Hideko Maehata after winning gold in Berlin
Hideko Maehata waving to the crowd after winning gold in Berlin

It was a slight, perhaps. The first and most famous of films about the Olympics – Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, entitled Olympia, did not include the winner of the women’s 200-meter breast stroke. That’s because the winner was a Japanese, Hideko Maehata, who beat out a German named Martha Genenger.

But that’s OK. When Maehata returned to Japan after her gold-medal winning performance in Berlin, she was a national celebrity. Eight other Japanese won gold medals at the Berlin Games, but they may not have gotten the media attention that Maehata did. As Robin Kietlinski explains in her seminal book, Japanese Women and Sport, national radio was bringing the world to all of Japan, led by Nihon Hoso Kyokai, or NHK. Established in 1924, Maehata’s race was one of the first events to be covered live, broadcasted to Japan via satellite.

And according to Kietlinski, they had the man who brought the excitement of the moment alive for Japanese listeners – Kasai Sansei – whose shrieks of excitement and shouts of “Maehata ganbare” brought the swimming stadium of the Imperial Sports Field in Berlin to the homes of people all across Japan. In this NHK documentary, Maehata’s cousin, Tomizo Hase, was asked about his recollections of listening to that famous radio broadcast:

We were all nervous, out palms sweating. We said to each other, we really hope she wins. There were about 10 people inside and many more outside. What a heavenly feeling it was. Some of us cried in joy, saying she’s done great.

In her book, Kietlinski provides a transcript in English of that broadcast. To listen in Japanese and get the sense of excitement Japanese felt in 1936, go to the 25 second mark of the video below.

Maehata and Genenger are side by side. Ah, Maehata pulls ahead! She’s in the lead! She’s a little bit ahead. Fifty meters down. 100 meters down. Fifty meters left to go. Maehata is a little bit ahead! Ah, Genenger is coming. Come on, come on! Maehata is in danger, she’s in danger! Go for it! Maehata go for it!

They turned, the swimmers just now turned and Maehata holds onto a slight lead. C’mon Maehata. Go for it! (Repeated four more times) Forty meters left to go. (Repeated four times) Maehata is ahead! Maehata is ahead! Genenger is coming. It’s just a very small lead by Maehata. Go for it Maehata! (Repeated four times) Twenty-five meters left to go! Maehata’s lead is small, it’s very small! Maehata! Go for it Maehata! (Repeated eleven times)

Maehata is in the lead! (Repeated six times) Five meters left to go! Four meters left! Three meters, two meters. Maehata is ahead! Maehata has won! (Repeated eighteen times) By a small margin Maehata is the champion! Thank you Ms Maehata, the Japanese flag will fly today. Thank you! For the first time in the history of women’s swimming the Japanese flag will fly.

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Hideko Maehata on the Podium with Martha Genenger
Hideko Maehata (center) on the Podium with Martha Genenger (right) and Inge Sorensen of Denmark (left)

Hideko Maehata swam 10,000 meters a day. So taking the two-week boat trip from Japan to the West Coast of the United States was a piece of cake for the native of Wakayama, Japan. It was the last 200 meters, in the pool, that were going to be painful.

After winning her heat in the 200-meter breaststroke by nearly 3 seconds, she lined up for the finals. And in a tough-fought nail biter, a 16-year old Australian named Clare Dennis set an Olympic record and edged out Maehata by a tenth of a second.

According to Robin Japanese Women and Sport, in her book Japanese Women and Sport, Maehata was welcomed back home in Japan as a hero, but the 18-year-old, while proud was disappointed. Was it worth training so hard again, and trying again for gold in 1936, or should she put an end to the long hours in the water and get married as society at the time required. Kietlinski explained that Maehata received letters from her fans making both sides of the argument.

According to this NHK mini-documentary of Maehata’s life, it was the Mayor of Tokyo at that time, Hidejiro Nagata. Nagata, proud of Japan’s incredible accomplishments at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, was putting together his plan for Tokyo to host the 1940 Olympics, met the returning Maehata and insisted that she go for it again in Berlin.

If only you had won that gold medal. It’s so frustrating. Don’t forget the bitter taste of defeat. Let it drive you to do better four years from now at the Berlin Olympics.

And so, Maehata decided to aim for gold and glory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She doubled her regimen, swimming 20 kilometers a day, the water hiding the tears of pain. She noted that her victory in LA was denied by such a tiny margin that perfecting her start was essential. She worked on her launch from the starting block by practicing 100 starts a day, her toes bleeding from the wear and tear.

The training was so grueling I cried as I swam. But at those times, I reminded myself that if I failed to overcome the pain, and fall short in Berlin, I would be the laughing stock of Japan.

And so, despite being cheered on by thousands as she boarded the ship for Europe and ultimately Berlin in 1936, she did so with considerable anxiety. In fact, as the NHK video explains, based I believe on what she described in her own autobiography, she found herself alone on the deck of the ship, looking over the waves, thinking that if she did not win, she would jump into the ocean on the return trip and kill herself.

This was the first Olympics in Berlin, otherwise known as the Nazi Olympics as it was presided over by der F├╝hrer, Adolph Hitler. The home field advantage for the German athletes was significant, and Maehata’s biggest competitor in the 200-meter breast stroke was a 20-year-old from Krefeld, Germany, Martha Genenger.

Genenger sent the first warning shot, winning her first round heat in 3:02.9 seconds, setting an Olympic record. Maehata fired back in her first round heat with a time one second better, re-setting the Olympic record. In the semi-finals, no records were set, but no other competitor came anywhere close to Genenger’s or Maehata’s times. The finals were to be a showdown between the German and the Japanese.

Hideko Maehata in high schoolIt was 4pm on August 11, 1936. Maehata was in lane 6. Genenger was in lane 7. Even in the early part of the race, Maehata pulled ahead. And for the remainder of the 150 meters, Maehata clung to the lead. When her hand touched the wall, she was not sure who had won.

When I reached the finish line I l gasped for breath and looked across at the next lane and saw that Genenger was already there. And I thought I had lost.

In fact, Maehata had persevered by a mere sixth tenths of a second. She had fulfilled the command of the Mayor of Tokyo. She had realized the dreams of an entire nation.

And she could get on with her life. In 1937, Maehata married a doctor, retiring from swimming. She raised two children, and when she greater flexibility after her children grew up, she started a swimming school in 1967. She saw that after the war, the Japanese were weak in swimming. She felt that she could contribute by focusing on mothers, teaching them the joys of swimming. If mothers understand and enjoy swimming, she believed, so will their children.

Maehata suffered a stroke while teaching, at 68. She was told she would never walk again, which was fuel for her competitive fire. So she pushed herself. “I still have the drive inside,” she said in the NHK documentary. “When I have a tough day, I recall my days as a competitive swimmer, and it’s like someone is yelling at me that I have to be stronger. The fact that I am still alive and active today is thanks to that inner strength.” Amazingly, a year later, Maehata returned to the pool and resumed her coaching duties.

In 1995, at the age of 80, Maehata, one of the most famous sports figures of the early 20th century in Japan, passed away.

Hideko Maehata getting married
Hideko Maehata getting married