Koji Gushiken, 5-time medalist at the 1984 Olympics, including men’s individual all around
Takemoto was an inspiration to them all. Appearing at the 1952, 1956 and 1960 Olympics, Takemoto amassed 7 medals, and 7 medals in World Championships in 1954 and 1958, helping the Japan team to a team silver medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. When he finished his Olympic career, helping his team to the gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, he helped ignite a 16-year stretch of absolute dominance for Japanese men’s gymnastics, as Team Japan took gold from Rome in 1960 to Montreal in 1976.
And he won that gold medal at the age of 41.
Japanese American gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto was a 13-year old in Los Angeles, after moving there from Tokyo, when Japan won their first team gold in Rome. Sakamoto, who was in Tokyo and attended the 100th anniversary of Takemoto’s birthday, told the attendees that he and his older brother had a copy of Takemoto’s book on gymnastics, and that they read every page and followed every line in the book like it was gospel.
Sakamoto would go on to make the American men’s gymnastics team and compete at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as well as serve as assistant coach to Team USA men’s gymnastics team that won gold at home in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
The bicycles of the Olympic Village were the invaluable commodity of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Olympians scrambled to find or keep a bicycle so that they were ensured of easy transport around the vast grounds of the Village.
But bicycles, even in the hands of the best athletes in the world, were sometimes considered an accident waiting to happen.
American gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto told me of one night in an area that was so dark, he ended up “running (my bicycle) into a three-foot pond”. Gold medalist distance runner, Bob Schul, explained in his autobiography, In the Long Run, that the bicycles were not exactly one size fit all, which could be dangerous to the big athletes.
The bikes didn’t last long, however, as the rate of breakdowns was very high. On one occasion we witnessed a comical sight involving just such a “breakdown!” A Russian weight lifter, who weighed close to 300 pounds, attempted to ride a bike. To top it off he placed his friend on this shoulders. Almost immediately the bike broke in two pieces with this huge man and his friend tangled among the works. Fortunately no one was hurt, but this was one bicycle that would not be ridden again during the Olympiad.
According to an October 19, 1964 UPI report, US swimmers were banned from using the bicycles for fear of injury.
None of the athletes cycling about the Olympic Village – on the more than 700 available bicycles – are U.S. swimmers. Bicycle riding, the most popular form of transportation among Olympic sportsmen and women, is strictly forbidden to American swimmers – at least until after they have competed in the games. The no bicycling edict came from the team’s swimming coaches, who claim that bicycling tightens up a swimmer’s muscles instead of relaxing them for competition.
I doubt the US swimmers heeded that ban. But marathon legend, Abebe Akila, may have wished his coach banned him from bicycles. In a biography about Bikila, the barefoot champion of the 1960 Rome Olympics, who went on to repeat his golden performance at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, would get around on the bicycles like everyone else. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a very experienced cyclist. Here’s how Tim Judah explained, in his book, Bikila – Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian, how a bicycle caused the marathoner more grief than he needed.
Bikila, not used to riding one, tried one out and the experience almost ended in disaster. On the second day Bikila came in with a bandaged hand. He had fallen while bicycling. He had gone to the hospital where he had been spotted by some journalists. Terrified, Bikila had not dared ask the hospital to take care of his knee, which was more seriously hurt, and so he had hidden the injury until he could get Niskanen (his coach) to look at it.
In the meantime, vastly exaggerated reports of Bikila’s condition were flashed around the world, prompting a telegram from Addis Ababa, expressing concern, Niskanen wrote. “They had made a mountain out of a molehill. There was no more cycling for Abebe. It was bad enough getting over his appendix operation.” In the days that followed there was no let up in the pressure. Bikila was a world sporting celebrity and Niskanen had to fight hard to give him space.
Vidmar is a popular motivational speaker and talks often about how he learned a lesson in Budapest, Hungary, about the importance of not only taking risk, but committing to taking risk. Those who do, often end up champions. But Vidmar, like many champions, learned this lesson the hard way. By falling.
It was 1983 and Vidmar was with his coach, Makoto Sakamoto, competing at the World Championships in Hungary. Vidmar was getting ready for his horizontal bar routine, a discipline of strength for Vidmar. But for some reason, he was having difficulty with his differentiating move, a risky set of maneuvers that would give him invaluable points for difficulty: As he explained in the book, Awaken the Olympian Within, “it called for me to swing around the bar, then let go, fly straight up over the bar into a half-turn, straddle my legs, come back down and catch the bar. Trust me, it’s hard.”
