jigoro-kano
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.

jigoro-kano-at-a-demonstration-in-vienna
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.

 

jigoro-kano-at-the-1936-berlin-games
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!

Here are links to the entire series on 1940:

bill bradley
Bill Bradley

Bill Bradley has the kind of career that makes me sigh:

  • Gold medalist on the USA basketball team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics
  • College Player of the Year at Princeton in 1965
  • Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in 1965
  • NBA championships with the New York Knicks in 1970 and 1973
  • Induction into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1983
  • Elected to the US Senate in 1977
  • US presidential candidate in 2000

While in office as a US Senator in 1986, Bradley sent the editors of the book, Tales of Gold, documents that explain Bradley’s views on the Olympics at the time. Here is a summary of Bradley’s thoughts:

bill bradley olympian card 2End the Requirement of Amateurism: Bradley felt that the international playing field was not level, and that if athletes and National Olympic committees were truly trying to maintain amateur status, then certain capable, but financially weak athletes would struggle to train and compete, if not drop out all together. “First we need to have one uniform standard of eligibility, making skill the only criterion for competition and abandoning the ridiculous notion of amateurism in a world of differing social and economic systems,” Bradley wrote. “The traditional amateurism of an Avery Brundage eliminated the lower and middle classes of capitalist countries from competition. Without some form of subsidy they could not afford to compete against wealthier athletes. Since compensation for athletic services violated Olympic rules, officials often found less obvious ways to reward poorer participants. As a result, many athletes had to be dishonest about their compensation. It is time for the hypocrisy to cease and the rules to be modified by allowing open competition.”

Eliminating Team Sports from the Olympics: This I found intriguing. Bradley wrote, “I think we need to abandon team sports in the Olympics because they too easily simulate war games. One has only to look at the Hungarian-Soviet water polo game in 1956, or the Czech-Soviet ice hockey match in 1968, or any time the Indians and the Pakistanis play field hockey, to recognize that these contests go well beyond friendly competition.”

What I found confusing was Bradley’s next statement about the time he received his gold medal at the 1964 Olympics. “We should continue to recognize individual achievements. I will never forget that moment standing on the platform after beating the Soviets in the finals, watching the flag being raised and listening to the national anthem being played. It gave enduring meaning to the years of personal sacrifice.” After all, Bradley would not have received his gold medal for basketball if there were no team sports. And as I have written, the biggest factor for the US basketball team’s success was the coach’s ability to drill a powerful team concept into the minds of the players.

bill bradley olympian card

The Olympics – Not Just About Sports: Bradley was channeling the founder of the modern Olympic movement, Pierre de Coubertin, with this idea. de Coubertin actually had non-sport competitions in the categories of architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture in the Olympics from 1912 to 1948. Wrote Bradley, “We also need to champion individuals other than just the fastest, strongest, and the most agile among us. Why not extend the Olympics to two months and also recognize creative, intellectual, and artistic ability? A film festival, poetry readings, concerts, cultural shows, and athletic events might even run simultaneously at an expanded Olympics. The whole person should be the theme of the festival. The emphasis would not be on the rewards to be taken home but on the experience of living for two months in a microcosm of the world.”

A Permanent Home for the Olympics – Greece: Bradley provided these words in 1986, in a decade where the 1980 and 1984 Olympics were heavily boycotted along Cold War lines. He wrote, “The Games should be permanently located in their ancient birthplace, the country of Greece. This permanent home would come to be identified with the Olympics as an institution, and the Games would no longer be identified with the nationalistic displays of temporary hosts. The way it now is, too often the host country attempts to produce a gigantic display of nationalism. This also encourages a situation where the Olympics infringe on the domestic politics of the host country, as happened in Mexico City and Montreal. If the Games had had a permanent home in a neutral country, it is probable that neither the United States in 1980 nor the Soviets in 1984 would have withdrawn from the Games.”

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Father of the Modern Olympics, Pierre de Frédy, baron de Coubertin

“The judges have been reading for hours, but it appears as if they are finishing up. Yes, they are now conversing with each other in hushed tones, peering over their notes, sometimes pointing animatedly at particular places on paper. Are they done? They appear to have completed their ruminations and discussion, and I must say, their body language cannot hide the fact that controversy seems to be in the air. Wait, one of the judges is raising the sign. There it is! The winner of the gold medal for Literature in the 1912 Olympic Games….is….George Hohrod and M. Eschbach for ‘Ode to Sport’!”

That’s right, in 1912 at the Stockholm, Sweden Olympics, medals were awarded in the areas of Architecture, Music, Painting, Sculpture and Literature. The father of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, had a deep-felt philosophy that sport could have a powerful influence on building character, and believed that the ancient Greeks had the right idea – that developing the intellect and the physical in tandem was a way to build better human beings and better societies.

 

1912 gold medal in sculpture
Walter Winans, An American Trotter, Gold Medal 1912 Olympic Art Competitions in Stockholm in the “Sculpture“ Category.

Barbara Goff provides greater detail into this ancient Greek philosophy in this fascinating essay entitled “Ode to Sport: Poetry and the Revived Olympics”:

At first sight we might think that sport and art are separated by a distinction as grave as that between mind and body, but while the ancient Greeks, at the head of what became the western tradition, did often fetishise that distinction, they also liked to collapse it.  At some level, they considered that orderly bodily motion in sport was linked to orderly song and dance, and that both were excellent ways of celebrating the human and thereby honouring the divine too. Both sports and arts could be part of festivals and celebrations, which were also religious events.  Poetry, or more precisely song, because most Greek poetry was initially delivered to a musical accompaniment, was connected to sport in other ways too; poetry rewarded athletic achievement, victorious athletes supported poetry, and both types of activity were subject to ferocious competition. 

Goff went on to reveal that the winners of the gold medal for literature was actually one person, that Hohrod and Eschbach were the names of villages near the birthplace of the wife of de Coubertin. In fact, it was de Coubertin himself who was the Olympic champion in literature. Goff was unable to learn whether the judges knew it was the founder of the Olympic Games who penned the poem, “Ode to Sport”.

Despite de Coubertin’s passion for making the Olympic Games a way to display all attributes of the so-called Chivalrous Athlete, the art competitions that started in 1912 would fade away in 1948. Goff again explains: “The artistic competitions at the revived Olympics never excited much real interest, and the International Olympic Committee dropped them after London 1948. Given that the arts competitions, unlike the sporting ones, were not very susceptible to cheating, drugs scandals, or, later on, television, they were never going to be as thrilling as the sports which did offer all these attractions. Instead, arts festivals started to accompany the Olympic Games, and by 1968 the cultural events were part of the Olympic Charter which Olympic host cities had to sign.”

For those who made it this far, here is a link to winners of the artistic Olympic competitions, as well as a link to the poem that won the only Olympic medal for literature – Ode to Sport.

1912 gold medal in painting
Carlo Pellegrini (ITA), Winter Sports, Gold Medal Winner in the “Painting” Category of the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Art Competitions.