You can’t even see her – Kon Ichikawa‘s camera is tightly focused on the two lead runners of the women’s 800 meter race,Maryvonne Dupurer of France and Zsuzsa Szabo of Hungary. Occasionally, the angle lengthens and you can see the rest of the pack bleed into the frame. Towards the end of the race Dupurer is safely in the lead, with about 6 others in a pack a few yards behind. Until, Billy Mills-like, #55 of Great Britain splits wide and sprints past the pack, blasts pasts Duprerer and wins the 800-meters with, apparently, ease.

#55 was Ann Packer. At that time, she wasn’t experienced at the 800 – her specialty was the 400 meters. And while her hopes for gold in the 400 meters were very high, she had to settle for silver, losing to a powerful Betty Cuthbert of Australia. At that stage, with her best event done, she wasn’t motivated to do worse in a 800-meter field packed with superstars. After all, her 800-meter career was really only a few months old.

 

ann-packer-beating-out-marise-chamberlain-in-800m
Ann Packer wins the 800 meter race in Tokyo unexpectedly.

 

Just prior to the Tokyo Olympiad, members of the Great Britain track and field team were in France for a meet. Packer’s hamstring was barking somewhat so she was reluctant to run in events unnecessarily. However, there were open slots for the 800-meter competition, and as her then fiancé and fellow 400-meter specialist, Robbie Brightwell, explained to her, the 800 would be less punishing on her hamstring than the 400 and it would also still be a good tune up. Additionally, Brightwell reasoned, there would be no pressure as everyone recognized Packer as a 400-meter runner.

And as all great sports stories play out, she ran and she nearly won in an event she rarely gave a second thought to. The Olympic authorities for GB agreed that Packer should get one of the open 800 meter slots. Packer protested, saying that she would be taking another worthy runner’s spot to Tokyo, but the fact of the matter is that Packer had smashed the qualifying time required.

But when she got to Tokyo, after taking second in the 400 meters, Packer no longer had visions of glory. She could already see herself back home in England. In fact, her plan was to forgo a potentially disastrous 800 and catch up on her shopping in downtown Tokyo. As far as she was concerned, her Olympiad was over. Here’s how Brightwell described her state of mind, in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl:

“Do you think I should run in the 800 meter heats tomorrow?” she asked. “Maybe I should call it a day and go shopping.” I gaped in astonishment. “Shopping? You must be mad! Shopping? This is the Olympic games, not the Moulsford Village sports!”

“I know, but I’m hardly likely to bed or a silver medal, am I? And I need to buy some presents for the folks back home.”

“Come off it!” I exploded. “Think about the British girls back home who would have given their eyeteeth to be here in your place!”

She smiled sheepishly. “OK I’ll run. Not that it’ll make much difference. I’m bound to get eliminated in the heats, and then I can go shopping.”

As it turns out, Packer and perhaps even her fiancé Brightwell were missing the telltale signs of potential success. While Packer hoped just to remain respectable, others saw a form and ease that would translate easily to victory. As Packer prepared for the finals, after essentially just making the cuts in the heats, two people of considerable experience and respect came up to Packer with powerfully motivating words. Again, here is how Brightwell explains it in his autobiography:

Milkha Singh jogged past with his 1600 meters relay squad. Espying her, he dashed over, taking both hands and staring stern-faced into her eyes. “Ann Packer, listen to me. You will win!” She giggled self conscientiously, flashing me an amused smile. Shaking her hands emphatically, he repeated his message.

“You’re not listening, Ann Packer! Yesterday, I watched your semi-final. You were coasting! After the race, you come and show me your gold medal.”

She nodded respectfully. No sooner he departed than Percy Cerutty, Betty Cuthbert’s coach, rushed up. Even though they had never been introduced, Percy wasn’t a man for social ceremonies. “This,” he said, wagging a finger in front of her face, “is the finger of experience. And it’s standing to attention. Listen! Better and I’ve been talking. Stay with them until the end, and you will hammer them. Understand?”

Astonished, Ann nodded dumbly. Mission completed, Percy disappeared as quickly as he’d appeared.

