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Naoto Tajima in Berlin.

On the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, The Yomiuri published an article by Naoto Tajima, the triple jump gold medalist and long jump bronze medalist of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This article from October 10, 1964 was an overview of the Olympics from 1912 to 1960, with personal impressions of the 1932 Los Angeles and 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The following provides Tajima’s comparison of the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, one of practical simplicity and the other of martial majesty.

1932 Los Angeles Olympics

California has little rain. The preparations for the Games were made smoothly. No difficulties cropped up at all. The premises in the Olympic Village, though, were no better than shacks. There were four athletes in each shack. The walls and ceilings were made of cardboard.

An odd feature of the Olympic Village was its row of open air toilets. There were partitions between the toilets, but there was no roof. Overhead could be seen the stars, shining in the Californian sky. The Los Angeles Games were far smaller than the Berlin Olympics, but the atmosphere was bright and cheerful, refreshingly free from still formality. Everything was liberal and open-hearted.

Tajima explained this open-heartedness was evident on the track as well.

I was 19 when I competed in the hop, step and jump in the Los Angeles Olympic Games. I did quite well on my first jump, but I carelessly let my hand touch the sand. The distance of my jump was measured only up to the point where I had touched the sand, and so my measured jump was much shorter than it would otherwise have been.

At this point, the chief judge patted me on the shoulder and said in a kindly voice, “Don’t let your hand touch the sand next time.” I had been feeling very nervous, since it was my first experience in an international sporting event, but the judge’s friendly advice helped me relax

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A Tajima leap at the 1936 Olympics

 

1936 Berlin Olympics

Tajima described the Los Angeles games “rather like that of a hot dog, that typically American food. There nothing artificial in the arrangements for the Los Angeles Games. What was provided what was essential”. After all, the LA Games in 1932 were held in the midst of the Great Depression. Four years later, as economies crept out of the Depression, the 1936 Berlin Olympics by comparison were “spectacular”, according to Tajima.

(The 1936 Berlin Games) were magnificent both in sale and in the way they were managed. Not only was the German aptitude for organization displayed to the full, but Hitler lavished human and material resources on the preparations for the Games regardless of expense. The Olympic Village had a Finnish steam bath. It even had a Japanese-style bath too. In the dining halls, dishes of every country taking part in the Games were served.

The Berlin Olympics were the first in which there was an Olympic flame relay. They were the first and only Olympics in which winners were given potted oak-tree plants. It was explained that the oak has been chosen because it is a robust tree, capable of growing anywhere in the world and therefore suitable for presentation to athletes from all countries. The idea was typically German.

According to Tajima’s Japanese Wikipedia page, Tajima donated the oak tree seedlings to the Faculty of Agriculture of Kyoto University, his alma mater, where oak trees from Germany were raised. In fact, seedlings from these trees have been sent to all parts of Japan, where Tajima’s golden legacy literally grows.

However, Tajima did not enjoy a particular aspect of the Berlin Olympics: the omnipresent swastika.

The black Nazi swastika against its red background was too gaudy and clashed with the simple Olympic flag. The Berlin Games were a superb affair, but they left an unpleasant taste since they were too cleverly exploited by the Nazis for their own purposes.

At the end of the article, Tajima expressed his wishes for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. His goal for those Games were probably what most Japanese were hoping for as well:

The Tokyo Olympics will be a success, even if some things go wrong, if everyone coming to Tokyo for the Games feels: “We really enjoyed them. We are glad we came.”

By Tajima’s metric, based on the dozens of people affiliated with the Tokyo Olympics I have spoked with, those Games in 1964 were a rousing success.

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Naoto Tajima at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

There was a time when the Japanese were seen as great jumpers. In the years between the great world wars of the 20th century, Japanese men in particular were frequent medalists in the triple jump, long jump and pole vault. Shuhei Nishida won silver in the pole vault at the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. Sueo Oe won bronze in the pole vault in 1936 as well.

Naoto Tajima won the gold medal in the triple jump in 1936, making it the third consecutive Olympics that a Japanese won the hop, skip and jump – Mikio Oda won it in 1928 in Amsterdam, while Chuhei Nambu took gold at the 1932 LA Games.

Tajima may have won gold in the triple jump, but he enjoyed his bronze medal in the long jump even more. He is said to have considered the triple jump just a simple matter of technique while the long jump was more of a profession, something requiring a more serious, in-depth approach. Perhaps also significantly, Tajima’s long jump competition at the 1936 Olympics was one of historical significance, not just in sports but also geo-politically.

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Bronze medalist Naoto Tajima, gold medalist Jesse Owens, and silver medalist, Luz Long at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, medal ceremony of the long jump competition.

Tajima took a relatively unnoticed bronze to Jesse Owens‘ gold and Luz Long‘s silver in the long jump. Owens had already won gold in the 100 meters, winning the title “fastest man in the world” in front of Adolph Hitler. A day later, on a day Owens would have to run a heat in the 200-meters race, he took on a strong German team in the long jump. In this oft-told tale, the battle for gold came down to Owens and Long. While Owens led throughout the competition, Long stayed close behind, as you can see in the round-by-round details here.

In the end, Owens won with a stunning 8.06 meter leap which set an Olympic record, and that Long could not match. Long put his arm around Owens after the American’s victory, creating an image worldwide that encouraged those who believed a world of peace and brotherhood was possible. But while we may forget there were other competitors, we should be reminded there was a third person on the medal stand – Naoto Tajima of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi.

His medal in the triple jump and the long jump at the 1936 Berlin Games were the last for a Japanese in Athletics, until Naoko Takahashi won the women’s marathon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.