ditches. He looked at their joyful faces, many of them of Japanese descent like himself, and began to have a thought. Maybe these kids had the talent too.

Riding the excitement and pride of a new bar set by the Japanese team in LA, Sakamoto allowed a dream to take form in his heart. As Checkoway wrote, “Soichi Sakamoto had no good reason to do it, not right to, no knowledge of how to, but he called out to the children, nonetheless, ‘How ’bout I teach you something about swimming, eh?'”

For Japanese in Japan and in the United States, the 1932 Los Angeles Games were a revelation and inspiration. I’m sure my grandfather took heart. The mayor of Tokyo certainly did. He had an idea – how about bringing the Olympics to Tokyo.