Concerned that he was not able to execute the moves during his warm up just prior to the finals, Vidmar allowed fear and indecision to creep in. He talked to his coach, who gave him straightforward advice on technique, but Vidmar was not feeling confident. He decided to drop the maneuver and forgo the potential 0.2 points. “Why not? I’d lose the two-tenths of a point for risk, but I could still score as high as a 9.8. That would put me on the winner’s rostrum for sure. That would mean a medal, maybe even a silver.” But he also realized just as quickly that dropping the move would mean losing the World Championship. After all, champions go for it, and someone else would.
This was the mental state of Vidmar as he stepped up to the horizontal bar and started his routine. And after his back flip with half-turn in the pike position he reached for the bar. And as Vidmar says, “the bar was not there.” He fell three meters to the floor, face down in the mat. He got back up, finished the routine, and ended up eighth of eight.
As his coach, Sakamoto tells it, Vidmar was not a happy camper.
During the medal presentation, I innocently asked, “Pete, what happened?” “What happened?” Peter responded, face red with abject disappointment. “I’ll tell you what happened!” he continued angrily. “I reached out to catch the bar, but the bar wasn’t there. That’s it!” He picked up his bag and stormed out of the arena in a fit of rage. I had never seen Peter behave this way.
Later at the hotel, Vidmar had cooled down. Sakamoto caught up with him and according to Vidmar, said this. “This is not the end. Everything is valuable experience, even competition. What you did tonight can be a valuable learning experience. You can benefit from this.”
Vidmar credits that moment as crystalizing an important learning moment for him in his road to becoming a champion. “I didn’t want to hear it but I knew he was right. That fall taught me something that I somehow hadn’t completely learned until that night: Never, ever take anything for granted. Especially don’t take risks for granted.”
Vidmar learned a lesson in committing to risk, to working hard to mastering the challenge so that the work and potential for failure is far outweighed by the reward. “I realized,” Vidmar says, “that I had made the decision to take the risk, but I had forgotten to really prepare myself for taking it! Knowing how important that particular skill was…that I couldn’t leave out that trick and still win the title, I should have been better prepared. I was certain to have to take the same risk at the Olympics and no matter how the skill might feel in warm-up, I had to commit now to taking it there as well.”
And the rest is history. Vidmar worked on that routine, overcoming fear and doubt, and stuck a perfect 10 in the horizontal bars en route to a silver medal in the All Arounds at the Los Angeles Games.
It was 2011, at the gymnastics World Championships in Tokyo, and a special luncheon was held at the Olympic Stadium. Abie Grossfeld, an assistant coach of the US men’s gymnastics team in 1964, was at that luncheon, and remembers when Vera Caslavska entered the room. “All stood up and gave her a standing ovation,” he wrote. “That’s the respect we all gave her.”
Caslavska was the Queen of gymnastics in the 1960s, taking the reins from legendary Russian gymnast, Larisa Latynina. After Latynina won consecutive golds in the All-Arounds in Melbourne in 1956 and in Rome in 1960, Caslavska did the same in Tokyo in 1964 and then in Mexico City in 1968. In addition to a team silver medal in Rome, Caslavska (pronounced cha-SLAF-ska), won a total of 11 medals in her Olympic career, including 7 gold medals. She is the most decorated Olympian from Czechoslovakia, before or after her country broke apart.
She was also immensely popular due to her beauty queen looks. As a former coach described her, she was “like someone you’d take to the high school prom. She had a big bouffant hairstyle and a very womanly body.” Right after the Olympic Games in Mexico City, she married fellow Czech Josef Odlozil in a Roman Catholic ceremony in Mexico City, an event that “was mobbed by thousands of supporters,” cementing her hold on the public imagination.
On August 30, 2016, Vera Caslavska of Prague, passed away. She was 74 years old.
In the 1960s, as gymnasts began blending athleticism and balleticism, Caslavska seemed to find the right balance. Muriel Grossfeld, a member of the US women’s gymnastics team, and she told me that in the 1960s, judges were trying to find the right standard to judge gymnasts. “Until we got the new scoring system, scoring was like a pendulum. One time the more artistic gymnast won, but maybe the next time the more athletic gymnast won. I think Caslavaska blended both very well.”