When Packer won her race, right away she steered to the stands and into the arms of Brightwell. Milkha Singh was there as well, smiling with the satisfaction of clairvoyance proved correct. “Did I not say your woman would win? You didn’t believe me! I was right! Hee, hee, hee! Brightwell, you never listen to me!”

robbie-brightwell-and-ann-packer_after-packers-gold-medal-win

Ikuko Yoda_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha 1
Ikuko Yoda, from the magazine Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha
Ikuko Yoda (依田郁子) did not make the team to go to the Rome Olympic Games in 1960. So she went to Lake Sagami near Mt Fuji, took a large amount of sleeping pills, and attempted to end her life. However, she did not succeed.

Running the hurdles had become her life, and competing and winning in the Olympics was perhaps a way to make her complete. Recovering from the pain of Rome, she may have seen redemption in Tokyo, and recovered enough from her suicide attempt to begin training again. Over that 4-year period, Yoda set and re-set the Japan record for the 80-meter hurdles 12 times, becoming a powerful track and field hope for Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

During the Tokyo Games, photographers tracked her every move. The famed director, Kon Ichikawa, had his movie cameras focused on Yoda more than other competitors for the film, Tokyo Olympiad. And Yoda ran excellently, easily making the cut in the first round of heats, running a personal best 10.7 seconds. In the semis, she again ran the course in 10.7 seconds and made it to the final 8.

In one of the closest finals in any Olympic foot race ever, Karin Balzer of Germany and Teresa Cieply of Poland finished the 8-meter race in 10.5 seconds, although Balzer was declared the winner. Pam Kilborn of Australia finished third with a time of 10.6 seconds. With a time of 10.7 seconds, Yoda finished fifth.

No doubt, this was a fantastic time and finish. In fact, she’s still the only Japanese female to enter the finals of any individual short-distance race in the history of international competition.

But she could not outrun her demons.

Ikuko Yoda_Asahi Graf_Oct 23
Ikuko Yoda, from the magazine Asahi Graf_Oct 23
After the 1964 Olympics, Yoda married. She had children. And as she entered her forties, she began to suffer from health issues. In 1983 she entered the hospital for knee and heart issues. And on October 14 of that year, nearly 19 years to the day when she fought but came in fifth in the 80-meter hurdles at the Tokyo Games, she hung herself in her own home.

She left no note. But she suffered from depression, and apparently had problems reconciling her images of perfection in whatever she was doing, and the reality around her. Here is how Robin Kietlinski, the author of Japanese Women and Sport explained it.

In spite of the paper-thin difference separating Yoda’s finishing time from those of the three medal winners, she had an incredibly difficult time handling the fact that she had trained so hard and did not come away with a medal. She was frequently described as a perfectionist (kanzenshugisha, kanpekishugisha) who could not bear when things did not go exactly as she planned. At a press conference immediately following the conclusion of the Tokyo Olympics, Yoda caused quite a stir when she reported that ‘I do not want to go through the pain of racing a second time. I will be retiring now. I do not even want to look at a track again.’ Shortly thereafter, she married a professor at the Tokyo University of Education (now Tsukuba University) and fully devoted herself to being a good housewife and later a caring mother to her children. According to her husband, she was as much a perfectionist when it came to running the household as she had been during her running career.

Kon Ichikawa
From “The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964”

Kon Ichikawa’s film, “Tokyo Olympiad“, is considered a classic documentary. Perhaps since Leni Riefenstahl’s famous film on the Berlin Olympics, it has become de rigeur to make a film about the Games so that audiences can re-live the excitement.

Planning for this film began in 1960, when the Japan Olympic Organizing Committee sent famed Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa to scout the Summer Games in Rome, and observe how the film on the Summer Games in Italy were produced. When Kurosawa and his team provided a budget estimate of about $1.5 million dollars, and also informed the committee that the receipts from distributing the Rome Olympic film was only half a million dollars, they realized they had to scale back.

hundred years of filmHaving said that the committee eventually selected Kon Ichikawa to be the director. And while the film is visually beautiful, Japan film historian, Donald Richie, writes in his book, “A Hundred Years of Japanese Film“, that so much, as they say, was left on the editing floor.

“Aesthetically, the picture is superb – a masterpiece of visual design,” writes Richie about this documentary by the renown Ichikawa. “One remembers the incisive use of slow motion during the track and field events; the beautiful repeated shots in the pole-vaulting competition; the fast zooms in the shot-put event, and the long, brilliant climax of the marathon – the work of the director and a staff of nearly six hundred people, including sixteen cameramen.”

“None of this, however,