Why was she so good? As Muriel Grossfeld told me, “she worked hard. She was a perfectionist. Her work ethic was enormous. I remember her working on routine after routine on the beam. 40 times a day!” Makoto Sakamoto was also a member of the US men’s gymnastics team in the 1960s and agreed with Muriel Grossfeld’s assessment. Sakamoto was at a dual US-Czech gymnastics meet in the winter of 1964 where he saw Caslavska compete. He told me he admired the professionalism and preparation of Caslavska.
“I was sixteen and she was about 21 years old. We both won the all-around title, but what I remember most about her was the way she prepared for her performances. Instead of having her coach carry the heavy vaulting board, she did it by herself. When the uneven bar snapped in half during one of her performances, she just waited patiently until a replacement bar could be installed. Then she performed her routine without any mistakes.”
Sakamoto also remembers when Caslavska dominated at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He had been training in Tokyo and was actually in the hospital recovering from a ruptured achilles tendon when he “witnessed on black and white television one of the most moving artistic performances” he had ever experienced: Caslavska’s floor exercise routine at the Mexico City Games, performed to the “magic rhythm of the Mexican Hat Dance.” Muriel Grossfeld, who was in Mexico City agreed, telling me “that was a very smart song selection, was fun and built a lot of enthusiasm in the arena.”
She was so dominant in the 1960s that Caslavska is still the only gymnast, male or female to have won gold in every individual artistic gymnastic discipline. As 1984 Olympic gold medalist, Bart Connor, recently said about Caslavska, “She was one of the most dominant gymnasts of her time, balanced in all the events and completely comparable to someone like Simone Biles.”
By the time the 1964 Tokyo Olympics rolled around, gymnast Boris Shakhlin of the Soviet Union had won nine Olympic medals in Melbourne and Rome, including four gold medals in 1960. Until 1980, his total Olympic medal haul of 13 was the most by any male athlete until 1980.
Shakhlin certainly had an opportunity to continue his championship ways in Tokyo. Except that Yukio Endo, and perhaps all of Japan, stood in his way.
Endo won the men’s individual all-around gymnastics competition, which includes compulsory and optional events in six events: the vault, floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, parallel bars and horizontal bar. After all was said and done, Endo had a total score of 115.95 out of a total 120 points, edging out three competitors who tied for second with scores of 115.40.
In other words, 0.55 separated gold from silver. The problem is, Endo had what could be described as an awful effort on the pommel horse optional. As American gymnast Dale McClements described in her diary at the time, “Endo sat on the horse 2 times and dismounted with bent legs.”
According to the Japan Times, Endo had a considerable lead over his teammate Shuji Tsurumi and Shakhlin before the pommel horse optionals. “Japanese spectators were biting their nails fearing that the last moment error would cost Endo the gold medal. The event was halted 10 minutes as Japanese team manager Takashi Kondo made a strong appeal to the judges that the faults should not be counted too much. While the Russians glowered, spectators burst into cheers when the judges finally raised their scoring flags. All four were unanimous giving Endo 9.1 scores which assured him of the gold medal.”
Another American gymnast who witnessed Endo’s performance, Makoto Sakamoto, told me that the pommel horse is arguably the hardest of the six disciplines. “It’s the most difficult event to stay on. There are so many opportunities to fall and slip off. You can hit a slick spot, or you sit down. He missed! I remember saying, ‘Darn it, the best gymnast in the world is crumbling.’ Then he got a 9.15, and I thought, ‘what a gift!’ Anyone else would have gotten an 8.2 or 8.4. He got a 9.15.”
In other words, the 0.55 edge would have disappeared if Endo had not
On this, the last day of 2015, I’d like to thank everyone for their support of my blog – The Olympians. I have posted at least once every day since I started the blog on May 1. Out of about 300 posts, I’ve selected 25 that I personally like, in good part because I’ve had the great fortune to talk with the people mentioned in these stories.
“I was born in Shinjuku, Tokyo, 1947. It was a bombed out city, and Shinjuku was a rowdy part of the city – the black market area, an area where prostitutes walked,” recollected gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto. “I remember returnee soldiers with no legs, stumps, playing the accordion, with a jar for money.”
You can see a bit of what it was like in Tokyo in this British Pathe stock film of Tokyo in 1946 – Japanese getting on with their daily lives amidst the rubble.
Sakamoto’s father moved the family to California in 1955, but in those seven years young Makoto lived in Tokyo, his home country underwent a complete overhaul. He grew up under the Allied occupation of Japan, led by General Douglas MacArthur. He could see cottage industries, roads, houses, buildings sprout up around him. He may not have realized it, but the near-dead Japanese economy began to grow at a tremendous pace as the pulse of normalcy and optimism became the steady beat of Japanese society.
He remembers watching his brothers in foot races, encouraging him to eat cheese so that he would have the power to run with them. He remembers getting cleaned up in the public baths with his mother. And he recalls their home in Shinjuku, before they moved out to a better part of Tokyo, was very near the Musashino-kan, a movie theater in that still exists in the heart of Shinjuku. The business of movie theaters were booming in Japan, and was a reflection of a growing consumer class, as well as a need to escape the stress of re-building their homes and a nation.
Years later, Sakamoto would return to Tokyo as an American citizen to compete in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. He came back to a gleaming, modern city. The American occupation had ended in 1952. The Korean War had kickstarted the Japanese post-war economy as the American military procured a lot of materials and goods from Japan for its war effort in Korea. By the time 1964 Olympics rolled around, Japan was the pleasant surprise of the East, a land of industry, modernity and quiet cool and exoticism.
Here is more British Pathe footage of Tokyo in the 1950s. It shows a rising middle class, businessmen at a restaurant, women working at a rubber boots manufacturer, children doing their morning exercises on the school grounds, as well as men and women in suits and dresses walking along wide sidewalks.
Sakamoto attended school in Los Angeles where he would emerge as America’s top gymnast. At the Tokyo Games, he finished 20th overall, best on the US team, but in no position to muscle past the great competitors from Japan, Russia and Germany. He would continue to be America’s best gymnast through 1972, and would go on to be assistant coach to the US men’s gymnastics team that finally won gold in 1984.
But in 1964, Sakamoto was back home, competing only 2 kilometers from where he was born. “I remember walking down a cobblestone road, going to the public bath with my mother,” Sakamoto told me when reminiscing about his childhood. “My mom would look up and say, ‘there are a lot of stars tonight. It will be a beautiful day tomorrow.’”
At every Olympics, there are people who stand out brighter than others. In 1964, everybody had a Billy Mills story. The legendary Native American champion of the 10,000 meter race, Mills was not expected to medal in Tokyo, and thus appeared to come out of nowhere to win one of the most dramatic races in Tokyo.
Silver medalist 3-meter springboard diver, Frank Gorman, remembers sitting in the Olympic Village common area watching the Olympic Games on TV. “He was a guy I didn’t know until I got to Tokyo. In between our work outs we would sit and watch the games on the local TV, just the two of us. I understood that he was training hard, and that nobody thought he had a prayer, nobody was putting any money on him. But he told me he was excited about being there, and that he had been working his whole life at being the best.”
Gold medalist 400-meer runner, Ulis Williams, watched Mills in the stadium. “Towards the end, I think the last 200 meters, we see him picking up speed. We couldn’t believe it, and we’re shouting ‘Look at him go!’ He tried to go around a guy, and they were moving to block him, but he burst through the center with his arms up. We absolutely couldn’t believe it.”
For gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto, he remembers watching the 10,000 meter race on a black and white TV in a common room. “I remember it’s the final lap. A bunch of us, 30 of us, we were just yelling our heads off! And he wins the thing. What a dramatic finish! Mills comes out of nowhere and wins!”
Peter Snell remembers agreeing with his teammates that Australian Ron Clarke was a definite favorite to win, and had no expectations for any American, let alone Billy Mills to be in the running. As he wrote in his biography, No Bugles, No Drums, “This is no personal reflection on the tremendous performance of the winner Billy Mills. It’s just that Americans are traditional masters of the short track events and we other nations are naturally not too keen to see that mastery extended to the longer races.”
Snell, the incredible middle-distance runner from New Zealand, who won gold in both the 800 and1500 meters races in Tokyo wrote that “the 10,000 lives in my memory as one of the most exciting